So the end result appears to be that Tobe Hooper’s best are his debut, the seminal "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", and his adaptation of Stephen King's "Salem’s Lot", which remains a benchmark in TV horror. Hooper could do scary, in different ways. Even "Poltergeist" is a consummate example of family-friendly and toothless horror… with some scary. "Funhouse", another early Hooper horror, is ultimately disappointing. Apparently beset with production problems and interference that left subplots going nowhere, it’s a routine tale of "teens" not doing as they are told and uncovering terrible monsters at the local fair. It’s long on build-up, hobbled by pedestrian dialogue, characters and plotting and lacks for inventive killings. What it does have is a wonderful evocation of the carnival in all its detail and tackiness, a wonderful midway crane-shot, an unforgettable monster (some debate as to whether Rick Baker’s design is good or not: I say it’s scary, repellent and truly nightmarish), some lukewarm to above-average acting, and excellent set design. The funhouse itself is packed with garish lighting and mechanical monsters, seemingly bigger on the inside than the outside, full of genuine carnie adornments. Ultimately, it’s a routine slasher dressed up really nicely, and so it is more than acceptable when the milieu is so winning.
The most interesting aspect is that when we start off in the family home, our female protagonist Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is getting ready to go out on a date, it quickly emerges that her prankster younger brother Joey (Shawn Carson) has turned as much of the place as he can into a funhouse of his own. Dummies, masks, cheap shocks… all present and correct, and damned if he isn’t engaging from the start in a thoroughly cheeky homage/rip-off of "Halloween" and "Psycho". In their respective funhouses, both attackers indulge in displays of violence from sexual immaturity: Joey attacks his sister in the shower with a decidedly limp fake knife, wearing a mask that makes him look like a demented old man; our hideous monster Gunther’s (!) premature ejaculation and un-fulfilment drives him to murder girl scouts and fortune tellers. Gunther and Joey both have excellent reveals when their masks are torn off to reveal… greater horrors than the masks traded in. In another "Halloween"-style gag, we see Gunther ( Wayne Doba) help run the funhouse wearing a Frankenstein’s monster’s mask long before the truth about his deformity is revealed (the patrons are deliciously clueless). But at base what "Funhouse" has is the kind of two-dollar sexual motivation and undertones of most post-"Friday the 13th" killer flicks, and exactly the kind that "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" didn’t trade in. On the one hand, sexual immaturity drive the confused to horrible crimes and pranks of passion, and on the other, it’s only the virgin seemingly rewarded with survival.
It is the carnie father and son that represent the family sticking together and surviving against the odds, despite also evidently being the foreign threat to small-town America. The father (Kevin Conway, adding much needed class) is both repulsed and loving to his hideously deformed son, given to bouts of cruelty but also not ready to let him be lynched like his mother or displayed as a sideshow freak like his brother. In comparison, the respectable middle-class suburban family are cold fish indeed, peddling in quick disdain, superficial concern and seemingly disinterest in one another. We can at least allow credentials of tragedy to the horrific monster and dad team, especially as mime artist Wayne Doba gives his best Karloff’s monster rendition to inscribe the Gunther with all kinds of pathos. There’s not much to care about in the double-dating couples who decide to stay overnight in the funhouse, just for chuckles and foreplay. Despite a nice realistic moment where an initial altercation between Amy and her slightly disreputable date sets the night off on the wrong foot, there is little of interest to the couples themselves.
Once these nondescript couples see Gunther commit murder and are hunted down, one might have asked for a little more inventiveness with the funhouse lay-out and props, what with them being so creepy, fun and fascinating. One might have wished for a more creative killing spree to compensate, although there is quite a convoluted castration for Gunther, with his midriff crushed in the gears of the funhouse… yet it never feels as excessive as it ought to be. …Meanwhile, our Joey has skipped out of home and is enjoying the carnie all by himself, and in a further state of impotence can’t get inside the funhouse, which is surely his spiritual home. One can argue that his side-story finally goes nowhere. We could also leave the funhouse asking who the real monsters are… and that’s your standard issue horror coda right there. It will probably always work.
Tobe Hooper, 1981, USA