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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Funhouse  (1981)
3 Stars
Directed by Tobe Hooper.
Cast: Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, Miles Chapin, Kevin Conway, Shawn Carson, Sylvia Miles, Jack McDermott, Jeanne Austin, Sonia Zomina, William Finley, Wayne Doba.
1981 – 96 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, October 2008.

Carnival Barker:
You will scream with terror. You will beg for release.
But there will be no escaping, for there is no release, from the funhouse.

Coming after Tobe Hooper's career-making directorial debut, 1974's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," but before 1982's "Poltergeist," "The Funhouse" is an underrated gem, a mini-masterpiece of frights and atmosphere. Perhaps the reason more people did not initially discover it was because the print used on VHS was notoriously underlit and murky, nearly impossible to discern half of what was occurring on the screen. With reliable Blu-ray, however, the film is pristine, boasting classy cinematography from Andrew Laszlo that counteracts shadows and darkness with an orgiastic stream of neon colors. With the aesthetics now in tip-top form, the thematically rich, quixotically paced "The Funhouse" is practically begging to be rediscovered.

Despite the warnings of her father to steer clear of the midway, level-headed teen Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) heads out on a first date with hunk Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) and friends Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) for a night at the traveling carnival. Harmless fun—they ride the rides, see a fortune teller, attend a magic act—and mild rebellion—they sneak a joint behind one of the tents—leads to an idea so crazy that none of them can refuse. When Richie suggests they spend the whole night in the funhouse, Amy and Liz call their parents and sneakily tell them they'll be spending the night at each other's houses. Once locked inside the foreboding maze of puppets, pop-up skeletons, and fake spiders, the foursome spy through the floor cracks and, to their shock, witness the murder of prostitute-on-the-side Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles). The culprit is the monstrously deformed grown son of funhouse barker Conrad Straker (Kevin Conway), and, when the four teens accidentally give themselves away, he isn't about to let them get out with their lives.

"The Funhouse" opens with what can only be described as an intentional loving homage to the first scene in 1978's "Halloween" before changing gears entirely. The deliberate, slow-burn pacing of the film's first forty minutes are utterly enthralling, taking on the appearance and feel of a naturalistic slice-of-life. Amy's date with Buzz starts rockily when he badmouths her father—a man he's never met—but once an apology has been made and the four friends begin enjoying the simple, quirky pleasures of the carnival, the newfound couple hit it off and start bonding.

Every facet of the midway is lovingly explored through director Tobe Hooper's fixed gaze, a slice of Americana that additionally hides a dark underbelly. Whereas the teens see the carnies, drunks and vagabonds around them as expected presences, Amy's little brother, Joey (Shawn Carson), who has snuck out to attend the carnival by himself, views them as ominous, potentially dangerous beings. Through certain eyes and varied perspectives we see wildly different things, screenwriter Larry Block seems to be saying, and the result adds a surprising layer to the proceedings.

When Amy, Buzz, Liz and Richie enter the funhouse, a sense of expertly achieved claustrophobia takes over. This undeniable dread only deepens once the four of them find themselves running without an exit from a deranged mutant who, with drop-out floors and secret entryways at his disposal, can pop up anywhere at any time. Suddenly, the film transforms into a literal house of horrors, an intensely suspenseful cat-and-mouse game that plays like a cross between a tautly envisioned creature feature and a superior slasher movie.

As the latter, director Tobe Hooper marvelously toys with the conventions of the genre and leaves no stone unturned when it comes to his ingenious, grittily phantasmagoric surroundings. Refreshingly restrained in its violence, the picture is more suggestive than explicit, and more interested in unsettling the viewer than it is in grossing them out. When Joey is taken in by the carnival manager and his parents are called to come get him, Amy, by chance, spots them across the way. Her screams for help, however, are drowned out by the large fan in front of her, and she's soon left helplessly alone once again.

In her feature debut, Elizabeth Berridge (1986's "Smooth Talk") is excellent as Amy, an authentic, unassumingly attractive performer and a born scream queen, to boot. Had she wanted a career in further horror films, there's no doubt she could have been the next Jamie Lee Curtis. Cooper Huckabee (1999's "The General's Daughter") is appropriately cast as love interest Buzz; he's got good looks and a seductive personality, which allows the relationship between himself and Berridge to build to more than what is usually seen in this kind of film. And, as Liz, Largo Woodruff (2003's "Jeepers Creepers II") has down pat the part of an easygoing free spirit whom the viewer grows to care about.

Menacingly scored by composer John Beal, the booming orchestrations complimenting the onscreen action, "The Funhouse" is a scary, fantastical, and most of all intelligent thriller that, like the original "Halloween," proves slasher films can be sleek and upscale without going for low-rent gore tactics. The climax, rising to a fever pitch within the bowels of the funhouse, is first-rate, while the final scene subtly says a lot without spelling things out. With thoughts of the hellish night she has just had permanently ingrained in her consciousness, Amy stands bedraggled and scuffed up at first morning's light before listlessly stumbling off amidst the rides, tents and attractions of the carnival. Blending in with the heretofore lowlifes and miscreants around her, she has ultimately become one of them, a victim of fate and circumstance. Of all the films attempting to piggyback on the horror bandwagon in the early 1980s, "The Funhouse" confidently stands near the top of the pack.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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