Tobe Hooper had a rough ride from horror fans in the 1980s, when his subsequent work failed to match the outstanding Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). However, in light of the duds he’s cranked out since (The Mangler (1995), Crocodile (2000), Toolbox Murders (2004)), many of these mid-period films are being reappraised. Case in point: The Funhouse, unavailable in the UK for many years after it was ridiculously branded a “video nasty”. Ah, the Eighties… Thatcherism, the miners’ strike, the AIDS scare, Duran Duran… Good times, man, good times. Hooper’s garish, neon-lit, teen-slasher is good, creepy fun, although one hesitates to call it a neglected classic.
Four double-dating teenagers – Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) – unwisely decide to spend the night inside a carnival funhouse. They witness a murder committed by a freak in a Frankenstein mask (Wayne Doba), and are chased by the monster and his carny father (Kevin Conway – in one of multiple roles). Adapting a novel by Dean R. Koontz, Hooper and screenwriter Larry Block streamline the original, convoluted plot (whose rambling prologue hints that heroine Amy and the mutant are distantly related) into a variation on TCM’s formula: terrified teens pursued by a monstrous family. However, they retained a sub-plot concerning Amy’s monster mad little brother (Shawn Carson) that, stripped of all relevance, goes nowhere. Funhouse showcases Hooper’s ability to create an eerie atmosphere, with a splendid carnival setting, freakshow oddities, and eccentric characters (including William Finley, star of Phantom of the Paradise (1974) as a sideshow magician fallen on hard times) lurking on the sidelines, heightened by Andrew Lazlo’s comic book lighting. The opening scene is a delightful riff on Psycho (1960) by way of Halloween (1978), but Hooper’s direction is frustratingly inconsistent, ruining his own good work. Stylish camerawork segues into slack shocks where the monster just staggers centre frame. Rick Baker’s snot-dribbling mutant is memorably icky, but the final duel between monster and girl – although enhanced by John Beal’s operatic score - is awkwardly staged and painfully slow.
Conway excels in his many guises and musters some pathos for the dastardly dad. Berridge makes a strong impression as Amy, and went on to her finest hour as Constanze Mozart in Amadeus (1984). Block’s script drops a few clunkers (“I don’t want you going to that same carnival…where they found those two dead girls.” Wow, subtle.), but pleasingly, rewrites Liz away from the novel’s malicious cow. Of course, she still has to die for being a promiscuous blonde cutie. Eighties slashers brought a welcome dose of gore and shocks, but replaced the free-spirited sexually confident heroines of Euro horror, with an irritating puritanical streak. Hooper plays up the religious angle (“God is watching you!” screeches an annoying bag lady), which doesn’t work on a thematic level since God probably takes more offence at murder than teenage sex. Nonetheless, The Funhouse remains one of Hooper’s simplest, most effective films. Now, who wants to make a case for Lifeforce (1985)?