(Note from The Mike: I apologize for the brief delay in starting this review. I did a Google search for the film's poster....and then I had to take a time out to go brush my teeth.)
It's that time again, the time in which the Final Girl Film Club, headed by Stacie Ponder of Final Girl, takes its prisoners. I willingly jumped at the chance to join in on this month's festivities, because the film chosen was Tobe Hooper's carnival-based horror The Funhouse, a film I'd been wanting to revisit for years.
(To cover the popular topic regarding Hooper, I should state that I have no evidence that he actually directed this movie, besides the credits. It's very possible that anyone from Steven Spielberg to executive-producer/Commando director Mark Lester to Mark Twain actually directed this movie. I don't believe that, but I figured I'd clarify this point for the Hooper skeptics out there.)
Onward to The Funhouse, an alternately brilliant and disappointing piece of horror. Hooper (if that is his real name), fills the opening act of the film with references to horrors past, covering the classic Universal monsters and Psycho in the opening scene that follows an ominous and effective credit sequence. The opening sequence also blatantly mimics Halloween, using the first person slasher technique that little Michael Myers made famous. The message that's immediately sent is simple - the filmmakers seem intent on reminding us that most of us crave the chance to be scared, but it's more fun if it's really happening - even if it's a goof.
In these scenes, we're introduced to our (very naked) protagonist, played by the uncomfortably young-looking Elizabeth Berridge. It's quickly established that her Amy is the purest character in the film; strikingly similar to Halloween heroine Laurie Strode who was played by Jamie Lee Curtis. While she isn't the commanding human presence Curtis was in that film - few have matched that trend-setting performance - Berridge carries the same low vocal tones and focuses a lot of her attention on appearing uncomfortable in social settings. As she wanders the carnival setting on a double date with the hunky Buzz and her friends Liz and Richie, her eyes dart around quickly to assess her surroundings, and she forces smiles toward her friends to hide her concerns. Berridge does a truly fine job becoming a teen who's in over her head, and her ability to emote goes a long way toward creating an uneasy feeling during the opening act of the film. But more on her later...
There's plenty going on at this dark carnival that helps the viewer realize why she should be uneasy. Amy and her friends don't do themselves any favors with their decision to go to the carnival at nearly 10 PM and the people they see there give her good reason to feel uncomfortable. There's an imposing, uncoordinated mute dressed as Frankenstein's monster, a witchy fortune teller with a sharp tongue, a vampire-themed magician (Phantom of the Paradise star William Finley in a juicy cameo), and an ominous barker (or are there three different barkers?) played by veteran actor Kevin Conway. Everything at the carnival seems to come with a coat of grime, and a haggard old woman appears around Amy at times to warn that "God is watching you". The film might not make it all the way to being creepy, but it's at least an uneasy experience for the viewer. The characters went out in search of something that would give them this reaction, but they don't seem like they've considered the reality of this situation.
Once the lights are out and Richie makes the boneheaded suggestion that they spend the night in the funhouse, the group witnesses the darker side of the freak show. What follows includes prostitution, elaborate traps, and the reveal of that slimy mouth shown in the film's poster. It belongs to Gunther, the barker's deformed son who was hiding under that Frankenstein costume, and he becomes the villain the group must deal with. The film starts to become ridiculous around this point, as the build of the opening scenes erodes into a series of ridiculous set pieces inside the funhouse. There seem to be swords and daggers everywhere, and everything is automated to kill. I know Hooper's goal was to make it seem like The Funhouse is a living trap (in a way, the film predates Saw in this regard), but it never really seems that imposing. There are some scenes that get under the viewer's skin - the one in which Liz begs for her life and offers the mutant sex stands out - but the whole second and third act seem to miss as often as they hit. The setting inside the funhouse is surprisingly less interesting than the carnival scenes we saw before business hours ended.
Also off the mark is Berridge's reaction to the situation around her in the final scenes. I can't go into details regarding the conclusion, but she becomes the anti-Laurie Strode as the tension rises around her. While that character was a fighter who dealt with her fear as she battled to survive, Amy loses control completely. She winces and screams and makes weird facial contortions and just freaks the heck out. It's overacting to the extreme, and it kind of negates any effectiveness the finale could have had.
There seems to be a message behind The Funhouse's portrayal of these carny freaks, with the Barker repeating that the freaks on public display are "creatures of God" in early scenes (there are also a few references to some freaks being from my home of Iowa, but I'm gonna let that slide), and it seems like Hooper wanted to do something more profound with this. But when it degenerates to the point of a screaming freak and a screaming girl battling amidst a bunch of huge gears, I instead spend my time wondering how the film got that far off track.
I like what The Funhouse offers, and the opening act sets everything up fantastically. The rest of the film isn't necessarily bad, but it seems like the film squanders an opportunity to be truly excellent. It's definitely one of the slimiest films of its era, which earns it a lot of points for being unique during a time in which horror became repetition, but the final product comes together about as well as poor Gunther's upper lip.
(If you don't want to take my word for it, head on over to Final Girl, where plenty of film-club rockers will have their takes on the film ready to roll too!)