Was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a fluke? Since his grisly 1974 masterpiece, Tobe Hooper's career has been wildly uneven, from the ongoing debate over who directed Poltergeist (has there ever been any solid reporting on this?) to fun but admittedly goofy movies like Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars to dreck like Spontaneous Combustion. And I won't even get into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, one of the most confounding films I've ever seen. Perhaps the best argument for Tobe Hooper's auteur status is The Funhouse, an unusually smart and atmospheric entry into the early-80's slasher boom.
The Funhouse was released in 1981, the same year as Blow Out, and it has more in common with De Palma's brand of self-reflexive exercises in pure cinema than generic fodder like My Bloody Valentine. The opening scene, like the opening of Blow Out, references archetype-setting films like Psycho and Halloween in a way that resonates more deeply than simple cinematic name-dropping. While it is eventually revealed that the scene is a preteen boy's prank on his older sister, the echoes of Halloween's underaged sister-killer reverberate in creepy, unexpected ways. This is not to say that The Funhouse drowns in subtext; in fact, it's a refreshingly straightforward and unpretensious "boo!" movie. But Hooper and screenwriter Lawrence Block are smart enough to recognize the conventions of the then-new genre and defy them in interesting ways.
The prank victim in the opening scene is Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge), a fresh-faced teen preparing for a date with the Dorothy Hamill hairdo-sporting Buzz (Cooper Huckabee - best name ever). Amy's parents warn her against going to the carnival in town; apparently, after the same carnival passed through a nearby town the year before, two young girls were found murdered. Amy assures her parents that she won't go to the carnival, but of course, she and her friends go anyway. The teens smoke pot and giggle uneasily at the goofy attractions, like a macabre magic show by Marco the Magnificent (William Finley!). They also have a spooky run-in with a crazy old lady who prophesies death and despair (I love "crazy old prophet" characters). While the characters are somewhat underwritten, the actors succeed at making them likeable and relatable (particularly Berridge, who went on to play Mozart's wife in Amadeus). Eventually they decide to hide in the carnival's funhouse for the night, and as they fool around, I found myself admiring Hooper's resistance to the shallow moralizing that too often sinks these films - these are just kids having a fun time. But when the kids inadvertently witness a murder and learn the dark secret of the carnival barker's quiet, mask-wearing son, they find themselves trapped in the funhouse, trying to survive until morning. It's a straightforward horror premise, executed with remarkable style and atmosphere.
Much of the film's success can be attributed to the setting - the carnival isn't an over-the-top Hollywood set, but instead captures the eerie mixture of makeshift "amusement" and grungy carnyfolk that makes carnivals such a compelling experience. Hooper set up an actual travelling carnival on his Florida location, and the exterior lighting is mostly provided by the rides and attractions themselves. The result is uncanny; Hooper guides us to look our desire to be frightened in a new light. And as the film descends into the backstory of the central monster, it becomes impressively sleazy - when a monster mask is pulled away to reveal a much more horrifying face (this is one of Rick Baker's best works), it's a reminder that our "innocent" boogeymen are often rooted in something deeper and more horrific. The final scene of The Funhouse mirrors the hopelessness of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's ending in a knowing way; if there's a recurrent theme in Hooper's work, it's the idea of the neverending nightmare. It's an idea I wish he'd pursued more, but all the Manglers in the world don't change the fact that The Funhouse is an unheralded gem. Watch it this Halloween season in its original aspect ratio with the lights turned off - it's creepier than you remember.