Directed by Tobe Hooper
Distributed by Arrow Video
Easily one of the most potent locations in which to generate a feast of fear, the carnival atmosphere provides the backdrop for Tobe Hooper’s 1981 classic The Funhouse Deciding to spend the night inside the titular attraction when the fair comes to town, four teens inadvertently bear witness to the murder of the carnival’s fortune teller by the ride’s helper – a clumsy, hulking weirdo adorned with a Frankenstein’s Monster mask. When one of them makes the incorrigibly stupid decision to subsequently steal the contents of a cash box at the scene, it’s only a matter of moments before the missing money, and the teens’ presence, is discovered. From there, our group set about trying to escape the creepy confines of the funhouse and the grasp of the now de-masked, and monstrously deformed, murderer and his carny father.
Ever the cinematic dissident, Hooper’s The Funhouse is a slasher movie that isn’t a slasher movie. The opening scene delivers specific mimicry of both Psycho and Halloween, but when the “victim” in those moments is subsequently revealed to be our heroine (the butt of a masked killer joke played by her younger brother), Hooper shows us that he isn’t going to play by any established rules of the genre. This continues throughout the film with our final girl (who at this point has already provided the requisite nudity) goes on to smoke pot and make out with the best of them. Take that, Friday the 13th! Similarly, Hooper also avoids the excessive violence that also framed the basics of the slasher flick with the entirety of The Funhouse being almost completely bloodless. Save for one or two moments of light bloodshed, deaths are primarily off-screen or dealt via strangulation and electrocution. This makes it all the more perplexing that the flick historically ended up on the BBFC’s official “Video Nasties” banned list – an act that has been argued as a simple mistaking of this film for the notorious Last House on Dead End Street, which also bore the same title as an alternate. So, despite the chequered past of The Funhouse on British shores, splatter fans beware: This does not dish up the gory goods you crave in any way.
What it does dish up is atmosphere. It overflows with it. Set design within the funhouse environments themselves is stunningly immersive and creepy as hell. Hooper lets things build at a methodical pace, as his brilliant use of timing, framing, lighting and sound come together to switch the environs of a ghost house train ride from laughable novelty to a legitimately chilling corner of hell. Scenes such as the motorized attractions shutting down at the end of the day, a tense few moments of expectation sound tracked to the laughing of a mechanical clown in the background, and one unlucky punter trundling off into darkness with an axe in his head just force their way under the skin. The film is also tonally rock solid, featuring similarly sturdy performances from the cast across the board. Also of note is John Beal’s demented carnival-riff score, which easily bolsters the madness and heightens the few effective stingers that Hooper pulls throughout the runtime.
If there’s anything to complain about in The Funhouse, the most likely target is the creature effects which, while an impressive design, lack mobility. As the monster, actor Wayne Doba delivers an energetic performance; however, the prosthetics are unwieldy and unconvincing. The gloved hands seem slightly too big, and the eyes lack the spark and movement required in close-up shots toward the climax in order to be completely believable. Still, Hooper’s treatment of the monster himself is admirable, with a palpable sense of tragedy and sadness surrounding his existence and ultimate fate. The Frankenstein’s Monster mask worn in the early stages is obviously no coincidence.
In the end, though, a few missteps in the creature effects shouldn’t, and don’t, provide any reason to completely deride any movie when the atmosphere more than makes up for the shortcomings. With The Funhouse Tobe Hooper is in absolute top form. And do you know what you get when Hooper’s in top form? You get a classic piece of horror, that’s what.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release sports what can only be referred to as the best transfer of the film I’ve ever seen. The image is solid and sharp, without sacrificing on the grain of the original theatrical presentation. The picture appears extremely natural, with spot on gamma levels and no evidence of digital tinkering or dreaded DNR. Sound-wise, we have a Dolby Stereo mix that’s more than up to the job. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch.
On the special features front… well, I’ll just let you look at the list below. Besides a host of video interviews with Miles Chapin, Craig Reardon, Mick Garris and Hooper, we also have a recorded Q&A session with Hooper and his Toolbox Murders cohorts Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson. This one features an on-screen text apology for the sound and video quality, but I didn’t find it particularly difficult to listen to. Next up are three – yes, three – audio commentaries to accompany the film. The first features FX wiz Craig Reardon and Jeffrey Reddick; the second is with producer Derek Power and genre writer Howard S. Berger; and the third includes genre writers Justin Kerswell and Calum Waddell.
All three of these are worth a listen as they each provide a unique discussion of the material from the fans’ point of view through to the internals of the shooting set to Reardon’s intimate divulging of the various special effects. All of them are engaging (even if Power and Berger’s does feature quite frequent down-time with no backing audio track of the film itself), and this adds a tremendous amount to the time you’ll spend with this release. The lack of a commentary with Hooper himself is a glaring omission, but you’ll get over that easily in the face of what actually is there. Gift horses, mouths, and all that.
Finally on the disc we have exclusive photographs taken from Craig Reardon’s on-set collection and the trailer.
Moving on to the physical extras, Arrow have included their usual selection of various old and new cover art, a fold-out poster of the newly commissioned artwork, and a collectors’ booklet written by legendary genre journo Kim Newman. These weren’t included with the review copy so the content of the booklet can’t be commented on for certain but… well, you already owe it to yourself to buy this.
Great news for all you US fans of the film: This release is encoded for Blu-ray regions A, B and C.
If this can’t be referred to as the definitive treatment of a horror classic, I don’t know what can.
• Audio commentary by Craig Reardon and Jeffrey Reddick
• Audio commentary by Derek Power and Howard S. Berger
• Audio commentary by Justin Kerswell and Calum Waddell
• Carnage at the Carnival – Tobe Hooper Remembers The Funhouse
• Miles of Mayhem: Acting in Tobe’s Funhouse
• A Trilogy of Terror: The Make-up Madness of Craig Reardon
• Master Class of Horror
• Live Q&A with Tobe Hooper from San Francisco
• Never before seen behind-the-scenes photos from the collection of Craig Reardon
• Collectors’ booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by critic and author Kim Newman
• Four-panel reversible sleeve options with original and new artwork
• Double-sided fold-out artwork poster
4 1/2 out of 5
5 out of 5