Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
When a film geek hears the name Tobe Hooper, two iconic horror movies obviously spring to mind: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist. They’re a pair of films that each left indelible marks on the American horror genre, albeit in starkly different ways—Texas Chain Saw Massacre with its grimy, lo-fi brutality and Poltergeist with its more glitzy display of special effects wizardry and Spielbergian emotional core. To the average cinephile, that pair might represent the breadth of Hooper’s filmography…but not to the inveterate horror purist. That audience member is likely to wax poetic on the stranger likes of the nude space vampires of Lifeforce, or the retro kitsch appeal of Invaders From Mars, but the slasher fans in particular have a particular fondness for one title not often invoked 40 years later: The Funhouse.
On its surface, The Funhouse is very much a film of its particular moment: A high-concept slasher (“what if the killer was loose in a carnival?”) arriving in 1981, dead set in the middle of the initial slasher boom period/golden age. It boasts some elements that help it fit in perfectly among its peers, such as the fantastic, Friday the 13th-adjacent instrumental score by John Beal, but where The Funhouse really stands out and carves a place for itself is via Hooper’s engaging, atmospheric direction and visuals. In his hands, The Funhouse ascends from what could easily have been instantly forgettable grindhouse fare into a genuinely spooky, beautifully lensed horror flick that presaged the visual decadence of Hooper’s own Poltergeist a year later. It’s genuinely one of the best-looking and most capably shot slashers of its era, generally choosing to substitute suspense for outright gore in almost all instances. In a weird way, you might consider it a sister film to one of 1981’s other great, idiosyncratic slashers, the “great outdoors” horror of Just Before Dawn. Certainly, The Funhouse reflects the artistic identity of its director much more than one generally expects from the genre.
Our primary characters here are a quartet of teens, naturally, who pay a visit to a particularly sleazy traveling carnival where they soon find themselves encountering some sinister characters from the wrong side of the tracks. Final girl Amy is a perfectly serviceable, if not particularly unique example of her trope—she’s surrounded by more promiscuous friends and needled incessantly by her horror movie-loving little brother Joey, who stalks her in a POV opening scene/fakeout shower stabbing that pays clear tribute to both Halloween and Psycho. Joey later tails the teens to the carnival, where he begins to witness disturbing scenes from the fringes as they hatch a plan to sneak inside the carnival “funhouse” to spend a night among the animatronic spooks and rubber monsters. But what if not all the monsters were quite so inanimate?
That’s your very basic setup for a slasher villain to burst onto the scene and start tearing people apart, but the actual execution of that villain truly exceeds expectations. Revealed as the gruesomely deformed son of the carnival barker/owner, “Gunther” truly is a sight to behold. With protruding fangs, glowing red eyes and a hideous visage that looks like it was split down the middle with the prior blow of a hatchet or sledgehammer, it’s an extremely impressive bit of practical monster FX, and one of the more inhumanly gross slasher killer designs of the era. Gunther stands proudly next to the likes of The Burning’s Cropsey or A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger in the pantheon of slasher villains you’d least like to meet in a dark alley.
So too does the film get the full mileage out of its carnival setting, as Hooper seems to revel in taking his time to drift over the broken refuse making up both the attractions and the people operating them. Everywhere you look in The Funhouse there’s a sense of degradation and decay—moldy carnival decorations and marionettes, stuttering animatronic dummies and discarded dreams. The denizens of the carnival aren’t all as hideous as Gunther, but they’re all nearly as broken, and it’s as if their malaise and resentment of the rest of the world has leeched out to infect the surroundings. It evokes the house-of-horrors eccentricities of 1979’s supernatural slasher Tourist Trap, but grounds itself more thoroughly in a familiar Midwestern ennui. It’s just as effective a setting as the parched desolation of Texas Chain Saw Massacre or the polished suburban artificiality of Poltergeist.
Into that haunted kaleidoscope of carousel music, Hooper suffuses his teenage characters in an inescapable maze where death is the only way out, persistently dangling a means of salvation in front of them, only to pull the rug out from under the audience each time. This is perhaps most effectively realized in one of The Funhouse’s crowning moments, in which final girl Amy is actually able to see her parents and brother outside the structure, but unable to reach them before they depart, stranding her once again in the lair of the beast. The universe is nothing here if not uncaring in the extreme.
As the film celebrates its 40th birthday, The Funhouse is still not nearly as well known to U.S. horror geeks as it likely should be, especially coming from a director of the status of Tobe Hooper. One particular reason why some people do know the film today is because of its historical inclusion on the list of infamous “video nasties” in the U.K., although as we wrote in our recent essay on the history of the video nasties, the inclusion of The Funhouse may actually have been entirely a mistake. It has been theorized by many horror geeks that Hooper’s film was placed on the list and set up for prosecution for obscenity by accident, because the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) actually meant to target the considerably more explicitly violent Last House on Dead End Street...which had been released under the alternate title The Fun House a few years earlier. Ironically, this apparent mistake is likely to thank for many viewers rediscovering what is genuinely one of Hooper’s most complete directorial efforts—a film that should be beloved by more genre fans for its own merits, and one that you should absolutely seek out this October.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.