Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

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The Funhouse, a little-remembered follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s influential horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, stars Elizabeth Berridge (the future Constanze Mozart of Amadeus) as Amy Harper. Amy attends a local carnival with her boorish blind date and a few friends, and after seeing plenty of unseemly sights and smoking a few joints, the group decide to spend the night inside the titular funhouse. After they accidentally witness something terrible, a masked freak begins stalking and picking them off one by one.

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As a riff on the slasher genre, The Funhouse is not especially frightening or well executed, but it excels in creating an unnerving atmosphere. Maybe this speaks to my own fears; traveling carnivals are inherently creepy in my book, but The Funhouse does its part to play this up. The barkers outside the strip show, freak show, and funhouse all seem eerily familiar (all are played by Kevin Conway in various getups). Amy, a confessed virgin, is accosted in the carnival bathroom by a wandering hag who screams, “God is watching you!” And the funhouse itself is populated by a disturbing array of automatons – primitive wooden robots who mechanically laugh, sip tea or open doors to uncanny, skin-crawling effect.

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The Funhouse also deserves some points for at least attempting a layer of complexity beneath familiar slasher trappings. The killer has his own tragic and pathetic backstory, and Amy twists the “final girl” trope in key ways. On the other hand, a subplot involving Amy’s younger brother Joey seems to exist only to build toward a frustratingly dumb “help is so near, yet so far” scene. A lack of budget is clear in the climactic showdown, which seems to double down on its deficiencies by drawing things out to an eye-rolling length. But much like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Funhouse lands on a compelling final image. As Amy wanders out of the funhouse in a daze, the camera slowly draws back, revealing a tableau of the nearly-deserted carnival grounds, a few oblivious workers beginning preparations in the early dawn light.