Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions ‐ I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick is in honor of this past weekend’s passing of director Tobe Hooper. He’s known best for films like the massively influential classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the Steven Spielberg-produced haunted house hit, Poltergeist, but he’s made so many more. I won’t pretend to have loved or even liked them all, but when he was on he was on. Lifeforce is another one people are familiar with, and while many know it solely as the “naked space vampire movie” it’s actually far more than that… it’s a highly entertaining romp that happens to feature a naked space vampire lady. Another one of his greats is the Stephen King miniseries, and my favorite of Hooper’s works, Salem’s Lot.
But we’re not here to talk about the Hooper films you already know and love. We’re hear to chat about one of his best, one of my favorites, and one that doesn’t seem to get the same kind of love and affection despite deserving it.
We’re here to talk about The Funhouse.
The film opens with a Halloween-inspired POV before revealing itself to be a prank played by a resourceful younger brother on his virginal older sister, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge). She goes on to tell a little white lie to her parents as to her evening’s plans before heading off to the carnival with her boyfriend and another couple, and in no mood to be left behind her kid brother Joey sneaks out after her. The quartet has a fine time at the carnival before deciding in a moment of brilliance that they should spend the night in the titular funhouse, but after hiding out, screwing, and wandering around the dark they see something they shouldn’t.
And that “something” sees them too.
The opening shower scene immediately marks a change from the norm as we realize that the film’s lead has shown her boobs. Most slashers (which this is to a nominal degree) of the 70s and 80s were very clear about their nudity and sex. Getting naked and fornicating is the quickest way to a death sentence and most heroines avoided both. But not Amy. Hooper and Larry Block’s script also depart from the typical with a killer who’s both gloriously deformed (he looks like Family Guy’s Stewie but with sharp teeth and white hair) and mildly sympathetic. He doesn’t look it, but he’s more human than most of his victims.
One of the film’s strengths is the way it takes its time before cutting the monster loose but still manages to create a creepy atmosphere and a feeling of impending dread during this downtime. We see mutated animals at the carnival’s freak show, experience a ride through the nightmarish funhouse, and perhaps most unsettling, attentive viewers will notice the same man acting as three different barkers in front of the freakshow, the funhouse, and the girlie show. It was apparently actor Kevin Conway’s suggestion for him to play all three roles, and while attention is never really drawn to it the effect is quietly disturbing.
The film is one of Hooper’s most visually attractive ones as well, and I don’t just mean because the heroine shows her boobs twice (that’s a total of four boobs for you math nerds). He takes full advantage of the carnival setting and creates an atmosphere of colorful distractions. There’s also a nice crane shot over the entire fair that helps add scope to an otherwise intentionally claustrophobic film. This was Hooper’s first film in widescreen too, and he takes full advantage of it.
The Funhouse is an effective little shocker that follows a straight forward setup with some legitimate scares and fun creature effects from Rick Baker and Craig Reardon. It’s light on story, but since when did that ever matter with a horror film? (Plus there’s a good novelization by Dean Koontz that actually fills in a decent amount of background to add some real weight if you’re that interested.) Watch it for the solid fright scenes, fun kills, and the knowledge that Hooper had more than just one or two great movies in him.
The Funhouse won’t be remembered as a classic of the genre, but it deserves far better than to be forgotten altogether. It’s easily one of Hooper’s better films as it entertains and frightens without ever feeling the need to sink into debauchery or tawdry terror (I’m looking at you Eaten Alive). Best of all it’s a fun horror movie that manages the triple crown of breasts, blood, and beasts, and you really can’t ask for much more than that in an ’80s “slasher” pic.