God is watching you.
It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the pitch Universal Pictures used to court director Tobe Hooper for Lawrence J. Block‘s The Funhouse script was something akin to “think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but at a carnival.” That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Four kids looking for a good time stumble across a deranged family that has no qualms with killing them if they get in the way of living life way outside of the law. Rather than just be rednecks in the woods, however, this crew has gone legit as carnies. They give their patrons a good time, pack up, and head to the next town. That some customers end up dead in the process is dismissed as a case of bad luck.
Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) and Joey Harper’s (Shawn Carson) parents err on the side of caution anyway, telling them they aren’t allowed to attend this year. They read how the bodies found in the attraction’s wake a town over had to be identified by dental records, so they glance up from the television to lay down a set of ground rules we know will be broken in short measure (Amy already told her little brother she was going without him as punishment for scaring her). A lie about going to the movies gets her out the door and into Buzz’s (Cooper Huckabee) car before a quick detour to pick up Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) finally leads them into the carnival for fun and frights.
The first half of the film is introductory. We get a sense of who Amy is (the virgin), who her friends are (sexually active teens), and what Buzz is hoping to get out of the evening (his looks of dejection whenever a make-out session is interrupted could kill). There’s Joey sneaking out of his bedroom window to use his allowance money for a ticket in on his own, the creepy vagrants peeing behind tents or preaching about God, and the eclectic workers engaged in magic (William Finley) and divination (Sylvia Miles) with a tendency to let their frustrations out when punk kids show disrespect. And then there’s also the carnival barkers (Kevin Conway) who look and sound enough alike that Amy can’t help but stare at each.
Hooper adds some style by playing with vantage points (the opening scene is chock full of horror nods as a killer hunts down his prey in first-person) and having zero aversion to comedy. Whether Block wrote scenes with humorous intent or not, having a central quartet of too-cool-for-kid-stuff teenagers makes it so anyway. We laugh when Sonia Zomina‘s bag lady scares them and screams about the Lord. We laugh again when Richie can’t stop giggling during Amy’s palm reading. Certain events occur that show we shouldn’t take it all for granted, but it’s nice to have protagonists that recognize the strings. They aren’t afraid of these performers—nor should they be. At least not until they sneak into the funhouse after hours and witness a murder.
Therein lies the second half’s premise and its tenser atmosphere thanks to Amy and company being locked inside the funhouse while its barker and his son (Wayne Doba‘s grunting monster of a man under a Frankenstein mask) search to find them. The teens have proven themselves a liability and must be dealt with so all bodies can be discarded before taking off the next morning. Hooper makes good use of the dark ride’s train cars, surprisingly real weapons, and basement full of industrial fans and gears begging to crush or maim flesh. And with Joey still running about outside, we have to assume we’re heading towards a daring rescue or tragic motivation. Don’t be surprised if Block’s script throws a curveball, though. Anger can lead to regretful decisions.
Everything does make logical sense as a result with no one acting on sentimentality. Richie is a sniveling opportunist, Buzz the brawny wannabe hero, Liz an object of sexual desire, and Amy our heroine leaning into the “last girl” trope throughout. If any are to die, expect those stereotypes to impact how their demise unfolds. Some murders are effective in their brevity (one is hung by a rope connected to a prop and thus lifted out of the others’ reach) while some seem to last forever (the climax has more cuts to characters staring at what will become a killing device than said device doing any actual killing). There’s not much blood spilled on either front, however, so don’t go in expecting a gore-fest. It’s not.
I welcomed that truth because it lets the filmmakers delve deeper into motivations. Rather than receiving a bunch of random victims devoid of purpose beyond their gruesome end, we’re supplied only those with a meaningful role in the narrative, whether they’re breathing or not. This ensures we’re kept somewhat in the dark about a few aspects too. We don’t know who besides the barker and “Frankenstein” is homicidal or what exactly Joey will be able to do to help his sister. Besides the easy guess that Amy will be the last one standing to try fending off the monster, anything and everything remains on the table—especially once the aforementioned bag lady’s warning about “God watching” stops being a joke to issue its intriguing karmic retribution.
Watched in conjunction with Season Seven of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.