While its classification as a Video Nasty may have been a case of mistaken identity, The Funhouse is hard to mistake for anything but a Tobe Hooper film. Aside from so many of the elements of The Funhouse resembling his first (and most infamous) film, many of the elements of The Funhouse, and its shocking tale of the Straker clan, also went on to inform his later works from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 to Toolbox Murders and much more. Of course it's not just Hooper himself who has mined this one for material. Elements of this film can be seen in varied homages from here to oblivion with one noteworthy example being House of 1000 Corpses. In fact, director Rob Zombie used the stage name "Rob Straker" before adopting his more recognized pseudonym.
Besides, The Funhouse does have something that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House Of 1000 Corpses and most other films don't have going for it... Elizabeth Berridge Naked. You remember sweet Stanzi from Amadeus? Well, welcome to Wolfgang's fantasy, kids.
Interestingly enough, though, in addition to feeling more than similar to that 1974 Leatherface adventure, The Funhouse also borrows from more classic and current films of the genre. Within the first five minutes we're shown a series of horror images from Karloff's grim visage from Frankenstein to Lon Jr.'s frightful mug from The Wolf Man. Then, after a comical homage that gives us both the first murder scene from Halloween and the infamous "shower scene" from Psycho (Elizabeth Berridge nude scene #1) we're actually given some of the more iconic footage of Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein in the form of a late night TV viewing.
Soon, much to the ignorance of her parents, cute little Amy Harper (Berridge) heads out to a traveling carnival (the same one where two girls vanished last year) with her new beau Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) and their friends Richie (Miles Chapin) and Liz (Largo Woodruff). Much to Amy's ignorance, her prankster little brother Joey (Shawn Carson) has followed along for a party night of his own.
While the quartet has a high (literally) old time checking out the Freaks and mocking the Carnies, the Carnival Folk aren't taking too terribly kindly to the tratment. William Finley's Marco the Magnificent is largely unpreturbed, but Sylvia Miles' Madame Zena even goes so far as to throw them out of her crystal ball haven while the omnipresent (in multiple roles even) Kevin Conway gives them merely unsettling looks and an unnerving commentary as he beckons them into his funhouse.
Things go from weird to weirder when the four decide to spend the night in the funhouse where they witness a horrible murder at the hands of the one carnie who has been walking around with a Karloff Frankie mask on. What lies beneath is much scarier looking than even Dr. Frankenstein's best boy in the form of a Monster named Gunther Straker (played by Wayne Doba). Soon Gunther and his protective, yet maniacal father Conrad Straker (Conway) are using all the tricks and traps of the funhouse to stop the weary patrons from escaping and thus, spreading the word.
You'd think they'd be grateful for a little advertising, wouldn't you?
Primarily, The Funhouse is a movie you've seen before. The characters and situations are stock and the plot is, again, largely that of TCM. However, this is a much more polished production than its big brother and shows a different take on what Hooper had done previously. That said, it also loses a lot of the edgy roughness of the original too.
Surprisingly, it's this film - not its more notorious predecessor - that was labeled a Video Nasty by the British Board of Film Classification. While there is fake blood and gore here not to mention some very appreciated natural nudity, this feels a lot like a pretty standard horror movie, one step beyond Something Wicked This Way Comes in its gore-level. That's not to say it's not scary and that's not to say it's not fun. It can be both. But it also deals with a lot of aimless plot points and typical situations along with abandoned premises and holes in the story.
One thing the film does take good advantage of is the setting. Who hasn't been on a dark ride and seriously considered getting out and exploring? The use of the often over-the-top and cartoonishly scary set pieces as frightening points of shock helps this one live up to its name.
Further, the villain himself, while really a retelling of Leatherface without his chainsaw, is pretty scary and interesting in his Carnival Freak kind of way. Wait, can you still say "freak"? Or is it "Normalcy Challenged American" now? Okay, "The Monster" is pretty scary and interesting in his Normalcy Challenged American kind of way. This is due in no small part to Doba's acting, but a prime debt is owed to the make-up design of Rick Baker. There is no shortage of freaks in horror. This one is something else.
All told, The Funhouse isn't the most original thing you'll ever see, nor is it the scariest. However, it's also not the gruesome gore fest that many of the Video Nasties are and it can be great fun, especially for fans of the genre and such latter-day self-referencing and self-aware films like Scream. Two and One Half Stars out of Five for Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse! It's really freaky and packed with freaks. The real question is why a cutie like Elizabeth Berridge with her fantastic breasts would data a guy like Buzz? I guess when the alternative is Gunther, you take what you can get around town. See you around town in the next reel... Chilly CLOWN Carnie!
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