“When you’re stoned, Charles Manson is a terrific guy.”
Throw in direction by the man who brought the world The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and you have all the ingredients for a horror classic. But does Funhouse (1981) deliver the scares?
The setup oozes potential. Four teens, two boyfriend-girlfriend pairs, visit a seedy carnival and decide to do the unthinkable – spend the night inside. The story follows Amy Harper, played by Elizabeth Berridge. Amy is a quiet, shy girl who isn’t sure how far she really wants the sexual relationship with her boyfriend to progress. Okay, nothing we haven’t seen in countless other teen horror movies.
After purchasing tickets for the funhouse ride, they bail from their cars in the middle of the ride while the carnival workers aren’t looking. Unbeknownst to the teens, Amy’s little brother, Joey, a horror nut who likes to play scary pranks on his sister, has followed the teens to the carnival. Joey is the only one who notices when the teens never emerge from the funhouse.
To this point, the movie seems to be moving along perfectly. But once inside the funhouse, the movie begins to fall short of my heightened expectations. For one thing, I never feel immersed in this perfect setting. The camera shows bits and pieces of the funhouse, but I never get a sense of the internal creepiness. In my opinion, a few scenes could have utilized a point of view camera to immerse viewers.
A disturbing murder scene follows; the teens spy the killing through a crack in the floorboards. A carnival worker hiding behind a Frankenstein mask turns out to be a hideous monster once unmasked. As it turns out, the monster gets a little too excited now and then and decides to kill people, which always requires a coverup. The teens learn the monster has killed people in other towns, and they are about to escape unscathed, but…
One of the boys drops an item through the crack in the floor. Now the monster is aware of the teens’ presence. Let the stalk-and-murder commence!
While I’m a fan of Funhouse, I feel the movie falls short of its limitless potential. The monster/killer/thing appears disturbing yet is nowhere near as frightening as Hooper’s Leatherface or Carpenter’s Michael Myers. Amy, the final girl, is a survivor seemingly by pure chance rather than fortitude, and this is no more evident than in the semi-climactic final showdown.
I always feel I am being too hard on Funhouse. Truth be told, it probably ranks in the top third of my favorite slasher horror movies. My disappointment is similar to having a child who pulls solid B’s on every report card but possesses the potential to be valedictorian. Funhouse could have, and should have, been so much more. It should rank right beside Friday the 13th as an absolute staple in the slasher horror category.
I groan whenever Hollywood rolls out another remake, but if any 1980s slasher movie deserves a remake, it might be Funhouse.
For fans of the slasher sub-genre, I recommend the Funhouse collector’s edition on Bluray. For those of you looking for a different take on the Funhouse movie and deeper characterizations, I heartily recommend Dean Koontz’s novel, The Funhouse. This screenplay novelization was written under Koontz’s pseudonym, Owen West. Because the film production was delayed, the book ended up being released before the film reached theaters.