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Retro Review 1981: The Funhouse

Posted by Thurston McQ on Friday, March 18, 2011

The Funhouse (Original Release Date: 13 March 1981)

The Funhouse isn't the movie I wanted it to be. I mean that as no offense to the movie. It's just that for much of my life, I've been trying to find a specific movie I saw as a child. Every few years or so, I will think I've found it, only to watch my find and be disappointed when it turns out not to be the one I hoped it would be. The Funhouse was one of the two most recent candidates for this lost movie from my childhood. The other, Hell Night, is also a 1981 release. (I've peeked ahead and determined both that I've seen Hell Night before and that it isn't the one I'm looking for, either.)

A horror fan would probably classify both Funhouse and Hell Night as entries in the “Teenkill” subgenre. From the title alone you can probably guess how little that narrows things down. They also fit in the “Haunted House” subgenre, though the house in one case is a fun house (guess which one), and neither movie has much of an element of the supernatural.

If you've come to The Funhouse before, it's likely you did it out of a sense of Tobe Hooper completism. I'd guess this led to your ultimate disappointment, unless you'd already weathered more recent Hooper misfires like Night Terrors and The Mangler. The Funhouse isn't top-form Hooper. It doesn't have the realness of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the slickness of Poltergeist, or the scope of Lifeforce or his Invaders from Mars remake.

What it does have is the only chance most people had to see a topless Elizabeth Berridge before the Director's Cut of Amadeus came to DVD in 2002. You get this chance right up front, too, in the first five minutes of the movie. It's a pretty decent opening sequence, and it suggests The Funhouse will be a tenser and more interesting movie than it ends up being.

It opens in a kid's room. A quick look around lets us know this kid is a horror freak. The wall is covered in masks, puppets, and knives. A Karloff-as-Frankenstein's Monster poster hangs over the bed, and you just know this kid has a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland. You soon realize you are viewing the room through someone's eyes. The eyes move to the wall, a hand selects a knife and a mask. The mask goes on, and we're looking through two eye holes as we move from that room to a teenage girl's room. We cut away to see Elizabeth Berridge removing her top, getting into the shower, and lathering up. From there we return to looking through the eye holes. We rip open the shower curtain in what is clearly a Psycho reference, then make multiple stabs into Berridge's chest.

If you've seen enough of these movies, you've come to expect this to be a prank. (Scream's cold open is an exception; then again, it was meant to be.) It is. The knife is rubber (though it sure wasn't when it came off the wall), and the stabber is her kid brother. Surprise. This movie has just slapped you in the face with its first red herring. There will be others, but you're already primed for them, and you've already seen the movie's most knuckle-whitening scene. You don't know Berridge's character well enough to be concerned for her well-being, but I can nearly guarantee you'll care more about her in the first five minutes than you will by the end of the movie.

I sometimes wonder if horror movie screenwriters write their teens so dumb because they are so far removed from being that age that they can't conceive of intelligent teens. I don't know. Do they expect us to root for idiots? Probably not. They probably want us to root against them. If that was script writer Lawrence Block's intention (his only other credit, if you're curious, is a story credit for the 1990 version of Captain America), his success was a monumental one.

Everyone in this movie is an idiot. The teens are morons, the adults are morons, and the kid brother is a moron. No one thinks anything through. “Let's spend the night... in the funhouse!” Why? Well, Fred and Eddie said they did it last year. No lie. I'll tell my parents I'm spending the night at your house, and you tell yours you're spending the night at mine! That'll never backfire! Sure, our car will be the only one left in the parking lot, but we have no reason to believe it'll raise any suspicions. And I doubt they'll notice we got on the ride but didn't get off! And why would the carnies ever bother to check and make sure the funhouse is empty before locking it up for the night?

When I say no one thinks anything through, I mean to extend this “no one” to include Block and Hooper. None of the above things the kids could have considered seems to have been considered by the filmmakers, either. Surely some more tension could have been wrung out of the movie if they hadn't made it so easy for the kids to stow away in the fun house. To quote another movie featuring a fun house (Ed Wood): “What do you know? Haven't you ever heard of Suspension of Disbelief?”

I have. It's already stretched pretty thin, though, by the TARDIS-like, much-bigger-inside-than-out fun house. (I swear the thing has to be three stories tall, despite its being a mobile unit, and despite its being ten feet tall from the outside, tops. Also, for some inexplicable reason, there is a series of moving hooks hanging from a chain in the motor room below the ride. Don't be surprised if someone ends up suspended from these hooks.)

I don't have enough room to get into the idiocy of individual characters, though I would like to. I will cut to the chase to say that the kids witness some fucked-up shit through the floorboards of the funhouse, fry all of five braincells (they smoked a little pot earlier on, so they're clearly incapable of reason) trying to figure out how to get out of the funhouse, and spend the rest of the movie getting picked off, until only the the token cautious chick (Berridge) is left.

Hooper had some better work ahead of him, thankfully. If I'd only ever seen his better work, however, I would have assumed that everything about it that worked was a happy accident.

Final Word: Recommended? Yes, but for the wrong reasons. I want you to see how dumb these characters are. I suppose they're no dumber than characters in other Teenkill movies. If you have as high a tolerance for that sort of thing as I do, this'll be another one to add to your collection. It has its fans. They defend it fiercely on IMDb, and tell you your generation is unaccustomed to slow-paced movies if you tell them you find it dull and stupid.

Standout Scene:
All right. This is something no Tobe Hooper movie -- not even the bad ones -- is without. There are a couple here. The first one involves the kid brother. He decides to climb out his window while his parents are arguing and walk to the carnival himself, since his sister is too mad at him for stabbing at her soapy tits to take him along. A hick in a truck stops and asks him where he's going, then pulls out a shotgun, points it at the kid, asks, “You want a ride?” then laughs hysterically as the kid dashes off, terrified. The second standout scene involves a mutant wearing a Frankenstein's Monster mask (the Frankenstein's Monster mask hides his Rick-Baker-made, vaguely Sloth-from-Goonies-resembling face) getting a handjob from Madame Zena, the grizzled carnival fortune teller. This is only one of three references to Frankenstein's Monster. Another one occurs when the parents of Berridge's character and the boy are watching Bride of Frankenstein. If you're ever planning on making your own bad horror movie, here's a tip: don't pack it full of references to better horror movies.

Hey! I Know that Guy!:
Elizabeth Berridge plays Constanze in Amadeus. Cooper Huckabee, who plays Buzz, plays Joe Lee Mickens on True Blood. Kevin Conway plays all the carnival barkers. You may recognize him as the Control Voice at the beginning of the nineties reimagining of The Outer Limits.

Nostalgia Score: 6/10. It captures the carnival atmosphere pretty well.

Movie Score: 49/100

 

 

 

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