Monday, 13 October 2014
Tobe Hooper // 1981 // 96 mins
Maybe it's just my experience, but there's something inherently creepy about traveling fairgrounds; from the slightly weathered rides and attractions that appear very suddenly overnight to the questionable people who run them. Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse plays on this creepiness, perfectly capturing the not-quite-right feeling that is surely familiar to many people who visited similar carnivals in their childhood.
The film follows Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) as she reluctantly visits a carnival with a bad reputation as part of a double date. Rather than immediately diving into a slasher narrative, Hooper expertly takes his time following the group as they explore the carnival and it's numerous attractions. They enjoy the rides, explore a tent filled with malformed animals and visit an unpleasant psychic, under the watchful eye of the carnival's barkers, all three of whom are played by Kevin Conway. By allowing this first half of the film to play out slowly, Hooper creates an impressive atmosphere that is unshakable. The film captures the eeriness of these fairgrounds perfectly, as something sleazy and ominous disguised by vibrant paint-jobs and flashing lights. It feels familiar, and it is that familiarity that makes the whole experience so unsettling.
As their evening draws to a close the group decide that it would be fun to spend the whole night locked inside the carnivals Funhouse, but not long after closing the group witness one of the carnies, a mute wearing a Frankenstein's Monster mask, violently murder the psychic they had met earlier. While they try to escape the locked ride the mute and one of the barkers, his keeper, become aware of the groups presence and begin seeking them out to make sure they can't reveal what they've seen. It is at this point that the film descends into a more traditional slasher as the group are taken out one by one. While this transition was always going to happen, it feels like a downgrade after such a strong, atmospheric start. The carny makes for a suitably frightening antagonist, especially once what is hidden under his mask is revealed, but he ultimately becomes another mindless killer with little depth as the film goes on.
The Funhouse itself never feels fully utilised for all of it's potential, as there are only two of three spaces within it that are actually used. What little we do see does manage to maintain the creepy circus atmosphere, but it would have been much better put to use if the group were stalked through the various sections of the ride, rather than staying in the same spot for much of the action. While the group are locked in the Funhouse we are provided a glimpse of the carnival after-hours through the antics of Amy's little brother Joey, who snuck out earlier in the night. Joey's subplot further emphasises both the wonderment and danger of the carnival, and concludes with what is undoubtedly the films most unnerving scene.
In it's opening moments The Funhouse references two monuments of the horror genre; Halloween and Psycho in a scene was added very late into post-production after feedback that the film needed to start with a scare. This addition does the film a disservice as it confuses the tone and undermines the effectiveness of what follows. Though it ultimately becomes a standard slasher film, The Funhouse offers a great atmosphere and some genuine scares as Hooper does for carnivals what he did for the remote South in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.