The Funhouse (1981)

Pay to get in. PRAY to get out.
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The Funhouse - Pay to get in. PRAY to get out.

The Funhouse is the second of Tobe Hooper's films to make it to the UK video nasty list (the first being Eaten Alive - the film about the crocodile, not the Umberto Lenzi one about cannibals). It is unclear why this tale of carnival jollity made it on to a list of notorious horror movies that "tend to deprave or corrupt persons" as it is a slasher movie similar to many movies at the time that were not banished to this purgatory. It is light on gore and the sexual content extends no further than some exposed boobies and a deformed, cognitively impaired man in a Frankenstein’s monster mask ejaculating prematurely at the hands of mature soothsaying prostitute. Actually this bizarre Frankie wanky would be the sole reason for the controversy if there was genuinely any. There is speculation that the reason for trying to ban this movie in the UK was a mistake and that the intended target was a film called Last House on Dead End Street (which was made a few years earlier and also known as The Fun House). Last House on Dead End Street is much more suited to the DPP list due to its subject matter but managed to slip under their radar.

Back in the early eighties, the arrival of the carnival in town is guaranteed to bring out the child in any teenager (nowadays abortions are a more popular way to achieve a similar goal) and there is nothing that an inner child enjoys more than an illegal overnight stay in the ghost train building with a small amount of marijuana. This is a fairly common setup for a horror movie and has been seen a few times since. What makes The Funhouse memorable is how it achieves that what is expected of a teen slasher movie while maintaining a darkness and sense of foreboding that many more recent slashers lack. The horror relies more on the situation combined with jump scares rather than just shocks and gore and, despite requiring a leap of faith in the believability department with regards to our deformed antagonist, manages to pull it off quite efficiently (like the mature soothsaying prostitute mentioned earlier). In 1981, the funhouse setting was not too overused and some of the subtleties of the set decoration combine to make a colourful yet menacing scenario.

The stalker slash slasher in this situation is simply credited as "The Monster". Initially he is hidden beneath an expressionless mask of Frankenstein's monster. The masked killer is a useful tool within the slasher genre and provides a sense of mystery to compliment any fear that may be lurking in the mind of the viewer. Unfortunately, in this case, a lot of this dread dissipates once the mask is removed. The "deformities" of the monster are quite excessive and were too ambitious to make him look like anything other than someone in another expressionless mask. Often slasher movie makers realise the limitations of their special effects and leave any unmasking until the end of the film, this delays the disappointment, by which time the audience has already enjoyed the on screen shenanigans. In The Funhouse, the monster is unmasked much earlier than any stereotypes have led horror fans to expect and this ends up detrimental to the film. The disappointment sets in too early and by the end of the film the bad guy just looks daft. The original mask and the viewer's imagination creates a bigger sense of fear but this is just a pedantic criticism.

The story execution is nothing groundbreaking. It is an emblematic slasher scenario supported by teenagers making stupid decisions, dysfunctional families and suggestions of the occult. The outcome is about as predictable as a game of rock-paper-scissors between Ben Grimm and Edward Scissorhands. After a slow start, Hooper manages to maintain the tension and the energy and this makes an entertaining horror movie out of a mediocre story that literally isn't over until the figurative fat lady sings. This came out in that small period of time when Tobe Hooper was at his peak, in a period padded by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. Without his contribution and without the notoriety and publicity that video nasty controversy brings, this movie would have probably had little impact and would be relegated to the annals of obscurity by now.
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