The Funhouse – USA, 1981

‘Pay to get in! Pray to get out!’

The Funhouse is a 1981 American slasher horror film directed by Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist; Salem’s Lot; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) from a screenplay by Larry Block. The movie stars Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee and Miles Chapin.

The special makeup design of the monster was designed by Rick Baker and executed by Craig Reardon.

A masked intruder attacks Amy as she showers (resembling the famous shower scene from Psycho). The attacker turns out to be her younger brother Joey, a horror movie buff, and his weapon is merely a fake knife. He has played the first of several practical jokes on her.

Against her father’s wishes, teenager Amy visits a sleazy traveling carnival with her new boyfriend Buzz, her best friend Liz, and Liz’s irresponsible boyfriend Richie.

At the carnival, the four teens smoke marijuana, peep into a 21-and-over strip show, heckle fortune teller Madame Zena, visit the freaks-of-nature exhibit, and view a magic show.

Richie dares the group to spend the night in “The Funhouse”, which is actually a dark ride. After the park closes, the teenagers settle down inside the ride, at which point they witness the ride assistant, a silent man in a Frankenstein’s Monster mask, engage Zena as a prostitute. He experiences premature ejaculation, but despite his request Zena will not return her $100 fee. He murders her in a violent rage…

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Reviews:

The ending recalls Chainsaw in its relentlessness… in this case the noise in the machinery room is similar to the effect of the buzzing chainsaw. It jars the senses and leaves you on the edge of your seat. Director Tobe Hooper truly lays the groundwork with the mechanized creatures, the deformed inbred monster, the creepy surreal barkers and more. A fine job is done of building up the suspense…” The Terror Trap

“Stylishly directed and wonderfully shot – the climax is fairly stunning – the film is also imbued with Hooper’s trademark black humor, and once again explores such themes as the horror of the American family and freak-show voyeurism. While certainly not as interesting or accomplished as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Funhouse is a cut above the average slasher film.” James J. Mulay (editor), The Horror Film, CineBooks

“Taken on its own merits, The Funhouse is a great horror film, every bit the equal of Halloween or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in meaning and use of effective film technique. But seen in the context of Hooper’s career, it picks up even more steam. The childhood obsession with magic and monsters, a facet of Hooper’s life characterised in Poltergeist, Salem’s Lot and Invaders from Mars, plays a big role here, particularly in Joey’s bedroom accoutrements.” John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1980s

The Funhouse is a spitty movie, full of great expectorations. That is, there’s more drool on view than blood, which is a new twist for the horror genre […] For all the elegance of photography, pic has nothing in particular up its sleeves, and devotees of director Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will be particularly disappointed with the almost total lack of shocks and mayhem.” Variety, December 31, 1980

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Funhouse is a horror movie, not a really good one, but considering that its central horror is a standard monster (fangs, drool, stringy hair and a sour expression) who pursues four standard teenagers (dope, fornication, mopey expressions), it is not a really bad movie, either. Tobe Hooper, the director, was in there trying.” John Corry, The New York Times, March 14, 1981

“The killer is pitiful if not exactly sympathetic, a nod to Universal’s original Frankenstein’s monster. Unfortunately, the film’s protagonists are not especially sympathetic either. Also, Hooper seems less interested in the set-up for the mayhem that is about to ensue, and more interested in cataloguing the weird and sinister people who people the carnival.” J.A. Kerswell, Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut

“While the director, Tobe (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper, ought to have moved on to better things, he is the master of this gore-and-sadism genre… The film features an excruciatingly tense final confrontation.” People Weekly, April 27, 1981

“Hooper’s treatment of the monstrous Gunther was reminiscent of his chainsaw-crazed predecessor, with the audience being swayed to sympathize with his repulsively misshapen form […] The film was reasonably well received with John Beal’s creepy score gaining universal commendation.” Peter Normanton, The Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies

Main cast and characters:

  • Elizabeth Berridge … Amy Harper
  • Cooper Huckabee … Buzz (Starved; The Legend of Sasquatch)
  • Largo Woodruff … Liz
  • Miles Chapin … Richie
  • Kevin Conway … Freak Show Barker/Strip Show Barker/Conrad Straker (The Funhouse Barker)
  • Wayne Doba … Gunther Twibunt (The Monster)
  • Sylvia Miles … Madame Zena
  • William Finley … Marco the Magnificent (Night TerrorsSilent RageThe FuryEaten AlivePhantom of the Paradise)
  • Shawn Carson … Joey Harper
  • Rebuka Hoye … Strip Show Dancer
  • Jack McDermott … Mr. Paul Harper
  • Jeanne Austin … Mrs. Ellen Harper

Novelization:

A novelization of the screenplay was written by Dean Koontz, under the pseudonym Owen West. As the film production took longer than expected, the book was released before the film. The novel contains a great deal of backstory and characterization which was not used in the movie. It was later reissued credited to Dean Koontz.

Video nasty:

In the UK, the film was unsuccessfully prosecuted as a ‘video nasty’ a few years after its cinema release. Some commentators have questioned its attempted banning, given that the film is fairly tame in comparison to other entries on the list, leading some to suggest it was mistaken by ill-informed police authorities for the infamous Last House on Dead End Street, which had also been released as The Fun House.

Filming locations:

Miami, Florida

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