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Funhouse, The

Shout Factory // R // October 16, 2012
List Price: $29.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 2, 2012 | E-mail the Author
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"Who will dare to face the challenge of the funhouse? Who's brave enough...? Who is mad enough to enter that world of darkness? You will scream with terror. You will beg for release, but there will be no escape...for there is no release from the funhouse."

Okay, so that's ominous. Oh, and this funhouse just so happens to be a part of the same carnival where there was all that...unpleasantness a little while back. Perfect place for a double date, right?

Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is on a blind date, and you know the guy's a keeper 'cause he works the pumps at a gas station down the road, he's rocking a Members Only jacket, and he not-ironically goes by the name of Buzz (Cooper Huckabee). These two crazy kids were fixed up by their pals Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin), and together, the four of 'em take in all the rides and freak shows and cotton candy they can stomach. The only thing is...what now? Just for some spooky kicks, they decide to sneak back into the funhouse and spend the night there.

Holing up in the funhouse gives the four teenagers a front-row seat to an altogether different type of freak show. A near-mute kid in a Frankenstein mask rummages through the cashbox to bribe fortune teller Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles) into spreading her legs. He...uh, gets too excited too early, and embarrassed and enraged, the masked man-child strangles the psychic strumpet to death. As his carnival barker of a father (Kevin Conway) mulls over how to dump the body, he realizes that he has an audience looking down from above. That barker's monster of a son is frothing with murderous rage. Daddy, meanwhile, is more than willing to kill if that's what it takes to keep his kid safe from the locals. The steel doors are locked tight. There is no way out. Can't say he didn't warn 'em.

The Funhouse first hit theaters in 1981, the closest thing the slasher flick has to a Golden Age, and it smirkingly leads viewers down what looks like that same path. The pre-credit scare pays homage to the most iconic moments from both Halloween and Psycho. Breasts are quickly bared. There's the obligatory ominous warning from a grizzled old person. Four stoned, horny teenagers are trapped in a claustrophobic, hopelessly isolated place with no chance of rescue. An unrepentent killer racks up a hell of a body count as he stalks and slashes, and there's even a Final Girl for good measure. As straightahead a slasher as The Funhouse sounds like it has to be, it actually has more in common with the classic Universal monster movies.

There's a definite element of tragedy to the movie's nameless monstrosity. Despite only having a single intelligible line of dialogue, it's clear that he's not evil. He wants the same thing as anyone: to feel loved and accepted. On the brink of adulthood but saddled with the mind of a child, he lashes out so violently because that's all he can do, much like a tormented animal. All of that is realized with startling economy, with no preachy, string-soaked monologues or flashbacks expressly spelling that out for the audience. He's a hell of a monster, though, so disturbing in appearance that he wears a rubber Frankenstein fright mask to look more normal. The way that mask
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uncomfortably bulges in all the wrong places hints at the misshapen, deformed head lurking underneath.

The Funhouse also breaks from slasher conventions in that it's not at all a body count flick. Slashers generally settle into a predictable rhythm where there's a scare or a kill every 8 minutes or so. (Seriously, put one on and look at your watch.) The Funhouse, meanwhile, takes a more classic approach. It's more fascinated in establishing a creepy, unnerving atmosphere -- and those jerking, cackling automatons in the funhouse certainly fit that bill -- than it is in drenching the screen in blood. You can count the number of the killers' victims on one hand and still have a finger left over. The movie's right at the halfway mark before its first kill, and the second doesn't follow for another 23 minutes. The attacks are ghastly and ghoulish, and they're disturbingly effective without sloshing around much of the red stuff. In a lesser movie, that'd probably seem slow and tedious. By emphasizing characterization and atmosphere, director Tobe Hooper -- in his first theatrical release for a major studio -- ensures that the pace never drags. Thanks in large part to its more classic approach to horror and suspense, The Funhouse holds up considerably better than the glut of slashers flooding onto drive-in screens at the time.

The Funhouse is remarkably well-crafted all around, benefitting from a talented young cast, brilliant production design, a wildly effective and fully orchestral score, and a screenplay that prefers to show rather than tell. The creature effects by Rick Baker are unspeakably brilliant, and if you haven't seen the movie before, I won't spoil that shocking reveal in any of the screenshots scattered around this review. The attack sequences are remarkably intense, particularly one where salvation is just barely out of earshot. The interplay between the nameless monster and his father -- someone who's fiercely protective of yet repulsed by his hideously deformed son -- is inspired as well. It's the only horror movie I can think of where everyone might've walked out in one piece if not for premature ejaculation. The anamorphic cinematography sets it apart from just about every other genre film hitting theaters thirty years ago. There's no campiness or so-bad-it's-good about The Funhouse. Aside from a mostly wasted subplot with Amy's kid brother skulking around the carnival, I really don't have a whole lot to criticize, even. I'd probably rank The Funhouse as one of my top ten favorite horror films of 1981, and in a year that saw the release of An American Werewolf in London, The Beyond, the original My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, Happy Birthday to Me, The Howling, Scanners, and Friday the 13th Part 2, that's kinda saying something. Highly Recommended.

The Funhouse isn't quite as much of a knockout as Halloween III, the last high-def Scream Factory release I picked up, but it still hits all the right marks. The image is somewhat softer than Season of the Witch but is still reasonably well-defined and nicely detailed, generally where I'd expect a genre film from the class of 1981 to wind up. There's
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certainly never any question that this is a proper Blu-ray release or anything.

I don't have Arrow's Blu-ray set from the UK handy to do a direct comparison, but when I look at screenshots floating around online and compare them to the same frames on this Blu-ray disc, it's clear that they've both been culled from the same master. The Arrow screenshots look as if the brightness has been dialed up as opposed to the more natural looking Shout Factory release, but I don't know if that's an issue with the Arrow disc or the way DVD Beaver snaps their screengrabs. The Funhouse sports a nicely gritty, filmic texture throughout, not having all that grain digitally smeared away. Its palette is impressively vivid as well, an appreciated change of pace from the dingy, desaturated colors that horror/suspense flicks lean towards anymore. Oh, and there's nothing meaningful in the way of wear or damage to get in the way either. I'm thrilled with how great The Funhouse looks on Blu-ray, and I have a tough time imagining it ever looking a whole lot better than this. Definitely worth the upgrade.

The Funhouse arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc at its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The video, as ever, has been encoded with AVC.

The flipside of the packaging for The Funhouse mentions a lossless monaural soundtrack, but don't fret: that's a typo. This Blu-ray disc instead sports two 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one in The Funhouse's original stereo and the other remixed to 5.1.

As remixes go, this one's pretty effective. John Beal's already incredible orchestral score sounds that much better with the support of the LFE and rear channels. More than anything else in this soundtrack, the music packs a considerable wallop. The surrounds also ratchet up the intensity inside the funhouse, from the unnerving sounds as little Joey is flung inside all the way to the creaking, oversized gears in the climax. It's a nicely atmospheric remix, further cementing the idea that the carnival is a character in its own right. The reproduction of the dialogue is kind of uneven, though. It's rendered cleanly and clearly early on, but the line readings start to sound boxier and more dated after a while. There are a few stray lines I had trouble discerning. There's also a bit of hiss as The Funhouse first opens, and I feel like I spotted one exceptionally brief dropout in the first ten minutes. Still, it's a better-than-average remix and definitely trumped my expectations.

Purists can take heart that the lossless stereo track isn't treated like some sort of afterthought. It's not as full-bodied, no, but The Funhouse's original stereo audio sounds terrific as well. The dialogue seems as if it settles more comfortably into the stereo track than in the six-channel remix, and those few lines I struggled to make out in 5.1 are a bit more intelligible here. Although I do really like the remix, I'm pretty sure I'm going to
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opt for stereo the next time I give this Blu-ray disc a spin. Note that the remix is the default soundtrack, so you'll want to swing by the Setup menu first if you're interested in the original stereo audio.

Also offered here are English (SDH) subtitles.

At first glance, The Funhouse looks like it has plenty to brag about as far as extras go. It's just that Arrow's special edition from the UK piles on three commentary tracks, a still gallery, plus an hour and a half of interviews and Q&As. Aside from a trailer, none of its extras have found their way onto Scream Factory's release. Skimming through a few reviews of the Arrow disc, it sounds as if Scream Factory's extras are more slickly produced and better focused, plus each company interviewing completely different people makes both releases look to be well-worth owning. This is definitely a respectable collector's edition, but it's less definitive than Scream Factory's pair of Halloween releases, and the interviews here didn't really draw me in all that much.
  • Deleted Scenes (5 min.; SD): Since you couldn't really get away with all that much sex and violence on broadcast TV back then, The Funhouse had a few deleted scenes spliced back in to pad out the censored version's runtime. This reel piles on six of those scenes, including a peek at Joey reading Grimms' Fairy Tales, a little more of Marco the Magnificent's magic show, Amy's pop chatting up Buzz about his plans for the future, and Liz and Richie getting picked up on the way to the carnival. They kind of have to be low-key, seeing as how they're taking the place of blood and boobs and all. There's still some pretty good stuff in here, and it's very cool to see 'em included.

  • Interviews (32 min.; HD): The first of The Funhouse's interviews is an eleven minute conversation with actor Kevin Conway, who pulled triple duty playing three different barkers in the film. Conway also touches on Hooper's Coke addiction (note the capital 'C'!), scarfing down lunch with a sword jutting out of his belly, and delving behind the scenes into a fight to the death.

    "Something Wicked This Way Comes" (9 min.) chats up executive producer Mark L. Lester about how a $400K indie genre flick snowballed into a $3 million Universal release, how screenwriter Larry Block got kinda screwed in the deal, and touches on some of the marketing concepts that were on the table. There are also some comments outside the business end of things, such as how the genre-mashup pre-credits scare was put together after principal photography had wrapped.

    Composer John Beal sits down to talk about his score for The Funhouse in "Carnival Music" (9 min.). Beal notes how it was a melodic, atmospheric orchestral arrangement in an era of synthesizer-driven scores, how a couple banks of synths still snuck in to help add some calliope/carousel seasoning to the music, and how this
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    iteration of the score was basically composed in two weeks flat.

    The last of the interviews is with the late, great William Finley who plays the small but exceptionally memorable part of Marco the Magnificent. This three minute audio interview plays over his lone scene in the film, tackling how much more magic he learned than what ultimately made it on-screen and how much of a struggle The Funhouse was for Hooper, suspecting that the director may have even been fired at one point during production. Bizarrely, nothing like that is ever mentioned anywhere else on this Blu-ray disc.

  • Audio Commentary: The Funhouse sports a newly-recorded audio commentary with director Tobe Hooper, and it's moderated by Tim Sullivan, who happens to be a director in his own right. I have to admit that I'm...not that crazy about this conversation. It rarely settles into a comfortable rhythm. Hooper seems to be distracted, as if he's half-watching the movie and half-paying attention to Sullivan. I wasn't keeping a word-by-word tally or anything, but I wouldn't be surprised if Sullivan wound up speaking more overall than Hooper does. Sometimes Sullivan will phrase things in a way where he'll already have given an answer before he's finished asking the question, some of his talking points get a little too strangely overintellectual (such as asking Hooper if making horror films is his way of conquering his own fears), and...I dunno. Sullivan's a really likeable guy and all, but his excitement and fandom dominate the track more than I'd like, and it doesn't help that Hooper seems as if he's barely awake by comparison.

    I just can't shake the feeling that you could fit pretty much all of the best talking points into a 30 or 40 minute interview. There's certainly is a lot of amazing stuff in here -- just how many firsts The Funhouse marks in Hooper's career, why Lamb Chop's Shari Lewis deserves some special thanks, flying vomit and a near-fatal flying cog wreaking havoc on the set, and casting a mime as the nameless monster, to rattle off just a few -- but it's a conversation that really doesn't cry out to be 96 minutes long.

  • Promotional Material (5 min.; SD): Last up are four TV commercials, four radio spots, and a minute and a half long trailer.

The Funhouse features another set of terrific original artwork by Nathan Thomas Milliner on both the slipcover and insert sleeve. For my money, that new set of art much more effectively captures the spirit of the film than the familiar jack-with-an-axe-in-the-box, but the cover's reversible if you prefer that burst of nostalgia. Just to cover all the bases, the initial drooling, malformed mouth poster art has been screened onto the disc itself.

The Final Word
With The Funhouse and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 both scoring pretty remarkable Blu-ray releases a few short weeks apart, it ain't a bad time to be a fan of Tobe Hooper. Despite hitting theaters at the frenzied peak of the slasher craze, The Funhouse owes a whole lot more to Universal's classic monster movies than the Friday the 13th crowd, emphasizing characterization and atmosphere over a blood-spattered body count. ...and, yeah, Rick Baker's demented makeup effects make for a hell of a monster too. It's such a thrill to have The Funhouse finally storm its way onto Blu-ray, looking great, sounding even better, and sporting a respectable selection of extras. Highly Recommended.
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