If it seemed like it took an inordinately long time for someone to finally get the bright idea to set a horror movie on Halloween, it seems nearly as odd that it took until 1981 for a horror movie to be set in the naturally scary environment of a funhouse. But luckily when it did finally happen, the honors fell to Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, who didn't blow the opportunity.
Even though The Funhouse begins unpromisingly with an already-tired rip-off of Halloween's opening (with a POV shot of a knife-wielding masked figure approaching a female victim) and a beyond-tired reference to Psycho (the masked figure's victim is innocently showering, natch), only to reveal it all as a juvenile prank (the knife is a rubber novelty item) played by a kid brother (Shawn Carson as Joey) on his older sister (Elizabeth Berridge as Amy) there's a larger point that's being made. Joey uses a phony knife to "get" his sister but just a few scenes later, a total stranger in a pick-up truck will pull up next to Joey on the street and point a real shotgun at him, causing him to flee in terror and for the unknown driver to laugh at how well he "got" Joey.
Hooper pointedly shows throughout The Funhouse that safe facsimiles of horror and violence are always a step away from the real thing - and that one doesn't necessarily prepare us for the brutality of the other. Much as Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968) set everyday horror in contrast to fictional horror by depicting an aging horror star (Boris Karloff, in one of his last roles) confronting a sociopathic sniper, so to is Hooper's Funhouse concerned with the theme of fantasy horror vs. real horror as its four young heroes wander amid harmless prop ghouls, spiders, and skeletons as they try to elude a pair of actual killers. Ironically, as in Targets, the face of classic Hollywood horror is once again represented by Karloff with one character hiding his freakish appearance behind the 'acceptable' deformity of a Frankenstein's Monster mask.
Once Funhouse's double-dating protagonists (Amy, her date Buzz - played by Cooper Huckabee - and a second couple, Liz and Ritchie - played by Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin) begin their night out at a traveling carnival (a carnival that Amy's parents cautioned her to stay away from, of course), strolling the grounds, sampling the rides, and exploring the carnival's many tents (including a magic act and exhibits of real-life freaks of nature, like a cleft-headed cow), they wander past the funhouse many times before going in, as though unconsciously circling their own doom (in a nice touch, the funhouse itself is ringed with red-white-and-blue pleated flags and bunting as though Hooper is noting that there's something just as all-American about the inescapable darkness and misery of those living within its walls as there is about the carefree kids who venture inside on a lark). Today, no studio would permit such a leisurely build-up but many of The Funhouse's best moments take place prior to its characters entering the funhouse - including brief appearances by actors William Finley as Marco the Magnificent and Sylvia Miles as fortune teller Madame Zena.
Inside the funhouse, where the thrill-seeking foursome impetuously decide to hide overnight, the kids inadvertently witness the murder of Madame Zena at the hands of the carnival barker's deformed son. Determined not to let the kids leave the funhouse alive, the carnival barker (Kevin Conway, seen earlier as two other entirely different barkers - as though he represents an omnipresent figure of fate) and his son (well-played by mime Wayne Doba, with make-up designed by Rick Baker) stalk the kids and even though they're out-numbered, the barker and his son possess the homefield advantage, making the funhouse itself their ally. The Funhouse is mounted with much style - thanks in great part to the contributions of production designer Mort Rabinowitz (all the props seen in the funhouse are terrific) and cinematographer Andrew Laszio, who somehow makes the film appear both authentically seedy and yet lushly cinematic (For a low budget film, this has a really striking look to it. One scene in an air shaft looks as though it was inspired - in its cramped claustrophobia and strobe lighting - by Ridley Scott's then-recent Alien).
As Amy's friends are slain one by one and she inevitably becomes the film's Final Girl, her survival depends in part on her ability to discern the real threats she faces from the inanimate props of the funhouse (as the tagline cautioned "Something is alive in the funhouse!"). In The Funhouse's last ten minutes, Hooper delivers a frenetic, frenzied finale as the son becomes crushed within the giant gears of the funhouse itself.
Hooper's post-Chainsaw work has often been slagged as being sub-par but while a lot of troubled films do bear his name, I think he has a better body of work than most have bothered to acknowledge. And for me, The Funhouse remains one of his best efforts. Self-aware about the role horror plays in our fantasy lives, Hooper's film illustrates how easily play horror can be switched with the real thing.