It’s hard not to feel bad for the old titans of horror knowing that for many of them their lights were dimmed too early as their careers were derailed by studio systems that never fully appreciated all they had given to them. You think of someone like Tobe Hooper, whose TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE changed horror movies forever. He made a movie that was being monetized in home releases, in theatrical re-releases, as merchandise, and in sequels, but at the end of his career he was just another hasbeen.
This was a man that made a seminal haunted house film in POLTERGEIST but who many refuse to credit for it because Spielberg produced the film and was very hands on with it. Hooper’s later movies weren’t great, to be sure, but how much of that was a man who’d lost his fire after being beaten down by the system and having his opportunities and budgets cut? How much of it was that Hollywood decided he was done so they relegated him to the trash heap?
I offer you this – look at films like FUNHOUSE, LIFEFORCE, and INVADERS FROM MARS and tell me Hooper didn’t make POLTERGEIST. Sure, Spielberg had a hand in it, but it’s Hooper’s film. It has his look. Hooper handles the family the same way he handles the kids in FUNHOUSE. These are two films that could exist in the same universe. It’s an utter shame that Tobe Hooper feels like an asterisk in POLTERGEIST as everyone heralds the daring vision of Spielberg and forgets that he wasn’t behind the camera but behind the scenes.
When I look at FUNHOUSE I am able to see how powerful the work of Hooper was. It’s hard to even imagine that this was the same guy that made TCM. There are sweeping crane shots, the naturalism is gone for a very fake candy-colored world of the carnival. This is a film with big performances and broad strokes. It’s meant to be not a realistic tale of horror that could happen but one that is as real as any folktale or urban myth. This is the story of the monster at the carnival.
Some get caught up in the idea that it demonizes someone with a deformity but this is a monster, through and through. You can carp at the idea that they don’t get to be a ‘man’ but that’s not what this is about. The ‘monster’ murders a woman and from what you hear, has murdered children and others. If you want a humane look at someone who was given the roughest of hands in life go watch ELEPHANT MAN, where it wants you to feel for this man who is seen as a monster. The FUNHOUSE wants you to see them as a monster. As I say, it’s a spookshow and as such, it’s not interested in subtlety and nuance. It’s interested in scaring you. If you came to the film expecting different, you’re going to be disappointed. And if you come demanding the film be something it isn’t then you’ll be disappointed there too.
This movie is exactly what it portends to be – a scary carnival film.
The interesting thing in watching this recently was how similar this feels to a Rob Zombie film. Hooper captures the world of the carnival wonderfully and walks a line between nostalgic creeps like we’d get from Ray Bradbury, with a down and dirty freakshow we get from Zombie. That one actor portrays the three main barkers is wonderful and chilling as they are all different enough that you don’t exactly notice they’re the same man but yet you do at the same time. The lead character notices that there’s something wrong and you see it in her face as she looks at the barkers but she can’t quite place it.
This is a simple film – a group of ‘kids’ (late teen years) go to a local carnival and decide to stay the night in the funhouse…terror ensues. Simple yet so effective. The film is all about mood and tone and the funhouse itself is absolutely a main character. The lighting also sets the stage for what we are about to witness. Hooper, to his credit, shoots it all with a brilliant eye and never lets the film become too sleazy or too chaste. It stands between the two, content to live in their shadows. The blu-ray from Scream Factory really helps the colors pop and cleans up much of the image of the film. Inserted into all of this are wonderful shots of the main character’s little brother prowling around the carnival, looking for her, and here is where we see the horror of what had seemed to the teens like the happiest place on earth. We see the giant figures that adorn the rides as they stare out and move on their own. We see the shady carnies as they wind down after the night’s work. We see the local hangers on who are hoping for some money or food as they prowl the shadows of the camp. Here is where the horror of Bradbury comes in and reminds us how scary the things we loved as children can be.
Sure, it’s not a perfect film. The opening is heavy handed and while it was meant to be suspenseful, feels needlessly sleazy (I dunno that we can blame Hooper completely on this as it sounds like the studio wanted the scene). It is hard to see the ‘monster’ as wholly a monster in the beginning because they try to show him in a sympathetic way so it’s hard to pivot then to learn he’s a murderer and potentially a rapist.
As clumsy as these moments are though, the film rises above them to deliver exactly what it is – a funhouse ride.
The Scream Factory disc is full of some great extras, like scenes from the television airing, several interviews, and trailers. For a film that many don’t talk about, it’s nice to see it get some love. The hope is it also gets rediscovered because it’s a wonderfully fun throwback and shows a former master of horror in full on freak out mode.
4 out of 5