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England's Arrow Films has been releasing quite a few new Blu-ray editions of video horrors that made a big splash in the early DVD rollout years. In addition to their hardcore horror pix from Dario Argento, George Romero, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, they've grabbed an American title from Universal pictures, Tobe Hooper's 1981 haunted carnival romp The Funhouse. One of a glut of films produced in the wake of the success of Friday the 13th, an inferior slasher-gore film itself inspired by John Carpenter's Halloween, The Funhouse is a marginally acceptable scareshow with some excellent production touches.
Looking for thrills, four small town teens elect to spend the night hiding in a carnival Funhouse spook-ride, or for UK fans, Ghost Train. Sweet Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) lies to her parents twice, saying that she's going to a movie and then that she's spending the night at the house of her hot-to-trot friend Liz (Largo Woodruff). Liz's date college boy Richie (Miles Chapin), is eager to do the deed with her at the first opportunity. Amy's date is the muscular but ambition-challenged gas station attendant Buzz Dawson (Cooper Huckabee), who smokes dope in the car and coerces Amy into one bad decision after another. The boys and girls take in all of the carnival's sordid entertainments, including the magic show of Marco the Magnificent (William Finley) and a freak show with its misshapen livestock. They even peep at the strip show. Hiding in the haunted house ride after closing, the four witness a bizarre spectacle. The circus fortuneteller Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles) sells sex to Gunther, "The Monster" (Wayne Doba), who never takes off his Frankenstein mask and gloves. He's the son of Conrad Straker, one of the carnival owners (Kevin Conway). Zena and Gunther's encounter turns violent, and our four protagonists find themselves locked in the confusing, scary funhouse interior with at least two homicidal maniacs. Only one person knows that they're trapped inside -- Amy's precocious little brother Joey (Shawn Carson), who has independently snuck out of the house to check out the carnival on his own.
Unlike many of the European slasher & zombie films of the time, The Funhouse is well served by its complete lack of pretension. It's just a "scary teen story" in the same vein as the campfire tales lauded (and exploited) by author Stephen King. This kind of legendary tale passes down through the years in summer camps and sleepover scare-o-thons. Amy's father even refers to an earlier slaughter at a carnival owned by the same outfit when he forbids his daughter to attend. As in all teen rebellion pictures, the kids are of course going to express their independence by breaking all the rules, and then doing something irredeemably foolish. It's a teen prerogative.
This foursome is interested in getting high, making out and showing off; Buzz swings a good strong-man hammer and is thus a possible winner in the survival sweepstakes when teens square off against murderous carnival freaks. Smart guy Richie outsmarts himself by stealing some money at the worst possible time: never, but never get between a degenerate Carny and his night's profits. Liz keeps goading Amy to lose her virginity, which in slasher tradition marks both of them as open season targets for horrible deaths.
The Funhouse is nothing if not economical -- name actors Sylvia Miles and William Finley work in isolated sequences, and the heroes spend most of their time trapped in the fun house, like bugs in a Roach Motel. But the production doesn't scrimp on the essentials. Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo creates a colorful and creepy carnival atmosphere and uses a giant crane to show little Joey lost and confused outside the locked funhouse building. Production designer Morton Rabinowitz stages a convincing and elaborate fun-house ride, turning what is supposed to be a confined space into what seems an acre of scary mazes, frightening figures, with upper and lower lofts crammed with noisy ventilators and enough mechanical gears to operate the clock in Big Ben. The kids seem more challenged by the bizarre setting than the maniacal son & father tag team. Like a masthead monster, the mechanical fat lady on the funhouse exterior laughs and winks in approval of the mayhem occurring inside. The Funhouse suggests its spooky horrors without resorting to a single supernatural explanation, as in the moody but frustrating Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Tobe Hooper directs much of the slow buildup to the scares fairly calmly, which only heightens the expectation of extreme horror content to come. As in his The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, things build to a fine sense of panic. With poor Elizabeth Berridge reduced to screaming tears and several other characters meeting unpleasant ends, The Funhouse delivers what it promises. The screenplay by Larry (Lawrence) Block refers to old Universal monsters, with the Universal production connection making film clips and Jack Pierce makeup likenesses legally possible. The movie also starts with a not-so clever spoof on Halloween and the Psycho shower scene, that entreats the good actress Ms. Berridge to do regulation topless slasher film duty. The film makes good use of its "Freaks" theme, comparing some real sideshow mutations to a curious mutant fetus in a jar. The misshapen unborn boy turns out to be a match for his older brother Gunther, in an impressive mask-makeup creation that looks as if the development of a two-headed human was arrested in mid-growth. With his grotesque mouth, split facial features and exaggerated wall-eyed stare with two beady, blood red eyes, Gunther is an original horror. Director Hooper doesn't give us time to empathize with his plight, making The Funhouse a firm two-dimensional nightmare: let the slaughter begin!
Actress Berridge keeps the movie alive to the bitter end, as we care very much what happens to her. Like Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw, Ms. Berridge spends so much of the film with her face flushed in abject terror that we hope she had a good rest to get her peace of mind and complexion back in shape. If the film can be faulted anything, it's the entire sidebar story of Joey Harper. He begins the movie as a little tormenting monster fan / pest, and we keep hoping he'll get involved in the rescue of our heroes. He instead does a lot of staring at the outside of the funhouse before being taken home. It's almost as if the young actor's parents pulled him from the movie during production, and Hooper had no chance to do a re-write. Joey makes for a good red herring, but the way he's used also limits The Funhouse's appeal for repeat viewings.
Arrow Video's Blu-ray of The Funhouse is a beauty, with a bright, colorful and sharp image that probably bests original Universal release prints. Although a UK disc, the show ran just fine on my normal U.S. marketed Sony player. John Beal's soundtrack is now a collector's item on CD, and is well represented on the healthy 2.0 stereo track.
Arrow is big on extras, at least where volume is concerned. Three separate commentaries are included. Producer Derek Power shares a track with genre expert Howard S. Berger., and track number two is covered by horror authors and experts Justin Kerwell and Calum Weddell. The effect is overkill, as we don't need four people telling us how important, unique and fantastic The Funhouse is, when it is at best a fairly good horror thriller from an era of general awfulness. 1 Much better is a busy, authoritative commentary from makeup designer Craig Reardon, who relates interesting stories behind concocting some of the film's scariest make-ups. A protégé of Dick Smith and wing man for Rick Baker, Reardon describes helping Baker fashion and "sell" the various makeup concepts and then making them function in Florida.
As it is mastered in Blu-ray, Reardon's special gallery of rare personal production photos from The Funhouse also play perfectly on U.S. machines. Unfortunately, unless one has a rare multi-format Blu-ray player, Arrow's five lengthy standard-definition featurettes will remain intriguing descriptions on the box text (as they are to me): they are all mastered in the PAL format, not our native NTSC. They include: director Tobe Hooper's memories of The Funhouse; Craig Reardon talking about several of his Tobe Hooper-related makeup assignments; a reminiscence by actor Miles Chapin; producer-director Mick Garris talking about Hooper's dedicated-to-horror career; and a Hooper Q&A session before an audience in San Francisco.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Funhouse Blu-ray rates:
1. I write this anti-slasher heresy with trepidation ... and already have a mental image of Kim Newman, Darren Gross, Richard Harland Smith and other jolly fans of this era invading my humble abode, wild-eyed and brandishing bloody axes.
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T'was Ever Thus.