1980’s The Funhouse opens with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the famous shower scene from Psycho, with Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) getting attacked in the shower by a masked, knife-wielding maniac.
The only difference is that there’s no shrieking violins, there’s no blood, and the knife is quickly revealed to be a fake. It turns out that the “killer” is actually Amy’s younger brother, Joey (Shawn Carson). Joey loves horror movies. In fact, he’s pretty much the perfect stand-in for The Funhouse‘s intended audience. Joey was just playing a rather mean-spirited prank but now, as a result, Amy snaps that she’s not going to take him to the carnival.
Of course, Amy isn’t supposed to be going to the carnival either. Her parents have strictly forbidden it. Everyone knows that traveling carnivals are dangerous and, at the last town the carnival visited, two teenagers disappeared! There’s no proof that the carnival has anything to do with those disappearances, of course. But still…
Amy does exactly what I would have done in her situation. She tells her parents that she’s going over to a friend’s house and then she goes to the carnival anyway! Accompanying her is her boyfriend Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), who is so cool that he has a name like Buzz. Also along for the ride: Amy’s best friend, Liz (Largo Woodruff), and her boyfriend, Richie (Miles Chapin). Richie’s kind of a loser but that’s to be expected. Every group needs at least one idiot who can do something stupid that gets everyone else killed. We all know how that works.
The carnival turns out to be just as sleazy as Amy’s parents thought it would be. There’s a fake psychic (Sylvia Miles). There’s a magician who dresses like Dracula. There’s a barker (Kevin Conway), whose deep voice is constantly heard in the background. And, of course, there’s a funhouse! Still, everyone’s having a good time. Either that or they’re all just stoned.
For his part, Joey sneaks out of the house and goes to the carnival himself. He doesn’t have quite as much fun as Amy. In fact, his experience is pretty scary. Weird carnival people keep yelling at him. He keeps getting lost. Still, things could be worse. By the time his parents arrive to pick Joey up, Amy and her friends are all trapped in the funhouse. They’re being pursued by the barker and his deformed son (Wayne Doba). Needless to say, it’s all pretty much Richie’s fault.
Richie. What a dumbass.
With its teenage victims and its lengthy chase scenes, The Funhouse is often dismissed as just being another early 80s slasher film. However, The Funhouse is actually a fairly clever, entertaining, and occasionally even witty horror film. Much like director Tobe Hooper’s best-known film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Funhouse gets its scares by convincing audiences that they’re actually seeing more than they are. Hooper emphasizes atmosphere and performances over gore. While The Funhouse has its share of jump scares, it mostly succeeds by convincing us that anyone could die at any moment. It’s an intense film, with excellent performances from both Elizabeth Berridge and Kevin Conway.
After kickstaring the slasher genre with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper used The Funhouse to poke a little fun at it. From the opening shower scene to the electrifying finale, Hooper plays with the genre-savvy expectations of the audiences. Our four victims even do the smart thing for once — they try to all stay together. Needless to say, that doesn’t work out too well.
The Funhouse is an entertaining thrill ride and, seen today, it’s more evidence that Tobe Hooper deserved better than he got from the film industry.