“The Funhouse” (1981)


Studio: Universal Pictures
Starring: Elizabeth Berridge, Shawn Carson, Cooper Huckabee, Kevin Conway
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Rated: R
Running Time: 96 min.

Synopsis: Four teenagers spend the night in a funhouse and witness a murder.


Chris Woods

The Funhouse is one of my favorite Tobe Hooper films, next to of course The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive. It’s a great scary movie and one of the best horror films to take place at a carnival. The carnival atmosphere alone makes the film very creepy and the funhouse itself is the best part in the movie.

I first heard of the film way back in the early 80’s, probably a year after it came out. I remember seeing a preview of it on The Movie Channel. I just remember the dummy of a fat lady that was on top of the funhouse laughing. It was real creepy then and it’s still creepy now. I finally got to see the movie in the late 80’s or early 90’s and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. Like in a previous film I reviewed, Tourist Trap, The Funhouse has the same eeriness with all the mechanical dummies in the funhouse, kind of like with Tourist Trap and the creepy mannequins in it. Both films execute this very well with the creepy puppets, dummies, or mannequins that are present in each movie.

The movie opens up with a montage of the different mechanical dummies in the funhouse. They are some cool shots here that remind me of all the great funhouses and amusement parks I’d been to when I was a kid. Then, the scene cuts to a bedroom that is covered in classic monster posters. This opening scene is kind of homage to Halloween and Psycho. It shows the P.O.V. of someone putting on a Halloween mask just like the opening in Halloween. Then a young girl, Amy, gets into the shower as the masked person enters the bathroom. In Psycho fashion, the masked man pulls the shower curtain open with knife in hand. Turns out, the knife is made of rubber and the masked man is her little brother Joey playing a joke on her. She yells and screams at him that she’s gonna get him back. Later on, her date, Buzz and their friends Richie and Liz pick up Amy. The four of them are going to the carnival in town. Joey ends up sneaking out and following them there.

One thing I want to point out is in the beginning there’s a lot of homage to classic and modern horror. From the inspiration of scenes from Halloween and Psycho to the Frankenstein and Wolf Man posters and toys all around Joey’s room, Hooper gives some nods to some great works of horror. There’s even a part where Amy and Joey’s parents are watching Bride of Frankenstein.

As Joey walks to the carnival to catch up with the others, the four have already arrived at the fair. The carnival atmosphere is captured well and has the best elements of a great fair. The deformed cows, the baby in a jar, the fortune teller, magician, the rides, the games, even a peep show, plus of course the funhouse. It reminded me of many different fairs I went to as a kid. It’s kind of a combo of county fairs, which were just rides and games and the state fair in New York, which had much better rides and games than the county fair, but had the weird displays like the deformed animals or people.

As the four walk around, they run into some strange characters, from bums walking around to the carnies themselves. Character actor Kevin Conway plays three different character carnival barkers, one happens be for the funhouse. As the carnival starts to wind down, Richie has an idea to spend the night in the funhouse. The four decide to do it and as they enter the ride they don’t come out. Joey, who finally makes it to the fair, sees the four go in the funhouse but never return. It’s a great scene as all the lights start to turn off, the fat lady stops laughing, and the carnival closes up and no sign of the four. As if the funhouse swallowed them alive.

While the guys are screwing their girlfriends hiding out in the funhouse, they hear something going on below them. It’s the weird guy in the Frankenstein’s monster suit that was working at the funhouse and the fortuneteller lady. He pays the lady for sex but gets discouraged when he cums too soon and demands his money back. He ends up strangling the lady to death as the four witness the whole thing. The kids try to get out of there, but the doors are locked from the outside. They go back and hide upstairs as they see the funhouse barker and Frankenstein, who turns out to be his son, try to take care of the body. The father freaks out at his son because there’s some missing money, which Richie took while they were down there checking the door. As the son freaks out, his mask comes off and it’s revealed he’s some kind of mutant. One of the kids drops a lighter that goes through the floor and lands downstairs. Now the two know someone is up there watching and now the father and son make sure they don’t leave the funhouse alive.

The Funhouse is a very scary film. They are some great creepy scenes in the funhouse alone and the parts where the kids are being stalked by the barker and his mutant son are thrilling. Also just the fact that the kids spend the night in the funhouse is creepy. You always wonder what it’s like to be in a haunted or funhouse or just any old amusement park after it closes. There’s a great cat and mouse game as the two play tricks on the four. Towards the end there’s a suspenseful scene where Amy is running from the son and hides underneath the funhouse in the room filled with all the gears. She keeps looking back at the vent she crawled out of, waiting for the mutant to strike. You wait and wait and wait and nothing, until he pops out from a totally different place for a great scare.

Besides the scenes in the funhouse, there’s some good scenes with the other parts of the carnival. One that sticks out is the magician, Marco the Magniicent, who is dressed up like Dracula and played by genre favorite, William Finley (Phantom of Paradise, Eaten Alive). During his act, he pulls a young woman out of the audience and sticks her in a stand up coffin. Most the crowd doesn’t care and are bored. He suddenly changes that when he sticks a stake through her heart and blood starts to pour out her mouth. Marco starts to panic and so does the crowd as he asks is there a doctor in the house. As he opens the casket we are all fooled by his trick and it turns out the young woman is fine and now appears in a sequin dress. She’s all part of the act and Marco’s daughter. A great little scene that is pure carnival atmosphere.

There are also some interesting scenes with the little brother, Joey. If I were this kid I would be so traumatized by that night, and he didn’t even get trapped in the funhouse. There are a lot of creepy things that happen to this kid on his way to the carnival. One, he’s frightened by a dog and then harassed by a redneck in a truck who ask him if he needs a ride and then pulls out a rifle and aims it at him. Joey runs like hell as the redneck just laughs insanely.

Once at the carnival, Joey has fun for a little while, but then sticks around after it closes to see what happens to his sister and her friends. While snooping around by the funhouse, he’s grab by the mutant, but gets away to then be scared by a bag lady and then to be grabbed by one of the carnies. They end up calling his parents and they come to pick him up. There’s a real creepy scene with the carnie talking to the parents while Joey is passed out. He just stares at the kid weird in a pedophile way as wipes the sweat off his brow. That part is really creepy and I feel bad for that kid.

If you’re looking for a creepy scary horror carnival film, then The Funhouse is for you. The film is a horror classic and I never tire of watching it. It’s an excellent film by Hooper and a great all around suspenseful frightening film.