Wicked Wednesday: The Funhouse (1981)


Much of what terrifies us in horror is up to story, direction and acting. But what would a scare be if it wasn’t really something that terrifies you? For me, I hate clowns. Since I was a child, I had a an awful time with that lot. So for me, I can’t even stand to watch clown-related movies. I’ve been the TV film of IT, Killer Klowns From Outer Space(barely made it) and made it about five minutes into Stitches.

So if I’m looking for a watchable good fright, I stick with fairs and carnivals. All the terror of a circus, but with notably less clowns and a whole lot of freaky.

I usually don’t write about movies I’ve already seen for Wicked Wednesday, let alone a film I’ve seen at least half a dozen times. And I really would make and exception for The Funhouse. Tobe Hooper’s 1981 slasher is one of the more quality films from the era: it’s stylish, suspenseful and full of creepy bits.

Amy is a typical final-girl with an obnoxious brother and over-bearing parents. I imagine she gets pretty decent grades as well, despite how awfully bizarre her home is (because decorating a room with weapons and monster movie posters is normal – I guess). She is off to the carnival on a first date against her parents’ wishes – claiming to be going to the movies. They remind Amy that there was trouble at the travelling carnival the year before and warn her to stay away.

Not able to talk her date Buzz out of it, Amy and Buzz meet up with Amy’s best friend Liz and her obnoxious boyfriend Richie. At the carnival, the couples get up to the usual shenanigans: they ride rides, smoke weed, win teddy bears, talk about losing their virginity and look at double-headed cows. You know, raising havoc like teenagers do.

While roaming the tents, Amy fixes her attention on a dark ride-style funhouse. The barker calls out, “Who is mad enough to enter that world of darkness?” And, well, it’s going to be our four teens. They watch a slightly-gruesome magic show and harass a fortune teller, it’s obvious that nothing will bode well for them.

Unbeknownst to Amy, as she gallivants around on rides, her younger brother Joey sneaks out of their house after she refuses to take him to the carnival after he played a prank on her. He also has a nice time. So good for him.

(I never understood the point of this subplot)

As the carnival closes, Richie dares his friends to stay the night in the Funhouse. For some reason, the other three agree. They enter the ride and hop off before their cars exit. Poor Joey watches on, waiting for his sister that never comes back out.

While he waits, Joey is frightened off by an old lady who was earlier harassing his sister and Liz in the bathrooms. He then spends more time running around the carnival alone.

The two couples spend much of their night making out until they hear a noise they decide to investigate. Through the cracks in the wooden boars, the four watch Zena the fortuneteller engage in prostitution with a Frankenstein mask-wearing man who handles the carts at the funhouse. But the man is, er, finished rather quickly and is upset when Zena refuses to refund her money (which I don’t blame her, sounds like she did a decent enough job). In anger, the man murders Zena by throwing her into a breaker panel.

Unsurprisingly, after what the kids witness, they decide it’s probably time to leave.

But while they attempt to find their way out, they become lost and find the room they were looking into earlier instead.  Richie, being the fool he is, decides to take the money in the nearby open cash box.

The teens become increasingly lost in the funhouse and end up exactly where they were originally. They decide to sit and watch the room from above. They watch as the Frankenstein masked man shows the funhouse barker the corpse. They realise that they are in trouble once the barker realises that all of his money has been stolen.

In another rage, the man throws off his mask, revealing his true face – which is just a bit freakish to say the least. Unfortunately for the teens, they are given away when Richie’s lighter falls through the crack in the floorboards.

This is where the film really puts the “fun” in funhouse. Richie is picked off first when a trap is trigger and he is hung by a noose. The girls and Buzz quickly realise that they are being toyed with when Richie’s body is sent down to them in a cart.

Joey is caught running around the carnival, scared shitless by seeing Gunther’s (the monster) real face. His parents are called, and in a particularly exasperating scene, Amy sees her parents arrive and they are unable to hear her screams for help.

The night doesn’t really bode well for anyone else trapped in the funhouse. Poor Liz eats it when she falls through a trap door. While the suspense is really well built up in the second half of the film, it really reaches a shiver-inducing ending.

Those hooks. Ergh.

I really love The Funhouse. Hooper really takes his time building up the carnival, plus it’s really helped out by the performances of Elizabeth Berridge and Largo Woodruff (Amy and Liz, respectively). The weird scenes before they enter the funhouse. The seediness of the workers and the carnival. It’s all so strange and dark. Hooper even attempts to make these kids multi-dimensional which is really rather something different for a slasher. Despite this not being one of Hooper’s most gory or iconic films, there’s something rather great about it. And this one will always remain a strong favourite.

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