The DNA of the slasher can mostly be traced back to the giallo murder mysteries of the 1960s & 70s where the gloved, off-screen killers of titles like Deep Red and Blood & Black Lace ran through disturbingly high body counts (of mostly young, beautiful women) in a distinct style-over-substance fashion. Filter the giallo genre through non-Italian titles like Psycho & Peeping Tom and direct its mayhem at the rebellious spirit of the American teenager and that’s more or less how you wind up with a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers or what have you. Not all slashers fit that mold, however, and a lot of the genre’s stranger outliers seem to point back to an entirely different source of inspiration: Tobe Hooper. Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced a level of grime & idiosyncrasy to the early stirrings of slasher horrors that was almost unimaginable in 1974. Cautious not to repeat himself, he entirely shifted focus for his 1986 sequel to that iconic work, turning it into an absurd horror comedy (not unlike the curious shift in the MTV-themed cartoon Slumber Party Massacre 2). When Hooper first returned to the straightforward slasher in 1981’s The Funhouse, however, he brought back the same isolated weirdos vs. disrespectful teen brats dynamic of the first Chainsaw along with that film’s unmistakable grime, but shifted the details drastically with the specificity of a travelling carnival setting. By then, Hooper’s work had already influenced an entire crop of weirdo slasher outliers, though, and The Funhouse had a little too much company to stand out as a radical work the same way 1974’s Chainsaw did.
The best example I can think of that adapts Hooper’s slasher deviations into a weird genre outlier is a film Britnee recommended during our evil doll movies conversation on the podcast. Her description of the 1979 horror oddity Tourist Trap sounded eerily similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with just enough quirk to distinguish itself from being a mere knockoff. In both films a group of suburban teens are slaughtered by an isolated family of outsider weirdos in the no-man’s-land of rural America. The major deviation in Tourist Trap is that the main killer’s backwoods family is made entirely of mannequins. Our terrifying hick killer commands telepathic abilities that allows him to animate his mannequin family so that they can physically attack his victims while singing in angelic voices or laughing maniacally. The supernatural element of these kills is largely different from Hooper’s style in his own slasher films (although not at all out of line with his titles like Poltergeist, Lifeforce, and Invaders from Mars). There’s an unmistakable, disturbing quality to the tone in Tourist Trap that points directly to the blueprint of a Hooper slasher, however. By the time the killer is wearing a doll mask & trying to make mannequins out of his teen victims Dead Silence-style, it’s all too easy to trace his origins back to Leatherface, who liked to uphold curious familial bonds of his own. Tourist Trap also has a weird crossdressing element that recalls the common slasher point of reference Norman Bates and as a whole is certainly unique enough to stand out on its own as an original work, but it owes a lot of its outlier status in the slasher genre to the strange space Hooper carved out with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Released just two years after Tourist Trap, Hooper’s The Funhouse is in good company with the strange little supernatural horror. The Funhouse keeps its terror anchored in the real world in a way Tourist Trap’s telepathy doesn’t, but the grime & specificity of its carnival setting matches the eeriness of that film’s disturbing mannequin-covered roadside attraction. Also, although the dolls of The Funhouse don’t move on their own via magic, there are animatronic dolls in the film that add to a menacing atmosphere shared by Tourist Trap as soon as the opening credits. Adding a supernatural element to The Funhouse’s carnival-set genre thrills made for a laughably goofy experience in Ghoulies II, but Tourist Trap is too much of a nightmare to laugh off in that way. The way its killer (much like Gunther in The Funhouse) continually searches for love & validation despite his own brutality makes for too disturbing of a watch for the film to be brushed off as mere camp. Its laughing, singing, murdering mannequins have a sort of humor to them, but only in a cruel, twisted way that’s far more reminiscent of Hooper’s work than it is of Charles Band’s, despite that schlockmeister’s career-long obsession with killer dolls (and Tourist Trap director David Schmoeller later working on the Band-produced series The Puppet Master).
When we first discussed The Funhouse in our Movie of the Month round table we asked why it didn’t quite have the cultural staying power it deserved. The answer might be that because Hooper already opened the door for weirdo slashers like Tourist Trap years earlier, The Funhouse had too much company to stand out as its own strange work of nasty mayhem. Hooper had already changed the game in an earlier work & The Funhouse was mostly just a nightmarish continuation of that initial deviation. It found some really strange company in similar continuations, though, not least of all in this strange killer mannequins slasher.
For more on October’s Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison of its carnival-setting horrors with those of Ghoulies II (1988).