From among the Video Nasties

There will never come a time when the career of director Tobe Hooper isn't sad: the fella makes one timeless all-American cinematic masterpiece in the form of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then never comes within leagues of the same quality ever again. To be frank, most of his post-TCM career is legitimately terrible, with only a smattering of minor bright points reminding us that the man had any talent at all. These all came right in a stretch between 1979 and 1982: first up was the two-part television film Salem's Lot, the least of which we can say is that it's among the better Stephen King adaptations (and probably the only outright good one made for TV), though Hooper was hemmed in by television standards & practices, and last was Poltergeist, where the director was at best enacting Steven Spielberg's vision rather than supplying one of his own. That leaves just the film in the middle, The Funhouse, to stand alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the totalty of the R-rated, unfiltered Hooper that doesn't mostly suck.

And even here "doesn't mostly suck" is doing a lot of work to make The Funhouse sound like more than it is. Oh, it's a solid slasher film, notably good even by the standards of that genre in its annus mirabilis of 1981. But I do not think that most people would weigh this on the one hand and TCM on the other and declare, "yes indeed, I think that these two movies are achievements on roughly the same order". The Funhouse has a decent number of things going for it, mostly to do with its pretty unique setting and a rather more sophisticated approach to its villain than in just about any other early slasher. It's also full of the usual generic slasher movie bits and pieces assembled with little to no distinction. The film is maybe a case of putting lipstick on a pig, but in this case it was an expert team of cosmetologists.

It's nice and clean and simple: we've got ourselves a mildly rebellious high school student named Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), planning a first date with the hunky Buzz (Cooper Huckabee). They're headed on a double date to the carnival in town with Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin), over the express orders of Amy's father (Jack McDermott), who is saddled with the unhappy duty of explaining the backstory: seems that a few people went missing at this same carnival, when it was parked in another town not too far away last summer, and obviously Dad suspects that it was those ghastly, untrustworthy Carnival Folk what were responsible. Spoiler alert: he is completely correct. As indeed he'd have to be, given that his entire scene with Amy is transparently designed as a delivery method of supplying the audience with the information that death stalks this particular carnival, and McDermott recites the information in one long, steady exhalation that appears to have been written without punctuation marks. Anyway, Amy has told him they're all going to a movie, and despite her being the worst imaginable liar, he believes her.

So off to the carnival we go! A night of gawking at the sideshows and riding on the rides and eating the indescribably awful food later, Richie comes up with a terrible, wonderful, awful idea: why don't they sneak into the funhouse until the carnival closes, and spend the whole night screwing? The "screwing" part is implicit, barely. The girls are clearly not excited about this, and even Buzz needs to be goaded into it by having his masculinity threatened, but in short order, all of them are are camped out in the dark, necking. Two things they are unaware of: Amy's little brother Joey (Shawn Carson) sneaked after them to the carnival, and he knows they never came out of the funhouse; and the funhouse owner (Kevin Conway) has a son (Wayne Doba) who is badly deformed, and who has a bad habit of stealing and murdering locals in the towns where the carnival stops over.

Just slightly past the film's halfway point, the teens figure out the latter of these truths (Joey, meanwhile, gets found and sent home, leaving behind him a subplot that could have been outright without the least effect on the rest of the film). The deformed young man, at this point still wearing the Frankenstein's monster mask he wears while operating the funhouse, has paid for the sexual favors of the carnival's fortune teller, Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles), and when he ejaculates prematurely, he shoves her into a transformer and then strangles her to death out of humiliation. He does this, mind you, right underneath the room where our protagonists have been canoodling, and they see the whole thing through the floorboards. By this point, the ride has been locked, and the teens are now stuck in a building filled top-to-bottom with unpleasant-looking scary gewgaws while being hunted by both the crafty father and the brutal son.

As a framework for a routine "kill the transgressing teenagers" picture, this is solid enough, and there's some added interest in the way that screenwriter Lawrence Block and Hooper build up to the moment at which our quartet realises that they're in major trouble. I mentioned that Madame Zena's murder occurs right in the middle - 48 minutes into a 95-minute feature - and what's interesting is that nothing prior to her death is explicitly the stuff of horror cinema. Other than Amy's dad and his foreboding, that hasn't been anything that implies even a little bit that death and terror wait offstage. Yet large swaths of the movie are enormously unsettling and creepy, starting right from the opening credits: there are many close-ups of those singularly uncanny animated mannequins they used to have in low-rent dark rides (and the film's funhouse is in fact a dark ride), rocking back and forth and emitting some kind of sub-human noise, shown within black frames that "slide" open; meanwhile, John Beal's excellent score chatters with mindless carnivalesque frenzy on the soundtrack. It is not pure, mindblowing horror, but there's a nice sense of disquiet that the film kicks up immediately, playing on the natural off-putting quality of dolls and ventriloquists' dummies and other such lifeless plaster humanoids to make us feel like something is anyway distinctly not right with the environment we're about to enter.

That's more or less the mode that the entirety of the opening 48 minutes operate in. Carnivals are, of course, mildly threatening places to begin with: tinny music coming from every imaginable source, hucksters and barkers shouting in their rhythmic, hectoring cadence, and the brightly colored lighting offering a sense of visual disease to the humid night. Add in the carnivals that have proper old-fashioned sideshows, and you've got a whole new level of creepiness: sweaty, sad peepshows with oily men hawking barely-clad women gyrating with no life in their eyes, the promise of obscene crimes against nature, sordid pandering to the basest desires of people to see exaggerated repulsion carved out of what would otherwise be merely sad. Hooper and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo capture this grimy, gloomy environment with quite a bit of flair for squalor: the exterior carnival set offers the impression that in the blackness outside the reach of the colored lights there is nothing but cosmic emptiness. It's a dark film, The Funhouse is, and it leaves the viewer feeling rather disturbed in a light, barely-describable way. Not to mention the small number of awe-inspiring crane shots, as the camera rises high above the midway (or descends into it) from an almost godlike height.

Then there is the matter of the sideshow acts: at times, it's not necessary to do more than point the camera and stare, as when the teens visit a tent full of mutated animals listlessly standing around. Or, even more, when they spy on a peep show, with Hooper recruiting several actual strippers from the crummy strip clubs around southern Florida (where the film was shot) to leer back at the crowd even harder than the crowd is leering at them, while the barker (Kevin Conway again - he plays three barkers, in fact, each progressively seedier) mindlessly intones crude comments too crass to be jokes and so shapeless they barely qualify as thoughts. There's a monotonous magician (William Finley) wearing a thick coat of white greasepaint as he sucks down a flask angrily spits out some patter about Vlad the Impaler before driving a stake through his pretty assistant, sounding like a third-tier impressionist failing to sound like Hunter S. Thompson, and it's the best thing this movie could have: it's tacky, aggressive, and unbearably cheap. Madame Zena, before her death, lifelessly offers a trite palm reading for Amy, and as the kids mock her, switches from corny gypsy shtick to snarl "I'll break every bone in your fuckin' bodies!" with the raw voice of a life of drinking and cigarettes (Miles is, by an unfathomable margin, the biggest name in the cast, and you can tell in her performance how much more she's thinking about the choices she's making than most everyone else - though Conway comes fairly close). Hell, even the women's room is as dimly-lit as an after-hours morgue, the better not to have to see how filthy it is.

It is a magnificent sense of place and atmosphere, all things considered. Hooper and his crew don't just capture the oil-coated sliminess of a carnival, and the ominous feeling imparted by all that mindless noise; they also get at something of how sad and low-rent a carnival can be as it starts to age. The Funhouse, in its opening half, is honest-to-God great in the way it captures a sense of worn-out grotesqueness, and it's really not any kind of surprise that it starts to run out of steam right about the time that it fully commits to being a by-the-books slasher movie. It's not without its strengths; the funhouse itself is a great set, full of chintzy effects whose very crudeness somehow makes them more threatening, both since they are so unequivocally real, and since the place feels rundown enough that if the killers don't get the kids, the funhouse itself might (best touch at evoking the low-rent crappiness of the place: at one point in this horror ride, we see a Humpty Dumpty robot dancing at the edge of a river. It neatly suggests how this kind of cheapjack dark ride is made up of whatever castoffs can be gotten at a discount, whether they're always the "right" choice). And the more we see of the relationship between the sociopathic barker and his son, the more interesting it is: Daddy is a passive-aggressive emotional abuser who then immediately feels terrible about it, and the son ricochets from feelings of great filial tenderness to the only person who loves him, to animal rage at being demeaned and mocked even by that same man. As characters, they're the best thing The Funhouse has on offer, and the performances are solid too: Conway I've already mentioned admiring, for his ability to balance three characters and for the fatherly pride he manages to exude for his only living son, while Doba, a trained mime, does unexpected, interesting things with his character's movements that are refreshingly different from the usual stuntman hulking and stalking around.

The rest, though, is rough. Teens in slasher movies aren't noted for being terribly interesting, but the cast of The Funhouse is entirely disposable - between them, they have only one identifiable personality trait (Amy is a horny virgin), unless "I want to slap Richie till his coke bottle glass spin around his head" is a personality trait. This was the same situation in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but there it added to the curt documentary feeling; here, one just gets the feeling that Hooper wasn't great with actors. And I have to say, while the funhouse set is too great for a director who's not actively incompetent to fuck it up - and Hooper's emphatically not incompetent and never was - there's no particularly intriguing staging, and indeed there are a couple of times when the blocking makes it actively hard to tell where characters are relative to each other. Which is not to say there are only such moments: every now and then, Hooper comes out with a surprising visual, like the one dead corpse that comes out draped across the arms of an animatronic clown like a savage parody of a PietΓ . A couple of other moments stand out: Liz's death, which is brutal and disturbing enough to memorable, though not in an especially good way. But the Final Girl stand-off is excellent, the camera stalking around Amy like a big cat, as she stands in a room full of whirring cables and chains in the foreground and background.

It's better than an average slasher; but it's not enough so to count as great. And there are some other weak points besides the generally straightforward and unexceptional final half: the first scene in particular is full of things I wish weren't there, including a jokey reference to Psycho alongside the non-joking overt theft of the opening scene in Halloween. And there is an utterly tasteless shower scene centered on Berridge, 18 at the time of filming and playing a character implicitly 17, and including a short tilt from her face to her soap-covered breasts: for just one moment, we're in the realm of actual porn, not exploitation. I suppose it fits in with the sense of seedy ugliness that fuels the whole movie, but still.

The overall feeling of The Funhouse, though, is that it's all good fun. For all that the film is for grown-ups - even, inexplicably, landing on the Department of Public Prosecution's infamous "Video Nasties" list in the UK - the sensibility is 100% in line with a haunted house like its title location, a place where you go as a kid to be jolted by cheesy, easy scares, and to enjoy the sense of overblown atmosphere. No horror classic is this, but it has the right texture to stand above the chaff of a genre that's frequently just plain awful. The Funhouse has its glaring shortcomings, but it's never close to that bad.

Body Count: 6, as well as a girl who is not impaled to death by a magician, though his trick involves more stage blood than at least four of the actual violent deaths

Nastiness Rating: 2/5, not very Nasty. This is a shockingly bloodless slasher movie by the standards of the day, and the monster makeup is too obviously fake to disturb anybody with an age in the double digits. Basically from the very beginning, people have assumed that it got on the DPP's radar by accident, probably on account of being confused with the by-all-accounts deeply upsetting 1977 release The Last House on Dead End Street, which was at one point known as The Fun House. That being said, the stopover with the deformed animals is rather discomfiting indeed, and it's actually plausible that the DPP might have been a little put off by it.