The Funhouse


THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a hard act to follow. Although there are some legitimate duds in TOBE HOOPER's resume (SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION), most of his output gets unfairly shirked when compared to his early masterpiece. 1981's THE FUNHOUSE in particular gets short changed. Often lumped in with the cash-in slashers of the same year, it's actually an exuberant collision between classic monster tropes and the splatter body horror of its day. Dismissing the winking (literally) homages to HALLOWEEN and PSYCHO in the films opening sequence as brain-dead wheel spinning, most audiences where blind to the originality that was to proceed.
ELIZABETH BERRIDGE plays Amy Harper, a young woman on the verge of adulthood. She's leaving behind the childish ways of her youth represented by an obnoxious younger sibling (SHAWN CARSON). With the aid of a small lie, she plans to attend an ominous visiting carnival against her parents' approval. What she's really toying with is the idea of losing her virginity, not exactly a novel concept in the realm of '80's horror geared toward teen audiences, but the price Amy pays for opening her Pandora's box is.
Although the likable enough Amy is clearly our final girl from the get go, the way she is represented is unusual. Her first scene is a nude one and we are shown early on a harsh glimpse at her caged anger when a prank is played. Next we are shown an unflattering Polaroid that her brother has taken of her mid-scowl while the audio from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN plays in the background, declaring simply "She IS the Bride of Frankenstein!" Amy is smugly dishonest and although coy about the possibility of sex, she's not exactly nixing the idea either. This is a far cry from the stalwart Girl Scouts and lovable tomboys we're used to. Amy is not the golden girl, she's not a pillar of truth, she skates gray areas that are in fact, closer to real human behavior.
Upon arriving with her friends and a suitable beau to the traveling show, Amy is accosted by an old crone who repeatedly warns, "God is watching." (Would any good horror movie be complete with out the aged doomsayer?) The night is alive with excitement and every other scene explodes with the colors of a smashed gumball machine. Amy is feeling freedom and perhaps the power to fulfill her wishes. She is at the high point of her life, too young to give a shit, but old enough to have real adult fun.
Having an excellent time walking the line of innocent amusement and irresistible attraction to life's grittier side, Amy and her friends decide to stay over night within the titular funhouse. This not only gives them a chance to get down to that sex business, but to also witness prostitution, premature ejaculation and murder. They also make the mistake of swiping some cash from the till and discovering the secret inhabitant of the ride, the yin to Amy's yang. If Amy is "the Bride," than he is her groom. He's even wearing a FRANKENSTEIN mask in case there's any confusion. Unfortunately his fantasy horror mask hides an even more horrifying reality. He is a physically deformed representative of adolescent sexuality, a hideous monster that can't be easily controlled.
Once the cat is out of the bag, there is no turning back for Amy or any of her friends. There is no returning to the innocence of youth. This is beautifully illustrated when her parents come to fetch her younger brother who has also been up to curiosity inspired mischief on the fairground. Watching from an upper fan enclosed portal, Amy screams for their aid to no avail. She might as well be screaming through Alice's looking glass from another dimension. Her parents extract her brother from the nightmare and exit oblivious. Apparently her sibling's youth makes him savable and eligible for protection.
More subtly than in most slasher films, Amy's pals fall and die according to their now unusable usual survival techniques. Buzz's muscular heroics are a no go. Liz's attempts to use her beauty are a failure, and Richie, a tricky prankster, is off-ed by a regrettable misread of information (and an axe). Did they get off easy next to Amy?
Amy does indeed survive the night, but the victory is hollow and she appears more damaged than relieved. It's not moxie, but dumb luck that allows her to live. She does not turn into LINDA HAMILTON at any point of the film. She escapes the machinery of life's funhouse simply because the monster was just slightly a bigger loser than she...

Obviously death would never be the outcome for our Amy in THE FUNHOUSE. Instead she is awoken into the world that HOOPER has been rubbing our noses in ever since we arrived on the scene. Rather than spooking us with images of murder and mayhem, we have been treated to body mutation, both human and animal, and mounds of aging twisted flesh, the real horror of mortality and age. Happy clown faces, images of childhood crack, peal and mockingly laugh. This ride has been going on forever. Something wicked does indeed, this way come... 

As Amy leaves the funhouse she passes the old hag who repeats, "God is watching." This God, rather than inflict moral punishment on Amy for discovering her sexuality, has something else in mind. He's going to take away her youth and shove her on life's conveyer belt toward old age and death. Amy's discovery of sex puts her in the same boat as the fleshy strippers that "wiggle" for the crowds and the aged bloated psychic (SYLVIA MILES). What Amy is really discovering about her body and this mortal coil, is that there's nowhere to go but down.

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15 years ago

Wow, Unkle! What a FANTASTIC essay on this under-appreciated gem! Funhouse is actually my favorite Hooper movie to watch. I mean, I know TCM is a better movie, and a more important movie, but for some reason I'd rather pop in Funhouse than TCM nine times out of ten. But of course I do have a weakness for the "creepy carnival" setting.

Great reading of the sexual themes going on here, the subtext that a lot of people won't even consider. (Also excellent pointing out the "Bride/Monster" thing–something I'd noticed before but couldn't have explicated as well as you did.) The Freak really IS the darkside of teen sexual desire, as what he wants from the horrifying hooker (and presumably the other kids he killed in other towns) was sex and (maybe?) acceptance. When refused, he goes berserk and gets destructive…just like many teenagers.

I also loved some of the directorial flourishes in this one–particularly the scene where the Freak is stalking Liz through the air duct, and we have the shadow of the fan turning, with the shadow of the Freak getting longer and longer approaching the cowering Liz–it's a total Nosferatu homage, and beautifully done.

And, of course, one of the great "rubber mask" creatures of all time. I don't care that it's a mask–that shit is CREEPY.

I wonder what you think of the Barker and the other carnies, all played by the same actor–I kind of see them as another one of Hooper's "monster families" (a la TCM), only this time on the road instead of in their country house. And, you know, without the cannibalism.

Great article, Unkle, kudos. I may have to watch this again this weekend!

15 years ago

Another of the many great things about this flick imo is the fact that, covers of Fangoria aside, Hooper does not reveal the Freak's face until very late in the movie–he's either in the Frankenstein mask or shown from behind or in shadow, which really makes him more fearsome. Then, when you think there's no way a reveal could possibly live up to the build-up, BAM! That amazing mask. *shudder*

I saw this on the big screen at last year's Fear Fest in Dallas, and it was quite an experience.

15 years ago

Agreed on the remake, though it had some points I enjoyed in a LMAO way. I'm sure I wasn't alone in wishing that the little kid she was protecting would turn out to be just as feral and savage as the rest of the family. Not to be, however…still, wouldn't that have been a great twist?

I've heard people rag on Funhouse b/c the ride seems so much bigger on the inside than out, but for me that just adds to the surreal, almost dark fairy-tale aspect of it–they really go down the rabbit hole once they step into the carnival, which is why I liked your "Alice on the other side of the looking glass" image so much. And which, incidentally, I'm sure was intentional–Hooper has said many times that TCM was basically "Hansel and Gretel," updated. I buy it.

15 years ago

Incidentally, have you ever read John Barthes' story "Lost in the Funhouse"? It strikes me that it would make a good companion piece to your essay here. 🙂

Pax Romano
15 years ago

Wonderful review of a vastly underrated film.

The fact that Sylvia Miles is in it, is worth the price of admission alone.

15 years ago

What's up with the kid from "Something Wicked this way comes" as the kid who stabs his sister's boob with the rubber knife?That was pretty strange.

Amanda By Night
15 years ago

I think this is my favorite review (so far) on Kindertrauma. It almost evokes with words what the film did with images.

Interestingly (for me anyway), I read this review the same day you guys posted a review to The Unseen. It's interesting, because I think the monster here evokes real sympathy (you guys pointed out that the guy in the Unseen doesn't because of his Rosie O'Donnel ways). This killer is such a pathetic creature. I mean, totally deformed and treated like shit. That scene where his dad is berating him after he finds out his son killed the hooker, is very upsetting. It's like this guy never stood a chance and had to grow up in a world of grostesqueries (sp?) of which he is the most disgusting.

I still think Hooper is a hack – 90% of the time. Every so often he pulls one out of his hat, but aside from this, TCM and The Toolbox Murders, I can't really stand his stuff. Yet, because of these three movies, I'll see just about anything he does because… you never know!

Again, this is a great review!