Movie of the Month: The Funhouse (1981)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Alli, and Boomer  watch The Funhouse (1981).

Britnee: Carnivals are hell on earth. The image of crusty old rides, greasy funnel cakes, animal droppings, and dirt mixed together to create a nasty sludge is enough to send shivers down my spine, but the most terrifying part of carnivals is the crew. Unfortunately, carnival folk don’t have the most welcoming image in popular culture (killer clowns, evil magicians, etc.), and this is definitely apparent in horror films. Of all the carnival-themed horror film’s I’ve seen, Tobe Hooper’s extremely underrated horror flick, The Funhouse, is by far the scariest.

The Funhouse comes across as a run-of-the-mill B-movie because it follows the generic B-horror movie storyline; a group of teens get high and decide to get crazy & spend the night in their local carnival’s funhouse. It really doesn’t get cheesier than that, but somehow The Funhouse manages to be seriously scary. Of course, it has a handful of humorous moments, like when the carnival’s fortune teller, Madame Zena, gives a quick handjob to a deformed human-like monster in a Frankenstein costume or when the funhouse barker says in an absolutely ridiculous tone, “You will scream with terror, you will beg for release, but there will be no escaping, for there is no release, from the funhouse.” But honestly, the majority of the film is straight up disturbing. The gruesome murders that take place in the funhouse filled with horrifying animatronic clowns and evil dolls will haunt your dreams forever, or at least for a day or two.

Boomer, did you find The Funhouse to be a legitimately scary movie? Or do you think it falls more into the B-movie category?

Boomer: That’s an interesting thing to ask, because it begs the question of what exactly a B-Movie is, especially with regards to the Tobe Hooper oeuvre. Is Texas Chainsaw Massacre a B-Movie? Is Poltergeist? What’s the real difference between Funhouse and those two films that makes film scholarship so dismissive of it? Chainsaw is definitely a B-Movie by every objective measure: budget (a mere $300K), cast (all virtual unknowns, with the Edwin Neal having the largest pre-Chainsaw filmography, consisting entirely of dubbing voices for the American import of Gatchaman), and overall feeling of cheapness. Instead of B-Movie fodder that is remembered for its campiness, however, Chainsaw is generally regarded as a landmark horror movie for bringing terror out of the night and into the light of day, and its legacy holds up despite seven follow up films of various quality and dubious chronology (there are three sequels, then a reboot, a prequel to the reboot, then a sequel just to the original skipping all others, and an upcoming film about Leatherface’s teenage years). It’s easier to single out Poltergeist as a more traditional “prestige” horror film; having Steven Spielberg as producer lent the movie an air of credibility that neither Chainsaw nor Funhouse before it had had (and that Lifeforce,which followed in 1985, was certainly missing; even a script by Dan “I wrote Alien” O’Bannon wasn’t enough to cover the Cannon Films stench on that one, but I digress). I think the reason that Chainsaw is so widely praised is simply that it transcended the barriers of the conventional B-horror fillm to become something more fascinating and terrifying altogether. Chainsaw and Poltergeist are very Gothic at their core, with the latter heavily focusing on the brutishness of the wilderness outside of society and the uber-Gothic imagery of decaying homesteads with trapdoors and hidden rooms, and the latter focusing on pairing the very old-school Gothic concepts of hauntings and beings beyond human comprehension and pairing those ideas with the aesthetic of contemporary suburbanism.

Although I think that Funhouse is a B-Movie overall, just like the Hooper films that it is sandwiched between (minus the not-very-good Eaten Alive and the telefilm adaptation of Salem’s Lot), it certainly transcends the mold of similarly budgeted and marketed contemporaries. Often, the hallmarks of these films are that they were obviously churned out by a pulp writer with an idea that had not quite had time to mature, full of barely-realized characters and driven more by the need to reach certain scenes than weaving an organic story to get the viewer there. Funhouse can’t be described this way (in fact, if the Wikipedia page for the Dean Koontz [!] novelization based on Larry Block’s original screenplay is anything to go by, the original story idea may have verged on being overproduced); the progression of events is logical and cohesive, and although not every character could be considered three dimensional, they do all have different voices and motivations. More than that, Funhouse is also legitimately freaky at various points, and there’s an artfulness to the direction that elevates the film over other films of the same type and of the same era. Specific scenes that come to mind include the playfulness of the light coming through the fan vent in the scene where Liz meets her end at the hands of the monster, the recurring image of the Hammer Frankenstein monster that is first seen on a poster in Joey’s room before reappearing on the television downstairs and as the monster’s disguise, and the blowing wind that billows Amy’s hair in the final scenes, lending a surrealist element to the proceedings. It’s not Hooper’s finest or most memorable work, but it does show how Hooper’s eye can find something novel in even the most tired mises en scène. 

So why is the visually intriguing and memorable Funhouse, which was a moderately well-received success at the time of its release, so largely forgotten? What do you think, Brandon?

Brandon: I think that’s a fair question to ask of Hooper’s career at large, honestly. Before catching glimpses of Lifeforce & the completely insane-looking horror comedy sequel Texas Chainsaw Massacre II in the recent Golan-Globus doc Electric Boogaloo, I personally had no idea who Hooper even was. I’ve seen & enjoyed his original Chainsaw movie & the loving 50s sci-fi homage Invaders from Mars by happenstance, but he was never familiar to me as a household name, despite the fact I that I’m an obvious sucker for the genre film territory he usually treads in. The Funhouse‘s forgotten place in the cult movie canon seems to be indicative of Hooper’s often overlooked career at large. I don’t know if it was the Canon Films documentary’s doing or just slowly spreading reports of how batshit Lifeforce (a movie I’ve been dying to catch up with myself) appears to be, but his name recognition seems to be growing in certain film geek circles over the past year. I was stoked when Hooper’s name appeared in the opening credits of The Funhouse (along with special effects master Rick Baker, who absolutely kills on the creature design here) so I’d have an excuse to dive further into his work. Six months ago I would have had no idea who he was or that Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Poltergeist were even directed by the same person.

Hooper’s general lack of recognition as a household name aside, The Funhouse‘s particular forgotten state might be somewhat attributable to its mode of instant familiarity. Like Britnee & Boomer both said, the film has a visually striking, memorably discomforting way of terrorizing its audience with its creepy dolls & its murderous carnie psychopaths, but there’s something oddly warm & nostalgic at its center that cuts through its overriding nastiness. The homages to old line monster movies (in the form of the aforementioned posters, television broadcasts, and Halloween masks as well as an early-in-the-runtime spoof of the shower scene from Psycho) nest the film in a long history of horror cinema tradition that somewhat eases the shock of its early 80s nastiness (the likes of which we recently saw in former MotM Alligator). You easily can see this adherence to horror tradition in the film’s basic plot. The idea of teens sleeping in a carnival funhouse overnight and being confronted by real-life monsters within feels as old as time to me. It might be that I’ve grown up in a post-The Funhouse era where that basic plot seeps into familiar-to-me properties like Goosebumps novels & Ghoulies II, but I suspect that its fundamental narrative scenario goes back even further than those titles. The traveling carnival setting of The Funhouse feels anachronistic for even the early 1980s. This movie feels like a live-action adaptation of an urban legend dating back to a time when the arrival of traveling carnivals & funhouses were the highlight of the year for little kids, especially in small towns, even those understandably freaked out by the carnies who ran them. I could see how drive-in era horror audiences would initially take delight in watching that urban legend play out onscreen, but then gradually forget that the movie ever existed because its basic premise had already been a familiar part of the greater cultural landscape for so long.

Where do you think The Funhouse fits into the arena of urban legends & oldschool horror titles, Alli? Is it more at home with its slasher genre contemporaries, seeing how our teens in peril are hunted down by real life human creeps after indulging in *gasp* marijuana & premarital sex, or does it call back to an older, more nostalgic tone overall?

Alli: Let me start this off by saying that I feel a little unqualified to talk about the slasher genre, since I haven’t seen that many. When the term “slasher genre” comes to mind, I think about earlier ones, Psycho and Peeping Tomand also I guess some giallo fits in there somehow. But I don’t think of them in the “true slasher” sense, somehow.

So now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, The Funhouse seems to fit pretty well in the slasher genre right down to the idea of the final girl, though it subverts it a little. Of course, all slashers share influences which definitely creates a sense of nostalgia. Very early on, there’s a play on the Psycho shower scene and as you guys all mentioned there’s Frankenstein references throughout. Also, I think the idea of a carnival based horror goes way, way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which I think there are strong arguments to be made for it being a very early example of the genre). So what I’m trying to say is that I think since the slasher genre itself is pretty timeless, nostalgia is inevitable. Then The Funhouse has the added whammy of a carnival background since as long as there have been carnivals and freak shows there have been urban legends about the horrors therein.

I mentioned about the idea of the final girl above and I want to expand that a bit more. Slasher movies traditionally have a girl as the survivor. She is usually the chaste one, who avoids drugs and alcohol. Amy at the beginning is the good girl. She is a virgin. She’s against going to the carnival and breaking the rules. But somewhere along the line, I feel like she drops the good girl act. In the bathroom during a conversation with Liz, she mentions that maybe she’s not saving her virginity. A little later on, she’s smoking marijuana. I guess I just feel like maybe she’s not quite pure, virginal, final girl material, unless it’s being comparatively chaste and drug free that gets you out of horror movies alive.

Britnee, what do you think of Amy as our protagonist? Do you think she meets the criteria for the Final Girl? Are there any other interesting plays on traditional horror tropes you noticed?

Britnee: When comparing Amy to the others in the group, I think that she’s an angel. She does give in to the ganja and isn’t the poster girl for virginity, but she’s still the most level-headed of the bunch. Buzz, Liz, and Richie (especially Richie) were all horrible people. Buzz is this ignorant macho-man that comes off as a total creep when he’s alone with Amy, Liz is a straight up bad friend, and Richie is an obnoxious, greedy little bastard. Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised to see them each meet their gruesome deaths in the funhouse. Now that I’m thinking of it, the dumb teenager that gets violently killed is definitely a horror trope that is present in The Funhouse. Buzz, Liz, and Richie each meet have their one-on-one time with the killer, which is the most popular way for a bad teenager to die in slasher flicks.

Now as for Amy being the final girl, I do think that she meets the criteria. She’s got a good head on her shoulders (at least when compared to her friends), and when she comes face to face with the funhouse monster at the end of the film, she does everything in her power to defeat him. Amy is far from being a damsel in distress and she defeats the film’s male antagonist, so I would consider her to be final girl material. She really does have one of the most interesting final girl exits that I’ve ever seen. After she survives the hell of the funhouse, she walks silently into the carnival grounds and doesn’t utter a peep to the few people hanging around. Something about her exit from the funhouse just makes me think of her as badass heroine. It’s probably because she doesn’t crawl out of the building crying and screaming for help, as one would expect anyone to do when under those circumstances.

Boomer, I can’t figure out the importance of the creepy witchy woman that lingers in the background of the film. Her most notable scene was when she was in the bathroom with Liz and Amy, and she approaches them with her famous words, “God is watching you!” Do you think that the Bathroom Witch (Brandon gave her this name during the viewing) was underused in this film? Or do you think her presence was completely unnecessary?

Boomer: In my previous section, I mentioned the novel adaptation the film written by Dean Koontz; that book has its own separate Wikipedia page that outlines a more in-depth (and, honestly, needlessly complicated) plot that features a back story that involves a previous relationship between the carnival barker and Ellen, the religious alcoholic mother of Amy and Joey. I guess I spoiled myself on this question, because the issues of faith and evil seem to be more present in the book (and thus the original screenplay): Ellen and the barker were married and had an evil son, whom Ellen killed; she then had Amy and Joey, whom she religiously oppresses. The barker had Gunther with Madame Zena (yeah, think about that for a second), and believes that Gunther’s evil nature is Satan giving him an assist to exact vengeance on Ellen.

The religious overtones of the original story lead me to infer that this woman played a more significant role in the first draft and was largely cut. Part of Amy’s internal struggle in the novel is that her mother accuses of her of being evil, like a Margaret White who never really commits to a full-on closet-locking; being confronted by a Bathroom Witch who reminds Amy of her repressed doubt would have probably been a single moment in a larger appearance, although having all of that back story omitted from the final screen product does make this scene seem a bit inexplicable. Still, if this had been a story that was more grandiose in its treatment of generational evil, I think it would have traded the sleazy charm that it does possess for a bathetic melodrama; it’s better this way.

Brandon, if you could add a different back story for the film or otherwise weave in additional plot elements, what would you add to make the film better?

Brandon: If there’s anything missing or underutilized in the film I think it’s somewhere in the titular funhouse setting itself. The Funhouse does well enough in establishing a surreal, nightmarish tone without relying on any explicitly supernatural element. Even Gunther’s monstrous, Rick Baker-created appearance is explained to be a natural occurrence, one mirrored by the real life two-headed cows & mutated specimens in the carnival’s freak show. The audience sees the carnival from Final Girl Amy’s perspective, which establishes the otherworldly nightmare tone as she seems to be the only one among her gang of idiot teens who seems to notice how grotesque & off everything feels before the shit inevitably hits the fan in the funhouse. I appreciate that the movie keeps its terrors anchored in the real world. It’s a choice that helps maintain the film’s tangible danger & menace. However, I think a little more play with the laws of nature inside the funhouse might’ve benefited the film’s longterm legacy.

Horror films & funhouses were made for each other for obvious reasons: spooky atmosphere, ambiguity for “real” scary monsters to hide among the fake ones, ample opportunity for jump scares, etc. The Funhouse makes the most out of these obvious set-specific opportunities that it can, but I think it might’ve missed out on bending the rules of reality a bit within its funhouse setting. The bright colors, spooky lighting, and playful ambience of a funhouse already aims for a supernatural subversion of reality, one that could have justified some reality-bending trickery on-camera once the teens are being hunted down. I think The Funhouse works perfectly well as a straightforward slasher at a specific, bizarre setting and it does make good use of set-specific props in its final act, but I wouldn’t have minded a little supernatural surreality mixed in with its real world horrors.

Alli, do you think The Funhouse could have benefited from some supernatural horror once it reaches its titular setting, or did it benefit by keeping its horror explicitly “real”?

Alli: I was kind of relieved that it took it in a more real direction. It was really interesting to me that a lot of the scariest parts were the behind-the-scenes inner-workings of the carnival. Funhouses are generally not as exciting or as fun as the name implies. They’re generally cheap smoke and mirrors, but it’s that cut-throat cheapness that makes them actually terrifying. (Or maybe I spend too much time looking at rideaccidents.com) The inside is creepy for sure, but the final scene takes place underneath it all. The clanking of chains and whirling of fans are disorienting and disconcerting. The ghouls and ghosts that jump out while the thing is running are not as deadly or threatening as an angry fortune teller or carnival lackey. Even the monster wears a mask of another monster because the reality is more hideous.  I think the real world horror grounds this in a way that makes it fairly believable. Weirdos are scary: bathroom preachers, sideshow barkers, fetuses in jars. The Funhouse does a good job at preying on that.

I’m not trying to rule out the idea of a demon-possessed funhouse completely, but any time the supernatural is involved a movie really starts pushing it towards cheesy. What could have worked in the supernatural direction is more rumors in the set-up, like kids talking about real skeletons of past victims being used or ghosts of dead carnies cursed to wander forever from town to town waiting to spook unsuspecting teens. That sort of ambiguity added to the real life fright could have upped the ambience.

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Lagniappe

Boomer: I’d love to go back to Alli’s question about whether Amy is the Final Girl or just a final girl. Amy is an interesting candidate for this title, given that she’s very unlike the women who served to canonize this archetype. She’s neither chaste nor sober, and, minus the early draft inclusion of Ellen’s relationship with the barker, she has no connection to the killer. Still, there does seem to be an ineffable Final Girlness to her that belies her nonstandard status.

Britnee: Joey is the absolute worst. He is one of the most disturbingly creepy little brothers in the history of film. There’s a mysterious scene where Joey almost gets killed by a truck driver with a shotgun, and it’s the only time I slightly felt worried for his well-being. Well, that and the fact that he lives with an alcoholic mother.

Brandon:  Like Britnee, I mostly found Joey to be an insufferable little shit. After he scares his sister in the shower with the opening scene’s giallo/Psycho homage it’s difficult to feel any empathy for the detestable little scamp. However, I will admit that my Joey-hatred did fade a little once I realized how much worse the adults of his world are. Before we even meet the Bathroom Witch or see the worst of the barker & Gunther, we get Madame Zena yelling at (admittedly disrespectful) stoner teens, “Don’t come back or I’ll break every bone in your fucking bodies!” Every on-screen adult pounds back hard liquor. A tent full of working class men make a grotesque display out of ogling strippers that’s somehow just as much of a nightmare as the last-act teen hunt. A random trucker pulls over on the highway to point a gun at Joey, a small child, just so he can laugh in his face. Joey never earns likeability, exactly, but it’s at least a lot easier to understand why he’s such a shit once you get the full picture of the hate-filled early 80s hellscape he was raised in.

Alli: To go back to Joey: at the end we never really know too much of what happened to him, just that he was in some carnie’s trailer knocked out with a fever. They chase him down, catch him and drag him off. What exactly did they do to him off-screen? He may have been the definition of obnoxious little brother, but whatever happened in the meantime to him he probably didn’t deserve. 

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
November: Boomer presents Paperhouse (1988)
December: Alli presents Last Night (1999)
January: The Top Films of 2016

-The Swampflix Crew

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5 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: The Funhouse (1981)

  1. Pingback: The Nightmare Carnival of The Funhouse (1981) Vs. the Goofy Cartoon Carnival of Ghoulies II (1988) | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: The Funhouse (1981), Tourist Trap (1979), and Tobe Hooper’s Influence on the Unconventional Slasher | Swampflix

  3. Pingback: The Funhouse (1981) as an Ideal, Forgotten Midpoint Between Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacres (1974, 1986) | Swampflix

  4. Pingback: Movie of the Month: The Funhouse (1981) – state street press

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