Cult Cinema: The Funhouse

Andrew reviews the 1981 Tobe Hooper horror flick The Funhouse.

For some reason I'm not 100% sure of, the community of horror film fans have a really big problem with clowns and funhouses.  With the impending remake of Stephen King's It on the horizon, Eli Roth's forthcoming Clown, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the sordid and banned Victor Salva film Clownhouse and both the original and remake of Poltergeist, the concept of the scary demonic clown us one which is terrifying to some where others like myself don't see what all the fuss is about.  That said I will concede there have been a couple examples of the scary and dangerous clown trope in horror which did manage to unnerve yours truly and they are Captain Spaulding from House of 1,000 Corpses/The Devil's Rejects and Gunther from Tobe Hooper's rarely seen 1981 horror thriller The Funhouse.  Made immediately after Salem's Lot and right before taking on the task of directing Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper's literal Funhouse of horrors is an underrated thrill ride preying on fear of carnivals and the carnies that run it as four dope smoking teenagers find themselves being hunted down in the deep recesses of the dark funhouse by a homicidal mutant carnie with sharp bat-like fangs.  Initially it takes place in the open terrain of the carnival but then shifts gears as our four teens find themselves locked inside the funhouse with claustrophobic dangers lurking around every dark corner.  Technically the first anamorphic widescreen effort for the new horror master and a good old fashioned teenagers in peril chase thriller, The Funhouse is the clown horror movie that both landed Hooper the job of directing Poltergeist and often gets overlooked by Tim Curry fans.  

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Initially inexplicably dubbed a video nasty in the UK, the story of the making of The Funhouse is debatably more frightening than anything in the finished film.  Hooper himself ran into near brushes with death including but not limited to flying cogs from ride malfunctions, a brown recluse spider bite and an on set accident involving a carnival ride which was left on too long during filming.  The film also ran into post production delays, causing the Dean Koontz movie tie-in to come out before the film and causing the misconception that The Funhouse was an adaptation of the novel when it was the other way around.   

As for the film, most of The Funhouse is a chase thriller of long dark hallways, corridors and a basement cellar not unlike the inside of Leatherface's home in Hooper's own The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  This was around the time Hooper was letting go of his gritty Grindhouse aesthetic pioneered by Texas Chainsaw, opting instead for a lush and polished panorama beautifully photographed by Rambo: First Blood cinematographer Andrew Laszlo.  Amadeus fans will be excited to see Elizabeth Berridge as the prototypical damsel in distress screen queen, a far cry from her career turner as Constanze Mozart only three years later.  The creature effects design for the mutant Gunther do feel like they've walked off the set of Hooper's previous film Salem's Lot but they're undeniably effective and the interior production design of the dreaded funhouse itself predate the hyper-exaggerated color schemes of House of 1,000 Corpses by almost twenty years.  Equally strong is the film's original score by John Beal, which became something of a veritable collector's item on compact disc many years later, giving the film a mixture of carnival theatricals and old school suspense horror.

Something of an overlooked middle chapter in Hooper's career which bridged the gap between his independent filmmaking and eventual Hollywood director-for-hire work before becoming a regular Cannon Films player, The Funhouse is an inspired little genre thriller with more than a few tricks up it's sleeve and moments of bona fide terror peppered throughout.  Years later the monster Gunther would become a minor yet beloved horror icon who narrowly missed being included on the documentary Boogeyman: The Killer Compilation.   While not the scariest or strongest of Hooper's oeuvre, with Texas Chainsaw remaining both his first and ultimately finest hour, it is far better technically and narratively than Spontaneous Combustion and far more coherent than the batshit lunacy of Lifeforce.  Some will argue whether or not landing the job of directing Poltergeist with this film made much of an impact on his career, as everyone to this day is still in debate over whether or not the film was his or Steven Spielberg's.  As an overt B horror movie entry with creepy clowns and teens in peril, The Funhouse is a far more solidly crafted thriller than you would initially expect.  I'm still of the belief that clown horror is overrated and isn't as frightening as most fans make it out to be, but I won't deny The Funhouse did manage to make a few hairs stand on end.  With the claustrophobic setting, teens in peril chase thriller elements and an inspired creature design, this is one of Tobe Hooper's smaller efforts which deserves far more attention than it has and as such is ripe for reappraisal and rediscovery!


- Andrew Kotwicki