The Funhouse (1981)
After The Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper attempted another Southern-fried horror film with Eaten Alive. Despite having Marilyn Burns agree to do another movie with him and having a young Robert Englund spout a line that would become more well-known from a Quentin Tarantino film, the movie, seemingly made for less money than Chain Saw, was a failure. Some fans of Hooper's and other lovers of bad movies give it its due, but it was not the best follow-up to his horror classic.
However, that didn't prevent him from getting the chance to direct a television mini-series based on Stephen King's novel 'Salem's Lot. It is one of those rare television films that brings back fond memories. It pretty much saved his career at that point, allowing him to make the transition to studio-backed films like The Funhouse, which in turn got him the job of directing Poltergeist. I wonder if Steven Spielberg and others saw much more than I did in this movie because, despite having some good ideas and aspects, seemed like there was little plot stretched as far as could be.
Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) goes on a double-date with gas station attendant Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) and her friends Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin). Although she tells her parents she's going to the movies they are actually headed to a carnival that is in town - one that has a reputation of leaving some dead bodies behind from town-to-town. Amy's brother Joey (Shawn Carson) is upset that she won't take him, so decides to sneak out and make his way there himself.
While there, Richie comes up with the idea that they should all spend the night at the funhouse. Though apprehensive at first, everyone else agrees and they hop off the ride as it is going through. While having some fun at the beginning they soon witness an accidental murder by the son (Wayne Doba) of the funhouse's barker (Kevin Conway). The barker soon discovers someone is in there and he and his son, a young man with a hideous deformity, start making sure there are no witnesses. Meanwhile, Joey becomes more and more concerned about his sister as he finds himself lost and confused after everything closes.
The makeup on the monster in this is great, designed by Rick Baker and quite different from what one would think would be under the Frankenstein monster mask the kid wears. Also, the movie comes to life at the point that the murder happens. Although billed as a slasher this is more a creature thriller combined with survival horror, and being trapped in the funhouse provides perfect sense of isolation and otherworldliness. It's an Inferno type journey of having to go deeper and deeper into the pit to emerge and climb back out to Paradise. It is an extremely well-done half hour or so of tension.
Elizabeth Berridge was 19 when she made this and is naked in some of the first few scenes, but she looked about 12 - enough that I checked her date of birth on IMDB to make sure I wasn't going to have the FBI knocking on my door in the morning. There is a buildup about her brother loving magic, animatronics, monsters and old movies, and how anxious he is to see a real-life traveling carnival. It builds up some backstory for about 10 minutes.
Unfortunately, the movie is just over 90 minutes long. The rest of that time is spent driving to the carnival, walking around the carnival, smoking weed, walking around some more and riding a few rides. Then Joey gets to walk all the way to the carnival, walk around, and ride a few rides. They don't even ride the funhouse one until they decide to go spend the night in it, so there is no reason for Richie to even think of the idea. Other than running into a few weirdoes that, all except one, have no bearing on the rest of the film, nothing happens at all for a good portion of the running time. Even Joey's late-night trip only has a half-hearted payoff, and it just makes one hate Joey. Even worse, none of his supposed interests have anything to do with what happens.
While The Funhouse may have managed to get Hooper in a position to meet Spielberg, the truth is if any movie got him Poltergeist it was Salem's Lot, where he generally proved himself to be more than just the director of cheap exploitation films. The Funhouse seems like a director-for-hire job in which he tried his best to bring some life to a script that barely had enough material for a short film. It may not be a terrible film, but it is definitely a boring one. At least until it finally gets to some story, which is way too late.
The Funhouse (1981)
Time: 96 minutes
Starring: Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, Miles Chapin, Shawn Carson, Kevin Conway, Wayne Doba
Director: Tobe Hooper