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Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: The Funhouse 1981

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This was a first time watch for me, and I have to say, while very formulaic, it is a fun watch. Tobe Hooper was a master of using atmosphere, lighting and soundscapes over gore and jump scares.  This little gem is sandwiched between two of Hooper’s bigger known films, the made-for-t.v. Salem’s Lot in 1979 and Poltergeist in 1982.  Of course, his Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 broke massive ground in the history of horror cinema.  While Funhouse is not in my eyes a true slasher, it seems that there were, in the history of this fun house, other “accidents and incidents,” which I suppose makes Frank and his dad serial killers?

The story is a tried and true trope of teenagers sneaking around where they ought not be.  Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Ritchie (Miles Chapin) go to the carnival together…instead of the movie.  Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The opening credits are a hodgepodge of puppets, making me wonder if this was a pre-Puppet Master Puppet Master. We are then seeing through the camera’s eyes a room with horror posters, weapons, and a black-gloved hand picks a knife and a clown mask, while down the hall a pretty blonde is taking a shower.  The mask is put on and we see the killer(?) walk down the hall to the bathroom through the eyes of the clown mask. The door opens and the knife is raised, the curtain pulled aside…and in a clear homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho, the knife descends, the girl screams. The she catches the wrist of the killer, and the knife slowly lowers to her belly and is pushed toward the skin and…scrunches up and is clearly a rubber knife!  Amy (the blonde) screams and pulls the mask off, revealing her little brother.  She chases him to his room, and he startles her twice.  Once by not being in his bed, and then as she looks in the closet, he takes her picture.  She screams that she’ll not take him to the carnival, and she was going to get him back.

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Now we’re downstairs and Mom (Jeanne Austin) and Dad (Jack McDermott) are watching Bride of Frankenstein.  Amy is getting ready to go. Her brother skulks on the stairs.  She gets asked about her ”gas attendant” boy and she tells her father that she’s going to the movie not the carnival.  Her brother says, “Liar.”

Amy leaves and tries to talk Buzz out of going to the carnival as her father reminded her of two dead girls a couple of years back. Buzz talks her into the carnival and off they go to pick up Liz and Ritchie.  We watch her little brother Joey (Shawn Carson) climb down the side of the house and head toward the carnival.  One of the better jump scares happens here, as well as a crazy dude in a truck pulls a gun on Joey and descends into maniacal laughter.

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Cut back to the carnival, and the four teens have toured the attractions and ridden the rides and smoked a few joints when Ritchie has the great idea to spend the night in the funhouse.  You know, that great horror ride.  They board the ride and get off before the cars come back.  Meanwhile, Joey is at the carnival looking for Amy, and sees the teens get on, but not come out.  Of course, this is right at closing. Joey tries to get into the funhouse but it’s all locked up. Another great jump scare as the crazy woman scares Joey, he runs and climbs the fence.

Well, let’s jump through the hoops now.  The teens witness a murder (Frank trying to have sex with the gypsy seer.) Then Ritchie steals the funhouse owner’s money.  The owner blames Frank, (who is a mutant wearing a Frankenstein mask.) but Ritchie’s lighter falls from the ride into the room with Frank and dad. Now the hunt begins. Frank, sans mask, and dad are on the hunt for the intruders.  They kill Ritchie, then Frank kills Liz.  Amy and Buzz almost get away, taking Dad out before Buzz is killed.  Frank chases Amy under the ride, into the gears and mechanical room that runs the ride.  Here Amy must make her stand, and ultimately kills Frank. We end with Amy reeling her way out of the carnival, the sun rising and the carnival getting ready to leave.

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This is a crazy patch quilt of every trope I can think of here, but considering I saw this for the first time in 2018, and it was made in the early 1980’s, I can see where this would have been a pretty creepy flick back in the day.  As I mentioned earlier, Tobe Hooper used minimal music, making the sounds of the funhouse the backdrop of horror.  There are plenty of places where jump scares would have been awesome, but Hooper uses anticipation to his advantage, where not using the scare makes the next scare all the more satisfying.  Also, Hooper is a wizard at killing with minimal gore.  This could have been an incredible gore-fest but Hooper, as he did in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre has horrific kills with little or no gore.  It is pretty incredible, considering the rise of the gore filled rise of the slasher films was beginning around this time.

Overall, I feel that this movie still holds up, to a certain extent, and is a fun way to blow 90 minutes.

I’d give it a solid 4 out of 5 stars.

Image may contain: Chuck Knight

Chuck Knight is a legend in his own mind.  He is an old school horror fan, starting with Stephen King literally because his mom told him not to.  His kids tell him he’s older than dirt, which may be true as his first memory of anything genre-like is playing Dungeons & Dragons at a Boy Scout camp while listening to Ratt’s Out Of The Cellar album (on cassette, mind you.)  Chuck is currently unpublished, but has submitted to a few open calls.  He is looking forward to writing more reviews this year.

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3 responses

  1. Joan MacLeod

    Great review.I saw this when it came out and haven’t seen it since but at that time it was pretty damn scary.

    May 11, 2018 at 11:42 am

  2. It’s a fun ride, that’s for sure!

    May 22, 2018 at 9:16 pm

  3. John Hurschel Runion

    the almost catatonic way the little brother acts after he has been awakened and the line : “I washed him up real good!” always take me out of ‘fun’ ‘roller coaster’ horror movie mode into ‘serious’, ‘disturbing’, ‘depressing’ horror movie mode.

    May 5, 2019 at 4:46 pm

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