31 Screams in October, Vol. 2, #6: The Funhouse (1981)

Posted: October 6, 2015 in Movie Review
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The Funhouse (1981)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Starring: Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, Miles Chapin, Kevin Conway, Sylvia Miles, William Finley

At a time when the slasher film craze was skyrocketing, Tobe Hooper’s “The Funhouse” recalls a much earlier period in horror history: the monster movies of the 1930’s. In particular, a certain character created by author Mary Shelley is featured prominently in the film’s iconography. Mixed in-between the references to Frankenstein’s Monster (as portrayed by Boris Karloff) are little jabs at the splatter pictures which were dominating the scene in the early 1980’s, showing the more atmospheric “The Funhouse” to have a sense of humor that makes up for its periods of inactivity.

Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) sets out for a double date at a traveling carnival, all the while lying to her parents as to her whereabouts. She knows that her father, in particular, disapproves and that he had warned her of stories about teenage girls in another town turning up dead after having visited the same carnival. It bothers her to have to lie to him, but still she goes anyway. The rest of the group is comprised of Amy’s boyfriend Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), her best friend Liz (Largo Woodruff), and Liz’s boyfriend Richie (Miles Chapin). Upon arrival, the foursome gets high and then visits a freak show, a magic show, peep in on an adult strip show, and make life miserable for fortune teller Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles). Whether their marijuana was tainted with some other foreign substance or not, something possesses Richie to come up with the harebrained idea of spending the night inside of the Funhouse (a “dark ride”). Other kids have done it before, so why can’t they? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Perhaps not so incredibly, everyone else agrees.

Whilst preparing to get to know one another carnally, the teens hear a noise. This alerts them to goings-on in the room beneath them, where a man wearing a “Frankenstein’s Monster” mask is propositioning Madame Zena for sex. What could have been the most horrifying thing to happen in the movie is mercifully cut short when “Frankenstein” experiences premature ejaculation. Enraged when Madame Zena refuses to give him a refund, “Frankenstein” kills her. In a panic, “Frankenstein”… whose real name is Gunther… leaves in search of his father, Conrad (Kevin Conway), the Funhouse barker. The teenagers, upon witnessing this, finally do the smart thing by deciding to leave, only they can’t because every door they come across is locked. Further complicating things is Richie’s bonehead decision to steal the money from Conrad and Gunther’s safe, the same safe from which Gunther had drawn a $100 bill to pay Madame Zena.

Richie’s act of greed, which he admits he would not have carried out had he not expected to be leaving immediately afterward, effectively seals the group’s fate. Conrad becomes wise to the presence of others nearby, and sends Gunther after them. Conrad eliminates Richie, while Gunther kills Liz after she falls through a trap door. Conrad catches up to both Buzz and Amy, but is killed in a struggle with Buzz. Gunther shows up just in time to go batshit nuts when he sees his father’s dead body. Amy flees the scene while Buzz stays behind to serve as a distraction, dying off-screen by Gunther’s hands. All alone, Amy’s survival instincts kick in, striking Gunther with a crowbar. Gunther grabs the weapon from her, but strikes a fuse box, electrocuting himself. Stunned, Gunther becomes entangled in a set of chains and is crushed between two gears. The next morning, a traumatized Amy emerges from the Funhouse to presumably walk home.

A mostly bloodless thriller, “The Funhouse” is not hindered much by its leisurely first half. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Tobe Hooper’s most famous film, also had a pretty slow start but it didn’t matter then, either. A subplot involving Amy’s brother making his way to the Funhouse is good for only one thing: When his parents show up to drive him home, it serves as a carrot to be dangled in front of Amy, who is unable to get anyone to hear her screams over the loud Funhouse fan. This I can let slide, too, because it’s all for dramatic purposes. It’s the removal of Gunther’s mask to reveal the inhuman face underneath which I cannot forgive. His appearance is too over the top, the makeup job too cheap-looking even by 1980’s standards for it to come anywhere close to being scary.

Much better are the tributes to horror classics. In addition to the many references to “Frankenstein” and “Bride of “Frankenstein,” the opening sequence (my favorite scene in the movie) plays out as a combination of “Psycho” and “Halloween.” The scene starts from a POV shot through the eyes of Amy’s brother, who selects a knife and mask just like in the opening shot of “Halloween.” From there, Joey makes his way to the bathroom, where Amy is taking a shower. Scaring the hell out of his older sister, Joey reenacts the most famous image from “Psycho” by attacking her with the knife, which proves to be fake. Although Elizabeth Berridge’s Amy is the film’s central focus, it is Kevin Conway who steals the show. Conway is best as Conrad the Funhouse barker, but he actually has two other roles in the film, as the freak show barker and as the strip show barker. As we the audience catch on to this fact, it is amusing to note that Amy also seems to recognize the similarities between the three men. I would almost recommend “The Funhouse” based on Kevin Conway’s performance alone. It’s also a great one for horror historians to look up; were it not for his excellent work here, Tobe Hooper likely would not have been given “Poltergeist” the next year.

  1. shnsjolin says:

    Great review. I’ve always thought this was a good, but not great movie.

  2. Sylvia Williams says:

    All good points. What great names for the father and son, Conrad and Gunther! I’m guessing that the other good thing about this film besides Kevin Conway that would make it memorable for fans would just have to be the great setting, right?

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