The opening scene in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse is an incredibly meta moment in genre film. Borrowing elements of classic giallo and riffing directly on the shower scene from Psycho, we are thrust into the first-person-perspective of an assailant stalking his victim, the camera peering out from the eyeholes of a rubber clown mask. It’s a scenario and viewpoint we’ve seen before, but Hooper’s going to give us a twist. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that it delivers in a way that lets you know you’re in for a sleazy and grimy good time.
The Funhouse is in many respects a classic slasher film. Two teen couples on a double-date decide to stay the night in a carnival funhouse, giving them the chance to smoke a little dope and get down with some hanky-panky. When they unexpectedly witness a murder, plans change as they are relentlessly stalked through the bowels of the funhouse, desperate to make it to morning and to simply survive. On paper, it sounds like any number of such films that flourished in the late 70’s-early-80’s slasher boom. In execution, there’s a reason why it’s still remembered today.
Most immediately, we have the setting. Hooper made the absolute most of the real-life carnival experience, treating us to glimpses of a freak show (replete with actual two-headed cow!), a gypsy fortune-teller, a stage magician’s show and some rather exuberant exotic dancing in addition to all the lights and sights of the typical midway. Before we even arrive at the centerpiece attraction, the titular funhouse, we’ve experienced a dizzying display of carny treats and been introduced to a rogue’s gallery of sleazy tent-folk. Chief among them is The Barker, played by veteran character actor Kevin Conway.
Conway plays not one, not two, but three separate roles; as barker for the Freak Show, the Strip Show and the Funhouse. Each character has a distinct look and voice, and the choice to place Conway in the varying roles layers in yet another strange and unique element to the film. Their similarities are never remarked upon, so those who have noticed are left slightly unsettled and wondering just what exactly the hell is going on here.
We’re further unsettled by the appearance of a filthy bag lady (Sonia Zomina)who surprises the two female leads in the restroom as they are discussing the topic of putting out for their dates. The bag lady calls the main protagonist Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) a whore and lets her know that she’s headed for hell for her sinful ways, and continues to do so even after entering a bathroom stall, presumably to drop a deuce (she was in there a while). It’s yet another meta-moment as typically the “punished for having sex” subtext of your typical slasher flick is never spelled out so directly. Hooper’s winking genre-self-awareness comes into play again later as the teens encounter a phony fortune-teller, Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles). She tries to give them the ominous doom-and-gloom crystal ball routine, a staple of horror films for decades to this point, but is revealed to be a nasty bitter fraud, reality proven more threatening than the campy cliché.
And that ultimately seems to be Hooper’s thesis. For all the surface thrills and faux-danger of the carnival, it’s what’s underneath and inside that’s the real threat. We see this mirrored in the Funhouse itself, as real and horrific murder plays out amongst the attractions, and again in the character of Gunther (Wayne Doba) who wears a rubber monster mask to hide the freakish deformities beneath. The killer is no supernatural apparition, but rather a selfish and disgruntled man attempting to protect his own ass at any cost. Clown faces mock and startle, but isn’t the fear of clowns essentially a fear of what is being hidden by all that artifice?
I wouldn’t put it past Hooper, who is as adept at serving up cheap thrills as he is at sending a message along with them. Just like the carnival, you buy a ticket and you get all the boobs, scares and freakshow horror you signed up for, but maybe you also leave with a little something else. A cotton-candy nausea that turns your gut. A head full of lights and sound and that dizzy spinning sensation of the carousel. An empty wallet and the feeling that you’ve just been grifted. The realization that under all the brightly colored paint there’s really no smile, just a smirk, and a penchant for taking you for all you’re worth.
Audio Commentary with Director Tobe Hooper with Tim Sullivan
As with Shout Factory’s release of Lifeforce, this newly recorded commentary is shepherded by Tim Sullivan, who does a good job of prompting Hooper to spill the beans and drop anecdotes. Sullivan expresses a deep knowledge and an infectious fandom that keeps things lively.
The Barker Speaks!: An interview with actor Kevin Conway
Conway is an odd duck and his memories of The Funhouse make for a fascinating featurette. I can’t tell if he just really got into the character reminiscing or if he’s got an actual carny vibe in real life.
Something Wicked This Way Comes: An all-new interview with Executive Producer Mark L. Lester
Normally I’m not too pumped to see an interview with a producer, but Mark Lester provides some quality backstory on the flick. From how the poster art came to be selected to how the opening scene was shot after-the-fact to jazz up the first act of the film, he gives you a real behind-the-tent-flap view of how things went down.
Carnival Music: An interview with Composer John Beal
The soundtrack to The Funhouse is a bit of a marvel, as it comprises not only the needed horror-film cues but also the ambient music of a carnival itself. Alternately lively and sinister, there is a warped familiarity to Beal’s music that is integral to The Funhouse.
Audio Interview with actor William Finley
Posthumously culled from an interview a few years back, this colorful recording from William Finley allows him to wax poetic about his brief but entertaining cameo as Marco the Magnificent, the stage magician whose cigarette at no time leaves his hand. He apparently learned a much longer act, which was unfortunately cut down to only a brief scene.
These were filler scenes that were spliced in to the TV broadcast of The Funhouse to pad out after they cut all the sex and blood out. It’s nothing terribly interesting, but in the interest of completion or for anyone nostalgic for the neutered broadcast version, it’s good to have them here.
Original Theatrical Trailer, TV & Radio Spots
As with most of Scream Factory’s recent reissues of classic horror films, The Funhouse was given fantastic new packaging artwork. This flick’s new cover comes courtesy of Nathan Thomas Milliner, and is reversible in the instance that you wish to display the original poster artwork.
At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons.
He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.