October 19, 2011

Horror-A-Day: The Funhouse

I have made a lot of poor decisions when it comes to my movie decisions during this horror-centric month. I understand this and take full responsibility for it. However, there are some lines I will not cross and that is the one where I don't shift some blame. That is right, I am tossing some blame your way. I understand that my viewing experience, across the spectrum, has some massive holes in it and it is a constant work in progress. There is no excuse for not recommending good movies, even those you think I may have seen. The fact is, I may not. Anyway, this particular film is one that I had heard of but had never previously seen. Now, having seen it, I have been told by a couple of friends that this is among their favorites. Thanks for letting me in on the secret.

This movie takes us back to the earlier days of the slasher film. Opening in March of 1981, it had a modest opening and what has to be considered a disappointing run. It is none other than The Funhouse directed by Tobe Hooper, who will always have a place in the horror world when he brought is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now, this movie came a few movies later and was the last film he made prior to working Steven Spielberg to give us Poltergeist.

The Funhouse could easily be described as a slasher film, but it is actually more than that. Well, maybe not more, perhaps more like sideways from the slasher film. It is almost a slasher film by default with its touches of the monster movie. However you want to slice it, it is a definite slice of early 80's horror. It is a gritty little movie that has the hallmarks of Hooper's Chainsaw work, only not quite as nerve gratingly intense. It does have an intensity all its own and stands up as a solid piece of horror.

The story follows Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) as she heads out on a double date with Buzz, Liz, and Richie. They head off to the carnival, which recently hit town. They go and do the usual carnival things. They go on rides, check out the magic show, take a look at the freaky animals, and all other manner of things. Things don't start going sideways until Richie suggests they spend the night in the funhouse. You know, go inside on the ride, hope off at some point and just don't come out. Typical teenage stuff, stay after hours and fool around some.

Well, it seems like a foolproof plan. The thing is, they then see a guy in a Frankenstein mask get some "services" from the carnival's fortune teller. When it ends too quickly and he wants his money back, she refuses and he kills her. The teens witness this, are seen, and now become targets.

The Frankenstein guy is the deformed son of the carnival barker, and they figure they will be able to kill the witnesses, dump the bodies, and head out on the road with no one the wiser. Of course, they underestimate our hero girl. What follows is a series of stalking altercations leading up to the inevitable finale.

The Funhouse got me thinking that you don't really see any traveling carnivals anymore, or at least I don't. With this movie, Hooper successfully captures the fun that can be had, but also a great sense of unease and creepiness that goes with carny folk. There is something that feels naturally uneasy. Hooper does a great job of creating an incredible atmosphere and populating its people that feel genuine for the time. It feels natural. He has also given us a unique creature and a story that is not about origins or where it came from, just that it is, it is trying to cover up a mistake and its targets are fighting back.

The opening scene is brilliant as Tobe Hooper pays homage to Hitchcock's Psycho and Carpenter's Halloween. It is Hooper showing respect for what may be the two most influential films on the slasher sub genre. Even it it wasn't, it is still a great tone setting scene. He also knows how to ramp up the tension during the film's final act. The monster has this shriek that is rather terrifying and it pops out of nowhere. Also, Berridge has quite the set of pipes. The girl can scream! It's too bad that it appears she hasn't done any more horror.

The bottom line is that this is a solid movie and a good example of Hooper in his prime. No, it is not TCM, and we can be thankful for that, we don't need a rehash of that (oops, too late). What this does is take the grimy, atmospheric, danger around every corner aesthetic he used there and moved it to a locale a bit more relatable. He does this while still giving  it a great sense of unease and dread.

Not the best I have ever seen, but wow, it is really quite good. I am happy to be in on the secret (that may not be all that secret).

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