Filmmakers seem to hate carnies.
Admittedly, real carnival folk are an odd breed. The mobile life, though much romanticized, basically puts you outside of the common experience of most of the population. Like any subculture, there's the colorful slang, notable in this case for its astounding number of terms related to communicating the distinctions and trouble between carnival-goers and the ever changing cast of locals they encounter (carnival relativity: to a carny, the "locals" appear transient). Perhaps most importantly, so much of the entertainment carnivals provide is based on humbug, a tricky and delicate unacknowledged social contract that promotes certain level of well-meant deceit between the parties involved. It's a suspension the normal rules used to evaluate social exchanges and it can turn really bitter, really fast.
No doubt there are, among their numbers, con men and petty criminals. Though this could be said of any professional group – from cops to bankers – and it has to be admitted that, comparatively, even the most legally dubious carny does comparatively little damage when measured against, say, a crooked hedge fund manager or a corrupt politician.
Mostly though, the carny folk I've met funny, kind, intelligent folks. Witty too. For example, I once met a performer who billed himself as Eek the Geek, the Freak with Space on His Face. The latter part of his lengthy moniker referred to an elaborate astronomically-themed tattoo that covered his entire head. I met him after catching his act at Coney Island. His act included, if I recall, of driving nails into his nose, snapping his tongue in a mousetrap, and placing live scorpions in his mouth. After the show, we struck up a conversation and I offered to buy him a hot dog from Nathan's. "No thanks," he said. "I don't put that shit in my body."
I've met college-educated sword-swallowers and know a young woman who gave up a fairly promising career in publishing to become a fire-eater. I've been lucky enough to cross paths with Todd Robbins, head of Coney's sideshow school. Besides being able to eat shards of glass, Robbins in a gentleman and a scholar. He presided over a friend's wedding several years ago. There's also Dick Zigun, the "Mayor of Coney Island." Zigun's life – sideshow performer, oddity collector, married to a genuine Africa princess – would pass any carny stink test. Yet Zigun's also politically-engaged, knowledgeable and passionate about urban development and social issues, and one of the key figures in the movement to develop Coney in a way that would preserve something of its wild and unruly character.
Despite what one thinks would be a certain affinity, Hollywood's carnies are almost always nasty bits of business. With the homicidal somnambulist of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and several variants of Cheney's murderous carny crooks (two versions of the The Unholy Three, The Unknown), filmmakers set the tone early. Sure, there have been some notable exceptions: The Man Who Laughs lets the straight world play the villain for a bit and the titular characters of Freaks are intended to be as sympathetic as they are scary. But mostly, carnivals are a demonic places full of toothless hicks and sly dealers, filthy people who want only to travel from place to place eating souls or similarly discomforting the locals.
The 1981 fright flick The Funhouse is part of this long cinematic tradition. The flick starts with a ice-breaker "kill" that is all the evidence one needs that the slasher formula had already congealed into a predictable orthodoxy by '81. The opening scene, which says "hey, it's a slasher flick" by simultaneously riffing off Halloween and Psycho, starts with a pov shot of a masked killer getting a knife and making his way into the bathroom of a suburban home. In said bathroom, there's some perfunctory T&A, then the as yet unidentified slasher opens the shower curtain and plunges his knife repeatedly at the naked girl. If you ended the flick right there, you would have pretty made yourself a fully functional slasher movie. In fact, you'd have made one of the better slashers as your flick would have been mercifully short and completely devoid of dialogue.
But The Funhouse continues.
The would be vic screams, fights back, and grabs the attackers knife hand at the wrist. The girl is overpowered and the knife slowly descends down towards "Not Rated" territory. Then, before the beaver shot, the knife plunges and bends harmlessly against the girl's tummy. It's a fake. It's a prank by her younger brother, a little scoundrel of a boy who understands that sometimes, for the best pranks, you need to stalk you naked old sister in the bathroom. Sure, it's a little pervy. But later, in therapy, you'll look back on all the time you spent planning and executing you plan to surprise your sister in the shower and you'll just laugh and laugh.
Sadly, sis doesn't take the long-term view of this and chases little brother to his room. And tells him that someday she'll prank him so had that it will scar him for life.
So ends the flicks weirdly Fruedian intro and on we move to the main event. Freshly showered, the girl – virgin good-girl Amy – joins up with hunky boyfriend Buzz, semi-slutty (meaning she's had, dare I say it, sex!) Liz, and Liz's nerdy college-boy man pet Richie.
They go to a traveling carnival and spend a good 50 minutes or so roaming around, enjoying toke breaks, bumping into various carnies (several of who seem to be crazy homeless people), or otherwise dragging everything out. There make important stops for a ominous palm reading, an extended bathroom break for the ladies to discuss the futility of not giving it up, and a few shots of a two-headed cow. For a little dramatic gravity, there are several scenes in which ominous music kicks in and Amy seems to get hypnotized by some detail of the carnival. It is meant to imply that she's seeing sinister portents, but the effect is that she just seems easily confused by motion and bright lights.
As the teen quartet ever-so-slowly makes their way to killy time. We see that Amy's little bro has snuck out, determined to follow his sister to the carnival. Presumably to watch Amy get heavy-petted by Buzz or something. His trip the carnival is considerably more interesting than anything that is going on at the carnival. He nearly gets chomped by guard dogs and crosses paths with a gun-totting motorist of the "Hey little boy, want a ride variety."
As we wait for little brother to arrive, Nerdelmeister comes up with the funnest sounding idea ever! The quartet should spend the night in the carnival funhouse. As a slightly rundown spookshow dark ride is obviously the most clean, comfortable, and sensual place one could chose to lose one's cherry, Amy agrees. Buzz knows that a gentleman makes a girl's first time special, so he opts for the funhouse over the back seat of his Dodge Charger. Liz, because she's had sex before, will pretty much rut anywhere. To the funhouse gang!
At this point the little bro subplot links up to main story. Little bro watches the gang enter the house, posing a normal riders. But, unable to see that they ditch before the ride is over, he doesn't see them come out. He'll spend most of the next 30 minutes or so cautiously eyeing the funhouse. Hey, it's a horror movie, not an action flick. What do you want?
Inside, the teen quartet finds what appears to be the "trippy gnome village" section of the funhouse ride and starts to grope and thrust. In le mode de les années 80, the couples don't find separate, private areas to have sex in. Instead they just start at it about 20 feet away from one another. Hey, we're all friends here, right? Fortunately, the much delayed carnage begins when their romantic interlude is interrupted by a noise beneath them, coming up from the office of the funhouse. Peering through the slat of the floor, the gang witnesses the hulking, masked assistant of the funhouse ride murder the carny fortune-teller in a sex-for-cash transaction that goes awry. The assistant is unmasked as an albino mutant and his pops, the funhouse barker (who looks suspiciously like all the barkers in the carnival), arrives to figure out what to do with the dead fortune teller. Then, happily, Dorkus McNerdy accidentally drops his cigarette lighter through the slats and the chasing and killing begins in earnest.
(And what happens to the little bro? He finally approaches the house, gets scared by the mutant, and then either gets saved or captured and sexually molested by one of the other barkers, depending on how you read the scene. His parents come to pick him up, but he won't talk – either because he thinks his sister hates or because he mistaken believes his molestation was part of her revenge for the prank, again depending on how you read the scene - and fails to explain that sis entered and never left the funhouse. All of this leads to a nicely frustrating scene in which Amy tries desperately, but futilely to signal her parents to free her.)
What follows is an engaging, but fairly standard by-the-numbers stalk-the-teens affair. The order of deaths is the identity of the final girl is obvious from the beginning of the flick, so all that remains is execution. It's worth noting, however, that the proceedings are, by slash standards, relatively bloodless. With the exception of an extended "axe in the head" scene – the victim of which is already dead when it happens – most of the killing is done just off screen and with a minimum of gore. For the look of the flick, Hooper takes cues from the garish lights and colors of the midway. In some ways, The Funhouse seems like practice for the color drenched carnivalesque look Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2. After the sun-bleach minimalist vérité of Chain Saw, it's as if Hooper started working on ostentatiously artificial style, not unlike self-conscious and mannered style of Italian shock vendors. Only, being slightly down home, Hooper keeps it simple and rough about the edges. It's a garage rock to Italy's opera.
Still, it all seems like a dry run, with the emphasis on "dry."
With talent to burn behind the screen – director Tobe Hooper was just two flicks away from his seminal Chain Saw – the real surprise of Funhouse is how bush league the flick feels. The film feels stilted: uneasy with the confinement of the slasher formula, but unsure or unwilling to go in another direction. Again and again, the best work in this flick comes in the form of asides, most of which are left tantalizing underused or frustratingly unfulfilled. The little brothers fate, for example, or the hints that the fortune teller has supernatural powers or that the carnival might be one big family of crazies; all of these feel like elements of the story the filmmakers cared more about than the stalk-and-slay mechanic of the slasher. In this, The Funhouse has more in common with non-slasher 1980s weirdness like The People Under the Stairs and Phantasm. This makes it quirky and interesting, but ultimately the demands of the formula – demands the filmmakers grudgingly acquiesce to in only a half-hearted manner – drag all that is novel and exciting about the film down a too familiar and (even by '81) quite tired rut.
About mid-way through the film, the foursome of as-yet-only-potential victims sees a freakshow display of a pickled punk, a most likely faked-up mutant fetus in a jar of alcohol. Strikingly misshapen and mutated, but dead on arrival and displayed in lifelessness: that's really a metaphor for the flick as a whole. The Funhouse stands as a case study in how pandering to the "keep it fun by giving me more of the same" mentality behind fan orthodoxy smothers interesting works.