Elizabeth Berridge - Amy Harper
Cooper Huckabee - Buzz
Largo Woodruff - Liz
Miles Chapin - Ritchie
Kevin Conway - Carnival Barker
Wayne Doba - The Monster
Shawn Carson - Joey Harper
Sylvia Miles - Madame Zena
William Finley - Marco The Magician
Genre - Horror/Slasher
Running Time - 96 Minutes
Score - 2 Howls Outta 4
Living in one of the largest metropolises in the world, I haven't had my fair share visiting carnival attractions. But when I did, I just thought the whole thing was hokey. Mutated freakshows, rides that go bump in the night [not because they're scary but because the trip getting there is bumpy], and food that I don't think even Kirstie Alley would eat - I sometimes wonder what the big deal is all about. I don't find carnivals scary, although I won't question people who do have a genuine fear of them. Maybe that's why Tobe Hooper's third directorial venture, 1981's THE FUNHOUSE, didn't affect me as well it should have. It's not a bad film, but it's highly uneven due to a very bland screenplay that doesn't capitalize on the slasher sub-genre enough. Still, it's not a total waste of time.
Teenager Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) goes out on her first date with hunky Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), with friends Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Ritchie (Miles Chapin) on board. Instead of going to the movies like Amy had promised her parents, she decides to go along with her friends to the local carnival. After spending time there making fun of the whole scene, smoking dope, and making out each other, the four friends decide it's a good idea to spend the night in a carnival ride at the funhouse. They first think it's all fun and games. But soon they witness a fortune teller (Sylvia Miles) argue with the slow and deformed son (Wayne Doba) of the carnival barker (Kevin Conway) after he pays her for sex and prematurely ejaculates. Enraged by the embarrassment of the situation, the son murders the fortune teller. The carnival barker catches wind of it, soon learning that there are witnesses to the murder when Ritchie drops his lighter from above the scene through a crack in the floor. Now worried for their safety, the group must find a way out of the funhouse before the deformed son murders them all.
THE FUNHOUSE is a mixed bag, just like Tobe Hooper's career. While the film looks good and the beginning and last half of the film are actually quite watchable, the rest of the film is a big mess. The film has a perfect setting and premise for an 80s slasher film, but Hooper and the screenplay don't do enough with it to make it work for the most part.
Personally, THE FUNHOUSE is a disappointing little 80s slasher flick. I think the main fault lies within the screenplay by Larry Block. After a strong beginning that I'll discuss later, it meanders slowly as we watch 45 minutes of characters being set up and doing nothing remotely interesting to maintain one's attention. Now I love characterization, especially in horror films because it's so rare. But when you have more than half of a film slowly showing these characters and what they're about without actually doing a good job of it, then you're just testing my patience. Hell, I almost fell asleep during this portion because I was so bored. We learn nothing really about the people we're supposed to invest ourselves in other than they like to make out and smoke weed. They're not even really stereotypes either, which would have helped because at least I would have some sort of impression of them. But I got nothing but these four characters walking and riding through a carnival without tension, suspense, or a scare.
What's worse is that the second portion of the film is pretty well-written when things start to pick up. Here we have some tension and some decent sequences involving the monster of the film against these characters. It feels like another film within the same film. Not a really good job. And even if the last 40 minutes of the film are watchable, I wonder how many people will actually sit through the long-winded first act just to get to this point? The pacing is totally off here and it pretty much lost me for most of the film.
I also thought some plot elements were really flawed in the script. Like the sub-plot with Joey Harper (Shawn Carson), who is the kid brother of final girl Amy. He sneaks out of the house to go to this carnival and does nothing of note whatsoever. He sees Amy entering the funhouse and never exiting, wondering if she's playing a trick on him. After that, all he does is walk and look around until he gets caught and his parents have to take him home. That's it. Really? Why waste my time with this? It's like finally getting to have sex with your girlfriend but she'll only let you stick the tip and not letting you get off. Don't start something that you're not gonna finish properly.
I also thought the way the monster revealed himself was pretty lame too. We see him during the set-up scenes walking around in a Frankenstein's Monster mask while supervising the funhouse ride. Even when he's screwing the fortune teller, he still has the mask on. But when his father starts berating him for murdering their "family", the monster just takes off the mask to reveal something that either looks like the Michael Myers mask from HALLOWEEN 5, but with two faces. All I could do was laugh at the face. I'm sorry. It didn't scare me at all. And seriously, that big head could NOT fit into that Frankenstein monster mask.
Revealing the monster during the MIDDLE of the film loses any tension or suspense for the rest of the film. People love mysteries and not revealing what the monster really looked like would have viewers watching in order to see the pay-off. You save moments like that for the end, when the final girl struggles with the monster and unveils what he looks like. Not here though and it loses all mystique for me for the rest of the film. Pretty crappy move on the filmmakers' part here.
Only positive I can say about the screenplay is that the dialogue was well-written. The four leads sounded and acted like teenagers, even though they looked like college students ready to head to Grad School. And the villains acted like villains while at the same time creating a level of sympathy for both the deformed son and his carnival barking father. So at least the script did something right.
While not Tobe Hooper's finest moment [and he wouldn't really have many, I'm afraid to say], THE FUNHOUSE is still a nicely directed flick. The beginning of the film is obviously a homage to the opening sequence that kicks off the original HALLOWEEN [clown mask, POV shot, and knife], while throwing a shower knife scene that's taken right from PSYCHO. Unfortunately that's the highlight of the film for Hooper, but there are other things. Like some of the murder sequences are done really nicely, especially the sequence between Liz and the monster that's pretty disturbing. Plus the final act is really cool visually and ends the film nicely. And what about those boob shots? Very, very nice. I do think some scenes had takes that were too long and didn't lead much to anything [especially scenes with Joey] and the pacing wasn't as tight as it could have been. But still, it's one of his better directorial efforts. No TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE but what is?
The acting was okay for the most part. Elizabeth Berridge, who's probably best known as playing Mozart's wife in 1984's AMADEUS, is the best actor of the lot. She's pretty, can scream her ass off, and can deliver dialogue and scene direction. She has a nice rack too that she's not afraid to share with the viewing audience. Can't complain. Cooper Huckabee as Buzz played the tough guy pretty well. He looked the part and was likeable in the role. Largo Woodruff as Liz played the stereotypical best friend, but she does it well. She definitely seemed like the kind of girl I'd hang with for some fun in and out of bed. She has spunk, personality, and does a great "scared" expression. I dug her a lot. Miles Chapin plays the handsome nerd role well as Ritchie. He was a dumbass and Chapin did a good job with it. Kevin Conway did a good job in his short role as the carnival barker. He was a bastard but I kind of felt bad for him as well. If someone witnessed my child murdering someone, wouldn't my first inclination be to protect him in any way, shape, or form? Especially if he doesn't really understand right from wrong? He's no Father of the Year, but I didn't think he was totally bad. Conway also played the freak show announcer and the strip club presenter [yes, the carnival had a strip club - gotta love the 80s]. Sylvia Miles has a nice cameo as the bitchy fortune teller/hooker. And Wayne Doba did a good job as the Monster. I felt bad for him too. Sure he looked like a freak but he couldn't help it. Still, the latex mask didn't help the role much. Hard to make facial expressions underneath that ugly thing.
THE FINAL HOWL
While it starts off well, THE FUNHOUSE turns out to be another disappointment from Tobe Hooper. I was half-bored, half-entertained by this flick. There was so much that could have been done here to really make this film creepy, but the powers-that-be wouldn't allow it to take shape. Still, it's not a total waste of time. Fans of Tobe Hooper, carnivals, and slasher flicks may get a kick out of this one. Just don't expect too much and you'll be okay. I honestly think this film could use a remake.