During the summer between my senior year of high school and my first year of college, I had a temporary gig assembling and disassembling a carnival. I got the job through my dad, who had a line on it through his connections on the military base where he worked. The carnival was set-up right outside the boundaries of the base--a shrewd location given the paucity of things for bored young servicemen to do in the vicinity. They raked in a ton of G.I. cash. I had an interesting view of it. I wasn't a carny, per se, but I got to move among them. The day workers they had working the joint were paid out of a trailer that doubled as an armored truck, and inside that trailer was an arsenal. There was also a drug concession, of course, and a fair amount of prostitution. There wasn't a freak show, but it was the sort of operation that would have HAD a freak show even five years earlier. It was pretty seedy, actually. After assembling and dismantling the various attractions at this carnival, I vowed that I would never, ever ride another carnival ride again. Ever. You know the cars at the end of the arms of The Octopus? They're held on by a single cotter pin. Or were at this particular carnival, anyway. The guns and the drugs made me uncomfortable, too. It's no wonder that Tod Browning set so many of his movies in a carnival. WhenI saw David Skal describe the horror genre as "Tod Browning's America" in The Monster Show, I realized that I had lived in that America for a week.
This was all in my head as I watched Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), a film that gets the ambiance of the carnival exactly right. This is something that I didn't know when I first saw the movie way back when it was first on cable. I hadn't worked the carnival yet. I remember disliking the grottiness of its setting, which turns out to have been a stupid opinion on my part. A horror movie is not obliged to polish off its rough edges to make its audience comfortable, after all, and if it knows what it's doing--and this one does--it can use that discomfort to its advantage. It's the same kind of trick that Hooper pulled in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the mood is everything.
The story here finds teenage final girl Amy heading out on a double date. Her father warns her to stay clear of the carnival, which has apparently been implicated in the disappearance of some kids in the next town over. This, of course, is exactly where Amy and her friends are heading. Amy's kid brother, Joey, sneaks out and heads to the carnival as a kind of tag-along, unbeknownst to Amy. The movie spends a fair amount of time wandering around the carnival before it gets to its actual horror plot, in which our protagonists play some of the carnival games, ride the rides, peep at the peep show, and get their fortune told by Madame Zena. It's during this part of the movie that the feel of the carnival really kicks in. There's something vaguely off about things, whether it's the various decorations that all have a veneer of filth or the way most of the carnival barkers are played by the same actor. The plot kicks in after Richie, the idiot male half of the other couple, gets the bright idea that they should stay the night in the funhouse, where they can fool around to their hearts' content. It's here that they witness the lumbering carny in a Frankenstein mask murder Madame Zena after he pays her a hundred bucks for a hand job. The head carny--Frankenstein's father, it turns out--is appalled that he would kill a member of the "family", but sets him after our heroes anyway.
The main trouble with The Funhouse is that it's not very well written. The contrivances required to put its characters in the right place to initiate the plot are completely forced and there's a troubling lack of empathy for our lead characters. They aren't particularly likable, for one--they're the kind of kids who giggle inappropriately at everything; you've probably seen them at movie theaters in recent years--and they're actually pretty goddamn stupid for another. Hooper tries gamely to make a silk purse out of the screenplay he's been handed--scenarist Lawrence Block (not the mystery novelist) is only credited with one more movie besides this one and it's Albert Pyun's execrable version of Captain America--but he can only do so much. This would be a theme for Hooper during the next decade. Whatever their sundry virtues, movies like Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and Spontaneous Combustion all suffer from rot on the page. The Funhouse is a lot more interesting than Hooper's later films, though, because his heart still seemed to be in it. He turns what's could be a not bad movie into a barely not great movie.
It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see the broad outlines of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre repeated here, whether it's the snotty bourgeois kids wandering out of their depth or the depraved family that destroys them. It's made even more explicit when the carny in the mask is revealed to be hideously deformed beneath it. He's Leatherface wearing, well, another face. Hooper explicitly contrasts this with Amy's family, who we see at the beginning of the movie, and in doing so, he makes concrete an idea that he elided in TCM: that the family unit is essentially corrupt.
The Funhouse differs from TCM in a couple of interesting ways. First: where TCM dwelt in the shadow of Ed Gein, The Funhouse chooses a different bogeyman as its point of reference: John Wayne Gacy. The thread of pedophilia that runs through this film is strong. Gacy was a clown, after all, and the filmmakers milk this. It also shows the growing influence of Stephen King on horror movies. Of course, Hooper had filmed 'Salem's Lot for television a couple of years earlier, and he takes from that experience the idea of the monster kid as protagonist. Amy's brother, Joey, is the quintessential monster kid, with a room full of posters of the Universal horror movies--Frankenstein is the most prominent of them, natch--rubber masks, and the other paraphernalia of the pre-adolescent horror fan. We're introduced to Joey in an opening scene that pays sly homage to both Halloween and Psycho. He's a character who is steeped in horror. Joey is also the character at the focal point of the pedophiliac elements of the movie. When he's out on his own, late at night, he screams "target." When a stranger offers him a ride, we know only bad can come of it. Later, a carny gazes at him a bit too wistfully for the audience's comfort.
This is a movie that likes to play games with its surfaces, too. The stalking sequence that opens the movie proves to be harmless. Madame Zena's accents drops when she gets pissed. A two-bit magician flubs a trick only to reveal that the girl who has seemingly been impaled is actually his assistant. And the guy in the mask is even more deformed than the mask he wears. Even more interesting is the way it muddies the debate on the authorship of Poltergeist. So many elements of this film reappear in Poltergeist that they act as a kind of refutation of the notion that Hooper was only the remote control creature for Steven Spielberg. The same sense of the mundane made horrifying--learned from King--is present in this movie in spades. Some of the imagery carries over: The clown imagery in particular, but there's also a strong resemblance between Elizabeth Berridge's character here and Dominique Dunne's character in Poltergeist. If the elements of The Funhouse are similar enough to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to make an argument for Hooper as an auteur--and I think they are--then what are we to make of the thematic similarities with Poltergeist. This is all speculation, of course, and probably not very fruitful.
The Funhouse is interesting for its relationship to its specific sub-genre, too. It's a slasher film, of course, but it deviates significantly from slasher film orthodoxy. I mean, we know at the outset that Elizabeth Berridge is the final girl, but she doesn't behave like a final girl. She smokes pot and she loses her virginity in The Funhouse. The way the movie is structured places this event right before the bad craziness of the plot, and it's as if her sexual awakening has also awakened some kind of raging id. The titular funhouse becomes a tunnel to conduct Amy from innocence to experience, or from adolescence to adulthood. It's significant, too, that Joey remains outside the funhouse. He's not ready to leave childhood behind, it seems, and he's found by his parents and taken back into their arms. What we DON'T get in this movie is a sense of punishment. This does not moralize the way slasher films usually moralize. In all, this is a very different movie than I remembered, but then, I've been through that journey from innocence to experience, too. I've gazed through the carnival glass and I've seen myself in the funhouse mirror. It changes a person.