Much of Tobe Hooper’s output post-The Texas Chain Saw Massacre gets overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Poltergeist, his most successful film after TCM, is often largely credited to co-writer and producer Steven Spielberg, with many claiming Spielberg as the de facto director of the picture (I’d argue with this position, but that’s another topic for another day). Because of the shortcomings and relative failures of the films that followed Poltergeist, far too many critics write him off as a one-hit wonder, positing that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a fluke. That it was just one of those magical instances when the right team came together under the right conditions at the right time with the right idea, and that a masterpiece emerged from that collaboration.
This overlooks three of his best works, projects that are well worthy of re-evaluation. One is 1977’s Eaten Alive. (I’m saving that one for later in the month.) The second is 1979’s Salem’s Lot. (I’m considering this one pretty strongly for later this month.)
The other is 1981’s The Funhouse.
I have always loved this movie. I saw it long before I had seen TCM, and before I knew anything about Tobe Hooper’s career. Not having any expectations based on his career at that point, I went into it blindly and came away infatuated with it.
It’s not perfect, mind you. But then, few things are, and those things are almost too rare to approach. It’s often a thing’s flaws that make them memorable. It’s chief failing is being very slight in the plot department. Here’s the movie in a nutshell: two young couples (Amy and Buzz, Liz and Richie), against Amy’s parents’ advice, go to check out the carnival that’s set up shop in town. After an evening of getting high and taking in the carnival’s offerings, they decide to spend the night in the Funhouse dark ride. After the park closes, they see Gunther, the adopted (and horribly deformed) son of the ride’s barker kill the carnival’s fortune teller, Zena. Father and son realize that there are witnesses to the killing on the premises, and the kids are picked off one by one. That’s about it. And the movie runs 96 minutes.
Truth be told, the story proper doesn’t even start until about 40 minutes into the movie. Over a third of the movie is devoted to these kids exploring the carnival. Now, there’s a sub-plot about Amy’s younger brother Joey, who sneaks out of the house later that night and goes to the carnival on his own, but it’s a sub-plot that doesn’t really go anywhere and takes up a negligible amount of time.
What happens during that first 40 minutes, then? We get to tag along. And if you ever went to carnivals as a youngster during the era depicted in the movie, you’ll recognize everything that’s present. The “dancing girls” tent. The “freaks of nature” exhibit. The fortune teller. The two-bit magic show. The rides and barkers, the lights and noise, the sawdust-strewn ground, the “feats of strength,” the cheap eats… All that’s missing is the smell of cotton candy, animal waste and children’s vomit. It’s all just the right amount of wrong. Barkers are either too enthusiastic, too staged or too apathetic. There’s always a handful of questionable-looking people hanging around who may or may not actually work there. The seams are showing, and what they allow you to see is probably not what you want to see.
The performances, by and large, are pitched perfectly. Cooper Huckabee, as Buzz, exudes a kind of easygoing charm that’s almost Bridges brothers in effectiveness (if not Jeff-level, then at least Beau-level). Miles Chapin as Richie plays a variation of the grating douchebag that he made upbiquitous in the 1980s. Largo Woodruff as Liz is sharp but ultimately a bit too forgettable, and Elizabeth Berridge does an excellent job selling the fragile nature of Amy. The late, great William Finley and Sylvia Miles are exceptionally fun to watch in their roles as Marco the Magnificent and Zena the fortune-teller. The show-stealer, though, is Kevin Conway who plays all three of the carnival barkers we see: the freak show barker, the strip show barker and the Funhouse barker. Each character takes a distinctly different approach to his job, and Conway essays each of them to perfection. If not for the physical resemblance, you’d never know it was the same guy. And his back-and-forth with Gunther in the bowels of the Funhouse ride is incredibly well-done. It’s reminiscent of the interactions between the Cook and his siblings in TCM, but Conway doesn’t just deliver a carbon copy. His delivery is rich in emotion, but never over-the-top or melodramatic. It’s the kind of performance that people used to want to get out of Cameron Mitchell when they’d hire him for horror/exploitation flicks, yet somehow never got. It’s just handled beautifully.
Design-wise (always an interesting facet of Tobe Hooper’s work), the film is one of Hooper’s most visually appealing. He perfectly captures the kind of slap-dash, threadbare essence of the traveling carnival, where everything looks hastily set up and held together with bungee cords and luck. The lighting inside the ride (where most of the action takes place) is suitably garish and lurid, emphasizing the Tales From the Crypt/EC Comics feel that is so prevalent throughout the film. The physical design of the interior itself is by turns elaborate and homespun. There’s the typical cheap spider and skeleton against hand-painted backdrop décor, but then there’s also complex animatronics, an arresting giant lighted eyeball and a humongous King Kong head as we venture deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of the ride. It’s similar to the subterranean dwelling of the Sawyer clan in TCM2, in that it starts being almost impossible to exist in any kind of real time-and-space sense and becomes a twisted and inescapable maze set outside of logic and placed purely in the realm of the insane. Put simply, The Funhouse is a gorgeously seedy film.
And, honestly, if you watch this, Eaten Alive and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in a row, you’ve basically seen where every stylistic decision Rob Zombie has ever made as a director has come from. And you’ve gotten to see three GREAT movies in exchange.