December 17, 2017

filmsgraded.com:
The Funhouse (1981)
Grade: 59/100

Director: Tobe Hooper
Stars: Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Kevin Conway

What it's about. Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is a teenaged good girl who wants to go bad. And she has friends to help lead her astray: jock Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), easy girl Liz (Largo Woodruff), and her klutz boyfriend Richie (Miles Chapin). Also in the mix is Amy's rascal of a preteenaged younger brother, Joey (Shawn Carson).

Amy and her friends attend a seedy nighttime carnival, and on a whim decide to spend the night in a funhouse. They witness the murder of fortune teller Sylvia Miles by mute freak Wayne Doba. Doba turns to his barker father, Kevin Conway, to cover up the killing. Conway commands Doba to hunt down the four teen witnesses, who are locked in the funhouse. Further carnage ensues.

How others will see it. The Funhouse created little stir upon release, and it has not since acquired a large cult following. It has less than one-tenth the imdb.com user votes as director Tobe Hooper's most notorious film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). This despite the two films having much in common, specifically a plot featuring a deformed lunatic mass-murderer pursuing the sole female survivor of a group of misguided young adults.

Yet Steven Spielberg apparently was impressed by The Funhouse, since he selected Tobe Hooper to direct his next project, Poltergeist. This turned out to be a shrewd move, since that film was well received and made a mint at the box office. But The Funhouse itself has a middling 5.9 imdb.com user rating, which is at least consistent across demographics. Undoubtedly, many viewers find the film derivative, though the film does have its adherents, as there are a number of glowing reviews at imdb.com.

How I felt about it. It is true that The Funhouse doesn't compare favorably with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I do prefer it to Poltergeist, despite that film's much higher budget and more lauded cast. And I don't care that it is derivative, and perhaps even stereotypical. Maybe that creepy man in a Frankenstein mask really is an insane serial killer, instead of a misunderstood and discriminated against Elephant Man. And I suppose the audience could have lived without the exploitative shots of barely legal Elizabeth Berridge naked in the shower, which, if you must see, are in the first few minutes of the film.

Nonetheless, there is a reason that Spielberg had an appreciation for Tobe Hooper. That is, The Funhouse, if not quite a good movie, at least comes close. True, the body count of irresponsible teens and disreputable adults is high, and their deaths are grisly. But their characters are credible, and the script is pretty good, given that it is the only screenplay (and practically the only screen credit) of somebody named Lawrence Block.

Perhaps cackling robot clowns are not as scary as Tobe Hooper believes. But the freak played by Wayne Doba is certainly a fright, and as he slowly makes his way toward Liz, the suspense is palpable if patently predictable. The moral of the story is that Father Knows Best after all. Amy and Buzz should have gone to the movies instead.