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Review: The Funhouse (1981)

Reviewer Nathan Smith


Tobe Hooper followed up his 1979 TV movie Salem's Lot with this excursion into more grounded terror similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like that film, it is a slow burn that builds and builds to a terrifying climax.

In the film, four teenagers, Amy and Buzz and Richie and Liz decide to go out for a night of fun at the carnival despite the fact that Amy's father forbids her to seeing as the last town that the carnival went through two girls turned up dead. But that would be a short movie and Amy decides to go anyways followed by her annoying brother who pranked her earlier that night and was also threatened by her that she would get him back. So, they partake in some fairly devious activities as teenagers do and they head to the carnival. They arrive at the carnival but they don't take anything seriously, they play a few games, attend a strip show and get grossed out by a freak show (perhaps a foreshadow?). Then, their fun becomes short-lived as they receive ominous threats from a creepy bag lady and draw the ire of a fortune teller.

In the distance looms the funhouse, and the kids decide that this is where they'll take their fun next. But a collective lightbulb pops up over the group, why don't we stay the night in the funhouse? So they make their phone calls and head on in. Outside the funhouse, they see a barker and a chap in a Frankenstein mask they'd seen lurking around the strip show. So they head on in for the ride of their lives. They soon discover that they are in fact trapped inside with a monster they'll have to fight or die fighting. Of course, on the outside, Amy's brother still shows that there is hope for them yet.

The Funhouse provides a creepy fun atmosphere as it should, the creature could jump out anywhere at anytime. There is a line of black humor that runs throughout the film as the monster pays to sleep with the fortune teller but is not as well at intimacy as he is at maiming and murdering. One of the girls, Liz, even offers herself to the monster in an attempt to escape but fails miserably. The brother angle doesn't pay off as it should because he lets no one on to the fact that kids are trapped inside the attraction. Of course, the monster does not cut a sympathetic cloth doing what he should, scaring the hell out of people. One of the best scenes, in the film, is the magic show with a hammy magician called Marco the Magnificent played expertly as always by Bill Finley from Dressed to Kill and most recently The Black Dahlia. The scene provides a little comic relief in a very tense show. Another thing is like Black Christmas or Just Before Dawn the filmmakers don't need to give a backstory or elaborate on what the monster is or where he came from.

The actors are great and are innately believable as 80's era teenagers. You believe that these are just kids who want to have some fun as end up losing their lives in the process. Elizabeth Berridge went on to perform in Amadeus and keep a sharp eye on Kevin Conway playing not one, not two, but three roles as barkers of the various shows. Dean Koontz even wrote a novelization of The Funhouse under the pseudonym Owen West so for those completists who need everything should hunt the book down. So step right up... you know what they say pay to get in, pray to get out.



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