Horror. Worldview. Faith.

The Funhouse – Review

The Funhouse – Review

Feb 11, 2010

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Tobe Hooper, 1981

Atmosphere.  Successful horror films, those movies that keep fans coming back for more, are built on the groundwork of atmosphere.  If the perfect plot, perfect dialogue, perfect acting, and perfect scares are not placed in the context of a film that “feels” right, then those elements lose a grand portion of their punch.  This is what sets great directors apart from good directors; knowing how to get that right feel to a movie.  I can reflect over some of my favorite movies from different genres and there is usually one or two scenes that define the feel of  the movie as a whole and weaves all the other elements inside that atmospheric universe.  John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is my favorite horror film.  Horror fans might be surprised to know that my favorite scene is not the tilting of Myer’s head after nailing Bob to the wall with his knife.  It’s not the classic chase scene between Laurie and Myers.  It’s not even the memorable speech by Dr. Loomis (from which this review site is named).  All of those are incredible moments in horror.  But they connect so perfectly because of the simple scene where Laurie Strode sits on her street corner waiting for Annie to pick her up.  While there, Carpenter takes just enough time, not too much and not too little, to allow Laurie to gaze across the subdivision and watch trick-or-treaters do their thing.  Without that scene – the establishment of the atmosphere – Halloween would not be near the movie it is.  Thus, the mastery of proper atmosphere in a horror film can make what would otherwise be a mediocre movie into something special.  The absence of it can make what would otherwise be a terrific movie only average.

With that, I turn my attention to The Funhouse.  Director Tobe Hooper, who taught the horror world a thing or two about atmosphere with his classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which is why all the remakes are not near the movie the original is), turns a simple, unimpressive horror plot into one of my favorite films all because of the feel of the movie.

Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge, best known for playing the wife of Mozart in Amadeus) is a typical teenage girl with a good heart but a desire to experience life beyond the stale, comfortable home in which she seems trapped.  The cure for that disease is a rebel, an older man in her life named Buzz, with whom Amy’s parent’s are not thrilled.  Despite her parent’s admonition to stay away from the local carnival because of ill reports, Buzz convinces Amy to check it out anyway.  They, along with another couple, set out for the carnival.  Once they arrive, the atmosphere begins to pile up in ways that can only be experienced by watching, not by writing.  Marco the Magnificent, an alcoholic magician, performs a spectacular trick with his assistant while recounting the history of Vlad the Impaler.  It is probably the best 20 second history of Dracula ever to be recorded.  Hooper masterfully captures the sights, sounds, and smells of a traveling carnival with all the rides, games, and sideshows.  But it is actor Kevin Conway who receives the top award.  In addition to the playing the main antagonist who operates the Funhouse, Conway also performs the roles of all the barkers for the attractions we meet at the carnival.  So, he is the guy standing outside the two-headed cow attraction barking “Alive, Alive, Alive.  There are creatures of God, not man!”  He stands outside the Funhouse, luring people into the haunted attraction.  And he stands outside the pseudo-strip club tent, urging guys to come check out the girls.  In all three of these scenarios, Amy is captivated by the barker for some reason.  And all three times, the barker makes eye contact with Amy in ways that is just downright creepy.  There is nothing special about it, but it makes the movie feel right.  The best part of the film comes when Amy is standing outside the stripclub tent and is listening the barker.  He is saying, “they wiggle and they dance.”  At one point, he catches the eyes of Amy and in what is just the most amazing scene, lets out one more the time the line, “they wiggle and they dance” while starring at her.  It is incredible.  How Hooper knew to include what seems like the most ridiculous line and scenario in his movie is a mystery, but it properly sets up everything else that happens in the film.

So, the group gets the wild idea to spend the night inside the Funhouse.  They take a ride on the attraction only to ditch out of the car halfway through.  Once inside, they start doing what teenagers do when the lights go out.  But, they are distracted by the shenanigans of the guy in the Frankenstein mask who helps operate the Funhouse and the fortune teller (played by Silvia Myles).  When she makes fun of the young man, he flips out and kills her – all while the group of teenagers watches through a crack in the floor.  Conway comes in to see what the fuss is all about and notices the dead fortune teller.  At this point we see that under that Frankenstein mask is not a normal human, but a strange kind of deformed monster.  We flashback to one of the sideshow attractions where the teenagers saw a weird fetus inside a jar.  This must be part of that genealogy.  Of course, someone in the group drops their lighter through the crack in the floor, alerting Conway that he has guests in the Funhouse.  What follows is a series of scares, chases, and killings that keeps us entertained and at times, spooked.

Although you will not be blown away by the dialogue, acting, or even the plot of The Funhouse, all of those elements are strengthened because Tobe Hooper packed this movie with atmosphere in ways that work.  This is one that I pop in my dvd player all the time, it is very re-watchable.  I highly recommend it as one of the great “secrets” of horror.  Take a look.

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