Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Funhouse (1981)

Caution: Spoilers Galore

From Master of Horror Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) comes this frightening tale of teenage hijinx gone horribly wrong. The Funhouse brings together all the essential elements of a great horror film: lusty teens in heat, thrilling suspense, and violent death. The fact that this film boasts murderous carnies, mutated monsters, and a freak show doesn't hurt, either.

The movie opens with a nod to the memorable scene from Halloween in which a young Michael Myers prepares to murder his sister. A figure selects a mask from a wall in a room clearly occupied by a serious horror fan, and the viewer is treated to a stalkers-eye-view as the mysterious figure slowly makes his way down the hall toward the bathroom, where the buxom brunette Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is taking a shower. Amy screams while her attacker lunges at her, Psycho-style, through the shower curtain, wielding a vicious-looking knife. After a brief struggle, Amy tears off her assailant's mask and discovers that her little brother Joey (Shawn Carson) has just made her the target of a twisted practical joke. The kid can't be blamed for wanting to peep at his sister in the shower, really; she has excellent tits.

Downstairs, Amy's cold, soulless parents are watching The Bride of Frankenstein on television as she prepares for her date. While Amy's mother seems to care about nothing beyond finding her way to the bottom of her glass, her father shows some concern for his daughter. "I don't know where you're going tonight, but I don't want you going to that damn carnival. It's the same one that went through Fairfield last year when they found the bodies of those two little girls... They had to use dental charts to identify the bodies."

Amy lies to her parents, telling them that her date is taking her to the movies. When Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) arrives in front of her house and lays on the horn (the mark of a true gentleman), Amy leaps up anxiously and heads out the door. They pick up their friends, Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin), which completes the perfectly balanced lineup of potential victims: the good girl, the bad girl, the hunk, and the geek. If the viewer doesn't see a bloodbath coming at this point, the viewer should seek out a reputable opthometrist.

Amy and Buzz don't exactly hit it off right away. Amy is a textbook good girl, while Buzz gives the impression that he is a textbook boneheaded player-type. He must prove himself to his girl following the rules laid forth in The American Way Handbook: he wins her a stuffed panda playing strongman, and henceforth, Amy can't seem to stop undressing him with her eyes. After taking in a few of the carnival's main attractions, someone comes up with a most brilliant idea: let's pull an all-nighter in the funhouse so that we can get it on like wild pigs!


Little Joey, who snuck out of the house and followed his sister to the carnival, watches in confusion when Amey's cart comes back to the funhouse loading station empty. The strange carny in the Frankenstein mask (Wayne Doba) seems to notice something is amiss as well, but he doesn't pay the empty carts much attention. Having just come from the carnival strip show, he has other things on his mind.

He takes the fortune teller, Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles) back to the funhouse after the carnival has closed down for the night. Not knowing that Amy, Buzz, Liz, and Richie are watching from the cracks in the ceiling above, he proceeds to pay the saggy, old woman to perform sexual services on him. He hands the hag $100 from the cash box in exchange for quite possibly the quickest handjob in the history of sex, and gets more than a little worked up when Madame Zena moves to make her exit. "Do you actually think I would let you do it to me, you freak?" she says to him, realizing that he expected more than a few hurried tugs.

At this point, Frankendude blows his top completely, and strangles every last drop out of life out of the screaming hag. The teenagers upstairs become gravely silent as they realize they have just witnessed a murder, and begin searching in vain for a way out. Richie essentially seals their fate, however, when he pockets the rest of the money in the cash box while his friends' backs are turned. Clearly, this is a move destined to come back to bite him - all of them - in the ass later on in the film.

"Relax... Just relax... Oh, too late."

When Frankendude's father, the carnival barker (Kevin Conrad), realizes that his son has killed one of their own, and furthermore, that all of his money is gone, a conflict ensues which reveals Frankendude for what he truly is: a grotesquely deformed monster! He howls, shrieks, and drools while the kids look down in terror. A lighter slips from Richie's fingertips. Their presence has been discovered.

It's all zing-zang action from here on in. First, Richie is torn away from the group, and is later nailed in the face with an axe by Buzz, who thinks Richie is an approaching attacker. Liz joins him on The Other Side shortly after, when she falls through a trap door and is menaced by the drooling beast. This scene is particularly dazzling to the eye, as it takes place in front of a whirling fan, which creates a wonderfully-spooky strobe effect as the beautiful Liz pleads for her life. "I know you like girls," she says to the monster. "I can be nice to you... I can make you feel good." With the monster on top of her, groping her, she raises up a weapon and plunges it into his back, but it's of no use. Monsters never give up the ghost on the first try. Never.

Yet another fan technique is employed when Amy spots her parents on the carnival grounds outside, who had been called by a kindly worker who had discovered poor Joey in a catatonic state of shock. Like in so many other great horror films (most notably, Wes Craven's Last House on the Left), Amy can almost reach out and touch her salvation. However, no matter how much she screams, her voice is lost in the whir of the exhaust fan, and her parents drive away without the awareness that their daughter is about to be clawed to bits by an unspeakable beast.

Amy clings to Buzz, who appears to be her only hope in getting out of the funhouse alive. Not only is he sexy, but he is muscular and agile. If anyone can save her, Buzz can. He works in a filling station, after all. In the end, he succeeds in two very crucial tasks: 1) cutting the danger in half by impaling the carnival barker on a sword; and 2) multiplying the danger by ten when the monster realizes his father has been killed, and thus becomes (understandably) even more pissed off. Oh, baby! It's on, now!

Buzz eats it. It was a given. Unimaginable sounds spill out of Amy's throat as her man is carried across the floor, slain, by a mechanical clown. The way his body is draped over the clown is actually rather festive, while the other mechanisms inside the funhouse begin to come to life, creaking and groaning in a most unsettling way. Amy is a smart girl (who suffered a momentary lapse of reason when she allowed the tingling sensation in her bathing suit areas to override common sense), so she decides not to continue standing there, lamenting her dead hunk any longer. She goes off in search of some place to hide, for she knows it will only be a matter of time before the monster comes looking for her.

Amy takes an eerie walk through the funhouse before finally setting inside the nerve centre of place. Massive gears churn noisily about her, a mess of wires running everywhere while she searches for a place to curl up out of sight and wait for the monster to make his next move. He does not disappoint her, appearing suddenly in all his freakish glory. The climactic struggle between Amy and the Monster is decadent, violently erupting when the monster becomes caught on a hook, and is pulled into the giant gears which power the funhouse. His manic screams of pain almost overpower the eerie musical score (composed by John Beal) as he writhes, pulling Amey ever-closer to the churning mechanism.

Amy manages to pull away, and can only look on, mesmerized with terror, as the monster lets out his final wails of tortured agony. At last, the beast is dead, and Amy begins to make her way out of the funhouse, no doubt pondering how she will manage to get her mental state back in order in time for Prom.

The Funhouse is a gripping, thrill ride of a movie because it capitalizes on the suspicions many people harbour about carnival folk: that they are a bunch of drunken, criminal drifters to be avoided at all costs. In this movie, all of our worst fears about the seedy underbelly of carnival life are confirmed - and then some! Tobe Hooper proves with this film why he is one of the Masters, creating an atmosphere of spine-tingling suspense, peppered with gruesome, fear-inspiring imagery. The special effects are acceptable, leaving more to the imagination than many of the horror films that studios are barfing out today. The monster's makeup is outstanding, and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination, right down to the thick, sticky drool that oozes consistently from the his mouth.

As for the film's casting, I cannot say enough about Elizabeth Berridge's performance in the role of Amy. I found her to be very believeable, which is a rarity in the genre. Not only does the lovely brunette scream well, but she actually acts well, too. Those who have spent a lifetime watching entirely too much television may recognize Ms. Berridge from The John Larroquette Show, in which she played the dowdy, decidedly unattractive officer Eve Eggers. The first time I watched this movie, I thought to myself: "Hey... isn't that? No, it can't be!" After a brief stopover at the Internet Movie Database, I was amused to discover that, in fact, it was!

The other player of note in The Funhouse is Kevin Conrad, who portrayed the carnival barker. This guy looks like he actually could be a carny, and his creepy gaze is frightfully penetrating. As for the other actors, they weren't fantastic, but they also didn't blow the whole film with their inability. "Tolerably mediochre" would be an appropriate description of the supporting cast.

If nothing else, The Funhouse will have you wondering what lurks behind the scenes in every tent and trailer the next time you're riding The Cobra with your pals at the local fair.

5/5 Kitty Skulls = Pick of the litter!


The Elizabeth Berridge Website features some groovy Funhouse lobby cards, as well as more pictures and information about Ms. Berridge.


Karswell said...

One of my favorites Kitty, nice post... Funhouse is a perfect example of how to make a movie about an evil dark ride, unlike say the horrible film Dark Ride starring Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

Cool blog you have here, looking forward to more. Hope you dig up that early Bruce Campbell article you mentioned, would love to read it.

Kitty LeClaw said...

I haven't seen Dark Ride, but now you've got me curious, as I enjoy bad movies almost as much as good ones ;)

I'll send you a smoke signal when I resurrect Bruce. His comments were too surly to keep all to myself.

Re: The Funhouse, it is one of 3 films which renewed my faith in life itself. It's a crying shame that Eaten Alive didn't live up to my expectations, given my reverence almost everything else that Hooper has ever done. Not even Marilyn Burns could save that stinker! Motel + crocodiles should have = awesome, but it only succeeded in putting me to sleep.

Karswell said...

Eaten Alive is very overrated, kind of like the original Hills Have Eyes... what's all the hub bub? Mediocre City.

Kitty LeClaw said...

Yeah, I feel kind of guilty liking the Hills remake more than I liked the original. The concept is/was fantastic, but the film didn't really deliver the goods for me. Don't tell Wes. I don't want him to be all pissy and distant when we meet later this summer.

kindertrauma said...

Love this movie! You have to read the book by "Owen West" a.k.a DEAD KOONTZ, the last 30 pages or so cover what you see in the movie and all the rest is back story. It's almost like reading a prequel. After reading the book I decided that Amy is one of my favorite horror heroines. I like that she is normal and fallible and is never put on a pedestal as a perfect "good" girl. The book also extends her relationship to the monster and her parents are a much larger presence.

Kitty LeClaw said...

Kindertrauma: I've actually been sifting through all my local bookstores for that title for a number of years now. Given your recommendation, however, I may just have to break down and buy a copy online. Alas, I live in a small town in which the citizens must share the 3 books our Mayor was able to procure abroad.

I agree with your thoughts on Amy, even without having read the book. Because she is so "normal," I found it very easy to relate to her, and thus, to the horrible predicament she found herself in. Plus, I think Elizabeth Berridge is a goddess. She was stunning in Milos Forman's Amadeus.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Kitty LeClaw said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ruth! Glad you're having fun here @ the litterbox!