1981 – USA
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Elizabeth Berridge, Kevin Conway, William Finley, Cooper Huckabee, Miles Chapin, Largo Woodruff, Sylvia Miles
Words: O. Innocent
Tobe Hooper is, quite rightly, regarded as one of the most revered, influential horror filmmakers of all time. Emerging from that most exciting period of independent American horror, the 1970s, his raw, unrelenting waking nightmare of a debut, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre frequently tops polls of the best horror films of all time. Even the title’s a classic; bold, iconic and straight to the point, like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead the viewer is left in no doubt regarding the manner of horrors to come. Despite delivering a couple more bona fide classics in the form of the chilling Stephen King-based mini-series ‘Salem’s Lot and the Steven Spielberg-produced haunted house blockbuster Poltergeist, Hooper has always straddled the line between trash and quality. Aside from a few late career surprises like the unexpectedly nasty Eye segment of the John Carpenter portmanteau Body Bags, his oeuvre has unfortunately veered increasingly towards the former.
His 2000 monster movie Crocodile was released straight to video and suffered from cheap effects while 2005’s Mortuary garnered a paltry 3.9 rating on IMDB. Only the exceedingly gory slasher remake The Toolbox Murders seemed to rekindle Hooper’s enthusiasm, and even that suffered from a somnambulistic pace at odds with its sensationalist violence. Maybe Hooper has a few more classics up his sleeve, but for now there’s now doubt his most beloved films belong to the 1970s and ‘80s.
However, varying degrees of quality notwithstanding, most all of Hooper’s films feel like part of a unified whole, a number of key ideas, images and obsessions returned to again and again. There’s the skewed image of the all-American family as personified by the Sawyers of Texas Chain Saw and its sequel; misunderstood monsters like Leatherface; outsiders – usually backwoods folk, recluses, and the mentally unhinged – who live at one remove from the average everyman such as Judd from Eaten Alive whose motel resides in the middle of nowhere and thinks feeding his guests to his pet crocodile is acceptable behaviour; and a focus on imagery designed to illicit maximum shock like digging up dead bodies, turning people into food or cutting someone up with a chainsaw.
Perhaps Hooper’s most returned to theme is that of the carnival bizarre, an obsession with the mentality of the freak show where upstanding decent folk are prepared to enthusiastically part with their hard-earned cash to gawp at some monstrous, physically or mentally deformed other; the other as spectacle, if you will. Time and time again Hooper invites the viewer to stare, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, at something that doesn’t conform to their comfy, ‘normal’ worldview, some hideous monstrosity both frighteningly alien and somehow uncomfortably familiar. He knows, even if they don’t care to admit it, that people will pay good money to go to the freak show.
One of Hooper’s most underrated films, 1981’s cult curio The Funhouse, makes explicit his fascination with carnivals and freak shows. It concerns two young couples who, after visiting the carnival, make the ill-fated mistake of spending the night in the titular funhouse. After witnessing a murder they are stalked by a deformed creature intent on their demise. Telling the tale of the bright lights and colourful fun of the carnival masking something much darker and more sinister, the film is a direct descendant of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes where Mr Dark’s carnival promises to grant your innermost desires but instead introduces you to your worst nightmares. A composite film, The Funhouse takes elements of the Bradbury novel and merges them with aspects of Tod Browning’s controversial carnival sideshow-set classic Freaks and the then-popular slasher subgenre, before transforming into a good old-fashioned monster movie.
Above all though, it’s a mood piece. With nearly an hour before anything explicitly nasty happens, Hooper takes his time to establish an unsettling atmosphere which becomes more and more oppressive as the film goes on. After a false scare pastiche of both Halloween and Psycho, the film settles down and really starts getting under the skin. As with Chain Saw, there’s much foreshadowing before the horror proper begins. Images of the Frankenstein Monster – a poster on a bedroom wall, The Bride of Frankenstein being watched on TV, a Frankenstein Monster toy dropping from the hands of a little boy – at first seem like throwaway references to the monster movies of yore, but they actually anticipate the horror to come, a horror that lurks, salivating and red-eyed, beneath a Frankenstein Monster mask. Repeated viewings only work to intensify the effect of these portents of doom, the knowledge of what’s going to happen revealing their true power to unsettle.
The Funhouse also impresses with its meticulous attention to detail, the production design bringing a verite sense of authenticity to the proceedings, making the film’s descent into nightmare logic all the more disquieting. As the film progresses the carnival’s veneer of bright flashing lights is shown to be even more fake than the fortune teller’s accent. Hooper slowly peels away this mask of fun and joviality to reveal the carnival’s true face, a face of greed, exploitation and dirty secrets. Look a little closer, past the colourful façade, and Hooper will be delighted to reveal to you a world of shabby attractions, litter flying in the wind, the homeless rifling through bins for cotton candy, dirty old men telling dirty jokes and watching seedy strip shows, deformed animals and people exploited for entertainment, and the carnival workers, supposed purveyors of fun, monsters of the most disturbing variety.
This is rendered all too convincing by the aforementioned outstanding production design, the grime and filth ground into tatty tents, threadbare outfits and rundown attractions.
As impressive as the production design is, the film’s real coup de grace is its monster. An extension of the carnival itself, the monster is the funhouse made flesh; a spooky but harmless looking Halloween mask hiding something far more sinister. Boasting one of the great horror reveals, the moment when the monster is unmasked is a real shocker. Akin to the unmasking of the titular Phantom of the Opera in the classic Universal silent, it’s one of those rare occasions where the monster is actually scarier behind the mask. Red eyes, fangs, pasty white-grey skin and a face almost splitting in two calling to mind the two-headed cow from the film’s earlier animal freak show sequence, this Rick (An American Werewolf in London) Baker-designed monster truly deserves much more recognition than it receives. Seeing it in its full glory as it stalks its prey in the darkened corridors of the funhouse, it’s a real shame it never achieved that same iconic horror monster status as Leatherface.
With such an impressive-looking monster, Hooper should be commended for not being tempted to over-expose it. Instead, he elicits maximum tension from the monster’s absence. This is used to full effect in the climax, the tension made almost unbearable, as the final girl and the viewer are made to wait what seems like an excruciatingly long time before the monster makes his appearance. Hooper really knows how to ratchet up the tension as he cuts from the noisy, distracting steam and cogs of the funhouse mechanism to an open shaft with feverish anticipation.
Ending on a truly chilling note as the final girl, never to be the same again, battered and bruised both physically and emotionally, walks out of the funhouse and into the carnival to the strains of one of the dummy’s electronic laughter seeming to take malicious pleasure in her previous night’s ordeal. Surely a night you’ll never forget either, The Funhouse is a nigh on perfect nightmare trip that lives up to its title. A perfect film for those cool, dark evenings when the wind carries the sound of the calliope and the smell of cotton candy to you, and the lure of the carnival is strong. Just remember, take caution because, as the film’s tagline goes, “Something is alive in the funhouse!”.