The Funhouse (1981)

the funhouse

“I’m going to get even with you. You’re not going to know when or where, but I’m going to get you so bad you’re never gonna forget it. Never! Never!”

The Scoop: 1981 R, directed by Toby Hooper and starring Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, and Miles Chapin

Tagline: Pay to get in. PRAY to get out.

Summary Capsule: Dumb teenagers think a seedy traveling carnival will be a cheap double date and offer cool places to get high and make out. It also offers places to die!

Kyle’s rating: This is why I take all my first dates to well-lit expensive restaurants, where chances for horror are low and chances for romance are high!

Kyle’s review: By the time I came into the world as I knew it (Denver, Colorado), it seems like carnivals were no longer the force they once were. Makes sense: if I had been a parent in the 70’s and 80’s and had heard the urban legends about murderous traveling carnie folk, as well as noticed that a lot of carnies either look weird or look like Charles Manson, I wouldn’t let my kids anywhere near ‘em. Plus, the increasing trend of litigation didn’t favor carnivals, which (if pictures I’ve seen are accurate) were composed almost entirely of sharp corners, pointy metal blades, rusted tilt-a-whirls, and exposed nails bloodied by the last kid who brushed against two stops prior.

They were freaky, creepy events back then, and even the diluted strain of modern carnivals has an askew quality to it that isn’t very fun at all. When Austin Powers exclaimed that he hated carnies, people laughed but no one really disagreed, did they?

I don’t want to turn this into a typical long-winded Kyle-rant, but I want to make sure that people who have never been to a carnival understand: they are pretty strange occurrences, and you really aren’t missing much. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that, since everywhere I’ve ever lived (Denver, Chicago, SoCal) has boasted numerous theme parks close by, so the “mini-amusement park” quality of traveling carnivals never ever impressed me, though I’ve always been obsessed with seeing one on the move on the road. That would be cool to see how they transport all the stuff; I have no idea how that works!

But seriously: all the ones I encountered were cleaned up for the 80’s and 90’s but were still strange little collections of thrill-less motion rides, unwinnable games of skill that had weird low-rent prizes if they let you win, and a ferris wheel that was never high enough for the ticket cost. All in all, going to the carnival is like going to what you think is going to be a cool horse show but when you get there it’s all tiny mistreated ponies that are infested with fleas and meet your gaze with deeply sad black eyes that haunt you for the rest of the month. A very, very weird and displeasing scene. Maybe you’ve had positive carnival experiences. Good for you. I’ll stick with Six Flags, thanks very much.

Actually, if you’ve only seen a carnival viewed via pop culture (in a tv show or a movie) you might get a thrill out of The Funhouse, a 1981 horror film that views the traveling carnival with an eye for its shadowy and psychosexual elements. The carnival in the film is whispered by the parental units as vaguely dangerous and threatening, carrying with it stories from other towns where murders occurred and people disappeared. To the (stupid) teenagers it’s a great way to have a (cheap) double date, and a source of a teenage rite of passage that dooms most of them and shouldn’t have really impressed any of their friends and classmates with brains anyway. To the audience, it’s ultimately portrayed as a family business where you can’t tell what came first, the family or the business, but you can certainly tell that every member of this “family” is akin to the strangest member of your family that everyone gossips about and that eats their own dead skin when they think no one is looking. Ick.

The Funhouse’s strength is its enthusiasm to wallow in the filth of its subject matter. A nice teenage girl who should know better goes on a double date with her friend and two idiot guys to a carnival, after telling her parents they’re going to a movie. They breeze through all the low-rent attractions (where the audience sees that the carnie folk are all chain-smoking, weary alcoholics who can barely tolerate the presence of “locals”) and one of the idiot guys comes up with the brilliant idea of spending the night in the funhouse, because he knew someone who had done it and it was really, really cool (his words, not mine). So they go in on the cars and sneak into the inner workings to make out and have awkward sex among the animatronics, not realizing until it’s too late that this particular funhouse is the home of a semi-deranged barker and his hugely-deformed mutant son. Murder, mayhem, and much loud screaming ensue. It’s a blast, maybe. Not really, though.

I had super-high hopes for The Funhouse. My grandma loves horror novels, and she had this one red paperback that she said had been turned into the film The Funhouse and she let me read it. For a young gorehound like me, it was a secret thrill, and whoa was it both like and unlike the Stephen King stuff I was getting into (this was around the fifth grade, when I was reading the unabridged Dracula and The Stand for extra credit book reports *bragging ends*). There was weird family connections between the young heroine and the abnormal freak trying to kill her, and some sort of psychic bond stuff going on, I think. The characterization of the expendable female friend/sidekick was very adult and risqué, with her highly sexual shenanigans and her deeply perverted death scene particularly scarring me for life (thanks for the book recommendation, grandma!). It was gross and scary and totally awesome, and I wanted to see the movie adaptation so bad! And was the book written by Dean Koontz or what? (see: Intermission section below) That’s wild!

I finally found The Funhouse on VHS for like $2 and bought it. And it was worth seeing once, I suppose, because director Tobe Hooper (who has never impressed me much, sorry, folks) does a pretty good job of capturing that seedy carnival essence and puts a lot of weird stuff on display, so you do get a quick tutorial on a slice of Americana which thankfully seems to have died out. But overall it was weak and barely connected to that book I had read nearly a decade earlier, and only the outstanding visuals and the boobage factor put a smile on my face.

I can’t go on. It’s all so blah. I submit The Funhouse to you as a potential October rental because it’s a horror movie you can laugh at with friends over popcorn at a let’s-be-cheesy Halloween party. It’s also a horror movie you can watch alone to see how strange and seedy elements of the world can be when they’re mysterious and not tied down to a particular place and/or corporate-sponsored. It won’t do much for women’s lib because all the heroine can do is scream and stand back in terror while stuff goes on in front of her that might turn out better if she just grabbed a stick or something and jumped into the fray to help her friends. But they can’t all be Jamie Lees, can they?

I’ve thrown some better horror your way and I’ll continue to do so, but if you want to see something that is not timeless and clearly a product of its time, The Funhouse is an interesting look at the horrific world of teen dating options before big shopping malls were everywhere and kids old and young carried cell phones. And just think: yesterday’s genetically abnormal killer freak is today’s plastic surgery reality show’s season opener client. What a world!

When clowns do Shakespeare, it isn’t pretty


  • (Kyle is) an only child, so I never had to worry about my privacy being invaded or had weird relationships with siblings while going through hormonal changes in my body, thank goodness. So the odd relationship the lead girl and her younger brother have is both strange and undoubtedly-intentionally charged with an odd sexual undercurrent. It’s one thing for the younger brother to be obsessed with horror movies (Frankenstein!), stage blood, marionette heads, and plastic knives. It’s another to have walls covered with quasi-bondage gear and implements of torture and war (all plastic, but still!) and to blend Halloween and Psycho together by wearing a clown mask to attack your naked sister in the shower with a rubber knife. What would Freud say?
  • I think Kevin Conroy plays like three different roles as carnival workers. Kevin Conroy scares Kyle. According to the Shakespearean film/documentary Looking for Richard Conroy is a great stage actor and Kyle has read articles that talk about what a talent Conroy has always been. But he still frightens Kyle. Does he frighten you?
  • How in the heck do they move the funhouse? Is it all one big piece on wheels that just drives off when a truck pulls it (hemy-power!)? Or does it break into pieces/chunks to be put in a big moving van? That’s crazy stuff, traveling carnivals. I don’t know how Johnny Blaze does it (obscure Ghost Rider comic reference!).
  • This was Tobe Hooper’s third feature film, following Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive.
  • The opening sequence is an homage to both Psycho and Halloween.
  • Steven Spielberg asked Tobe Hooper to direct E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial but he turned it down because he was busy on this movie. However Hopper and Spielberg would work together on Poltergeist.
  • Apparently Lawrence Block wrote the treatment to The Funhouse and presented it to Hooper as a potential horror film to be made. It seems this was Lawrence Block’s first attempt at writing a film script. To get the media machine going to promote the film, Dean Koontz (who wasn’t as big then as he is now) was commissioned to write a novelization of Block’s screenplay. Koontz went all out and added a whole lotta background, including familial connections between good and bad characters and threw in a lot more smut that is only hinted at onscreen. It was published with Koontz using the pseudonym “Owen West.”
  • Makeup god Rick Baker did the special effects for The Funhouse and they’re certainly scary and gross. However, Baker really got attention for the next film he worked on, An American Werewolf in London, for which he received an Academy Award and a lot more attention and kudos.

Groovy Quotes

Mr. Harper: Where are you going tonight?
Mrs. Harper: Well? Answer your father!
Amy Harper: We’re going to the movies.
Joey Harper: [eavesdropping from the stairs] Liar.

[Joey Harper has snuck out of the house late at night and is walking along the road to get to the carnival]
Weird passerby in truck: Hey, kid! What are you up tah? What are you doing out here? You wanna lift? Huh?
[Guy pulls a shotgun from the passenger seat and point it out the window at Joey. Joey gasps and runs off.]
Weird passerby in truck: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hah aha! [his weird rotten teeth really make his manic laughter that much more creepy]

Carnival barker: These are all creatures of God, ladies and gentlemen. Not man. They are all authentic and they are alive. Alive, alive, alive.

Crazy old lady wandering around carnival: God is watching you. He is watching!

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