There are many debates that go on within movie fandom and one which has raged out of control since 1974 still goes on today: Is Tobe Hooper a "one-hit wonder"? The director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has never been able to re-create the success of that film, leading many to wonder if he truly has any talent. (Considering how truly awful the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was, Hooper must have some sort of filmmaking ability.) His Poltergeist was a hit, but for years that film has been dogged by rumors that producer Steven Spielberg actually did most of the directing. So, whenever one consider a Tobe Hooper film, these questions must be taken into consideration. We will keep these questions in mind as we look at 1981's The Funhouse.
As The Funhouse opens, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is going on her first date with Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), despite the fact that her parents disapprove of him and his choice of taking her to the carnival. Amy assures her folks that she and Buzz will go to the movies instead. Of course, once they pick up Richie (Miles Chapin) and Liz (Largo Woodruff), they head straight for the carnival. Once there, they ride the rides, eat cotton candy, smoke pot, and make out. Then, Richie gets "the greatest idea ever." He suggests that the four of them spend the night in the funhouse. The others agree and once they are on the ride, they jump off and hide within the massive attraction. Things quickly go bad when they observe one of the funhouse employees (played by Wayne Doba) murder the carnival's fortune teller (Sylvia Miles). Obviously disturbed by this, they attempt to escape the funhouse, but find that all of the exits are blocked. When the funhouse operator (Kevin Conway) discovers the intruders, he and his "assistant" start to hunt them down. Now, the four pranksters must attempt to hide in the darkness of the funhouse until daybreak, unaware of the fact that they are being stalked by an inhuman monster.
Horror films are often accused of having no stories, but The Funhouse really has very little story. The first 40 minutes of the film consists of Amy preparing for her date (which includes a scene which is an homage to both Psycho and Halloween) and the foursome wandering the carnival. Things don't really kick into gear until they enter the funhouse. From there, the film becomes an exercise in suspense.
Essentially, this film exists as a chance for Hooper to try and scare us, and the movie has some parallels to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We have a group of young adults who are involved in a seemingly innocuous activity. They meet some weird people along the way, but nothing too scary happens. But, then, they reach a seemingly benign location and all hell breaks loose. The Funhouse does a good job of shifting in tone and thus keeping the viewer on edge. The opening scene promises violence, but is almost played for laughs. This convinces the viewer may have a playful tone. When the group reaches the carnival, things are mostly light, although Amy does seem shaken by the various carnival barkers. (All of whom are played by Kevin Conway. Is this to imply that inbreeding goes on at the carnival and thus is responsible for the monster?) But, when the group gets trapped in the funhouse, the movie becomes very grim. Say what you will about Hooper, but the man has a knack for portraying violence in a very realistic fashion, which is never easy to watch. Consider the cringe-inducing dinner scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about. The last 56 minutes of The Funhouse are quite brutal, as we watch these characters that we are just getting to know be hunted in the dark. In fact, the entire film has an air of sleaze and despair which is hard to escape. The movie doesn't pull any punches, right up until the nihilistic ending, and the film also carries a message that morals are always questionable. (Given the nature of horror films in 1981, Amy should have been the innocent, virginal character, but we see her topless in the film on two occasions.)
While The Funhouse may work as an exercise in sheer terror, it does leave much to be desired. The overall lack of story does ultimately hurt the film. We know nothing about Amy and her friends, which makes it hard to truly care about them. A subplot involving Amy's little brother sneaking out of the house to attend the carnival adds very little to the film, save for one gripping moment. Also, we don't really learn anything about the monster. As with the characters in the movie, the audience is left in the dark for much of the movie. The Funhouse is truly an oddity, as it's a very shallow film, but it works as a horror movie.
The Funhouse laughs its way onto DVD courtesy of Universal Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This DVD replaces the old Goodtimes release from 1999, which was letterboxed, but wasn't anamorphic. As the movie opens, the film is very grainy and in one shot of Amy's face, the artifacting is nearly overwhelming. However, after this scene, things calm down and the picture becomes relatively sharp and clear. The image is well-balanced and Hooper's dark photography never hides the action. There are some minor defects from the source material, such as black dots. The colors are good, although the reds do look oversaturated at times. The framing appears to be accurate, which is very important, as The Funhouse is one of those movies which is unwatchable when shown 4:3 and must been seen in its widescreen glory.
The DVD contains an impressive Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track. This track provides clear dialogue and shows no hissing or distortion. The surround sound effects are kept to a minimum, so that when they are used, such as the lightning sounds in the funhouse, they are very effective at heightening the mood in the movie.
The only extra on the DVD is the theatrical trailer for The Funhouse which is presented 4:3 and is riddled with defects.
So, is Tobe Hooper a good director? That debate may never be settled, but The Funhouse certainly acts in his favor. The script suffers from a lack of detail, but Hooper is able to ramp up the tension in the film and create some no holds barred scares.