March 13, 2015 This Week in Horror Movie History – The Funhouse (1981)
This Friday the 13th marks the 34th anniversary of The Funhouse, released in the US on March 13, 1981 through Universal Pictures. Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974, Poltergeist 1982) directed this dark ride with a script from first time scriptwriter Lawrence Block (Captain America 1990), while both Steven Bernhardt (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969, The Big Bounce 1969) and Derek Power (Highlander 1986, Lionheart 1990) co-produced. With music by John Beal (The Dukes of Hazzard series, The Matrix 1999) and special effects by J.B. Jones (Cape Fear 1991, The Crow 1994), The Funhouse stars Elizabeth Berridge (The John Larroquette Show series, Hidalgo 2004), Cooper Huckabee (Gettysburg 1993, Django Unchained 2012), Largo Woodruff (Bill 1981, The Ladies Club 1986), Miles Chapin (Howard the Duck 1986, The People vs. Larry Flynt 1996), Wayne Doba (Scarface 1983, Monkeybone 2001) and Herb Robins (The Worm Eaters 1977, Convoy 1978).
Filmed in Miami, Florida, for their more relaxed child labor laws, the movie garnered some bad luck, with Tobe Hooper being bitten by a brown recluse spider and then almost getting killed by a flying cog, saved by an extra who broke their arm in the process. A carnival ride carrying several passengers was accidentally left on for almost half an hour, and although no one was seriously injured once it stopped, the thrillseekers were left vomiting and unable to walk. Dean Koontz wrote a more in-depth novelization of the story under the pseudonym Owen West, and because of a delay in the film’s post-production, the movie is often mistakenly referred to as being based on the Koontz/West book, rather than the other way around. A close look at the three barkers in The Funhouse will show that they were all played by the same actor, Kevin Conway, who only agreed to be in the movie on the condition that he get to play all three parts. The two headed cow and the cleft palate cow from the sideshow were both real animals, and not in any way animatronic.
The movie starts with the masked Joey (Shawn Carson: Something Wicked This Way Comes 1983) attacking his sister Amy (Berridge) in the shower with a rubber knife, an homage to both Psycho (1960) and Halloween (1978). Although her parents (Jeanne Austin, Jack McDermott) warn her about previous carnival disappearances and of dating blue collar workers, Amy has already decided to go that night with her friends, Richie (Chapin) and Liz (Woodruff), and first date gas station attendant, Buzz (Huckabee).
The teens watch boring magic shows and stare at deformed cows, and as the night winds down, they decide to spend the night inside the funhouse ride. They witness a Frankenstein’s monster mask wearing carnival ride attendant grunt his way though a failed sexual encounter with the fortune teller, ending with him slamming her into the ride’s fuse box, killing her and turning the ride back on. When the attendant’s dad, the carnival manager, shows up and realizes that there are kids in the ride who have witnessed the fortune teller’s murder, he works his yelping son up, getting him to yank off his mask and reveal a monstrous face – pure white skin and frizzy hair, ruby red eyes, a severely cleft palate and fangs. He sends the now furious monster out after the kids. As the teens run through the surreal and ridiculous funhouse animatronics, Richie and Liz are trapped and killed. Buzz gets the upper hand on the carnival manager and shoves him into a conveniently sharp prop sword, saving Amy and proving blue collar boyfriends can be pretty great. When the monster sees his dead father, he howls and attacks Buzz, killing him. The final confrontation between the monster and Amy has the girl hiding under the ride with the engines, chains, and cogs that power the funhouse. When the monster finds her, she forces him onto a set of chained hooks that carry him, screaming, through a pair of Volkswagen sized meshing gears. As dawn breaks, Amy stumbles out into the light as the fat lady animatronic perched atop the ride laughs and the carnival workers glance at her knowingly.
With a total gross of almost eight million dollars, The Funhouse was Tobe Hooper’s first big budget success, producing a VHS release in 1987, a DVD release in 1999, and a Blu-ray release in 2011 by Universal Home Entertainment. By combining the safe, scary platform of a child’s ride with actual blood and mayhem, Hooper created a realistically evil atmosphere that will make watchers question the intentions of every dark ride from then on out. Gene Siskel gave The Funhouse a positive review in the Fangoria #15 issue from 1981, while armchair critics on Rotten Tomatoes give the film a 62% fresh rating. Unsuccessfully prosecuted as a video nasty in the UK in the mid-eighties, some suggest the film was erroneously chosen over Last House on Dead End Street (1977), also known as The Fun House, a movie more fitting of the video nasty title. While not considered a classic in the Horror community, The Funhouse is one of Hooper’s top films and a fun (dark) ride to boot.