The Funhouse

The Funhouse ★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Who will dare to face the challenge of the Funhouse? Who is mad enough to enter that world of darkness?”

Halloween was not a big deal in my home growing up. I went trick-or-treating like any other kid, but my costume was usually something thrown together last minute with a minimum of cost or effort—though for a couple of years I was Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Michelangelo was much cooler than I was, being a party dude and all. Osmosis did not take place; I remained a nerd, though we share a fondness for pizza.

Personally, I loved Halloween, though I wasn’t really sure if I should. Mine was a religious household, one where Harry Potter would soon be decried as a purveyor of witchcraft. But deep down I was sure I loved it. Not just the candy, which I would savor piece by piece over weeks—I’m sure my Halloween candy lasted longer than any other child’s (though not until after it had been thoroughly inspected for razor blades and other harmful foreign agents, my mother being susceptible to any and all stories appearing on Hard Copy). But also the creepy-crawly feeling you get from being scared, from approaching something dangerous from a secure vantage. Clearly a scary movie fan was lurking within, just waiting to be unleashed.

My favorite houses on the trick-or-treating route were the ones who put a little something extra into their Halloween celebration. It was all well and good to have a humdrum jack-o’-lantern and a bowl of candy—to this day, I will never turn down candy—but I always hoped for something more. That weirdly pleasing queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach when something thrillingly scary is about to happen.

Two houses in particular delivered such thrills. The first had a large brick archway over its front door, and above the door, within the archway, was a ledge. The residents’ teenage son, dressed all in black like a vampire (or perhaps like himself, who can say), would wait on the ledge as the children approached, sweets-starved bags in hand. And he would jump down in front of the children. And he would scream. And we would scream. And it would be awesome.

The other house had a long, long front porch that stretched the whole length of the building. At the far end, away from the front door, sat a rocking chair holding what appeared to be a dead gentleman or perhaps a dismounted scarecrow. The children would walk up the sidewalk gingerly, the man always firmly within our peripheral vision. Sometimes he wouldn’t move. The doorbell would be rung, confections would be dispensed, all would be well. But sooner or later, he would pop up and stagger in the children’s direction, a terrifying zombie sprung to life. It would be similarly awesome.

Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse is not nearly as heart-pounding as any of these experiences, but it comes from a similarly nostalgic place of the joys of being scared. After an opening that pays explicit homage to both Psycho and Halloween, Hooper’s film takes the tropes of a slasher and applies them to an old dark house/monster tale in the classic mold. The results are mixed but winning.

Hooper excels at creating a sinister, dirty mood. The Funhouse wisely takes its time surveying the carnival at which Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), Liz (Largo Woodruff), and Richie (Miles Chapin) have gone for an evening of drug use and debauchery. Everyone at the itinerant circus is off-putting, from the vagrants wandering around muttering to themselves and wailing about the watchful eye of God, to the patrons in the burlesque tent ogling women old enough to be their mothers, to the staff pitching the dangers of the attractions while giving off a distinctly unwholesome vibe. It’s bright and colorful, but in a garish, unseemly way, lending the enterprise a welcome sense of dread.

Also welcome is the change of pace from the usual early-1980s slasher setting and killer. While The Funhouse follows your standard group of teenagers (the virgin, the jock, the party girl, the nerd) into unknown territory where they might be picked off by a mad killer, as legislatively decreed, placing the action in a carnival’s haunted funhouse ride rather than a summer camp or a rural wooded area is inspired. Hooper makes good use of haunted house conventions, with all the creaks and thumps and dark places and locked doors that suggests, while also playing with the ghoulish artifacts that populate the carnival ride. It’s a wonderful exercise in atmospherics.

Into his hybrid vehicle, Hooper also tosses an homage to the Universal monster movies of yore, with a creepy man in a Frankenstein costume eventually revealing himself to be even more terrifying than that beloved horror icon. It’s a fun nod in the direction of Hooper's forebears, and a reminder that, when we seek out a danger we think we know for the sake of a few thrills, something far worse may be lurking within.

Unfortunately, the characters, the dialogue, and most of the performances are at best functional—it is impossible to care what happens to any of these teens, which undercuts the suspense of their various demises. Also peculiar is the side plot involving Amy’s little brother, Joey (Shawn Carson), whose solo trip to the carnival results in little other than a chance for his parents to demonstrate their disinterest in continued parental obligations. Hooper strives to turn The Funhouse into a nostalgia-soaked trip down memory lane, revisiting all those times you were scared before, whether at the movies or by a fake zombie lurching toward you and your precious Halloween candy. It won’t match the delight of your fondest memories—but then, what would?

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