Blu-ray Review: 'The Funhouse' (1981) - Welcome To The Bloody Carnival

This pseudo slasher from "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" director Tobe Hooper was a real blind spot in my knowledge of his previous work. And that's a shame, because while I grew up on his "Poltergeist" and have a lot of affection for his unloved vampires from space epic "Life Force," I never really thought of him as being a visual stylist.

In fact, thinking back on his horror work, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is the low-fi, grimy look of "TCM," which makes this 1981 film all the more interesting. Also: it has a deformed killer, nods to black-gloved killers, and carnie law, and if those aren't reasons to pick up Shout! Factory's recent Blu-ray release, then I don't know what else I can say to convince you to see this movie.

Set in Florida, "The Funhouse" involves a group of four teens visiting the traveling carnival, and deciding to spend the night in order to get up to what unsupervised teens will get up to. Unfortunately, they choose the funhouse as their after hours hiding place where the Frankenstein's monster mask-wearing attendant strangles the carnival psychic.

The teens are subsequently pursued by the killer--whose deformity I won't spoil here with an image, but it's wild--and his sleazy barker father (Kevin Conway) through the halls of the funhouse, which seems larger and more elaborate than you would expect for such a grubby little traveling carnival. It's here, after a slow buildup getting the teens to the carnival, where "The Funhouse" really excels as Hooper takes excellent advantage of the setting to allow his leads to be thoroughly terrorized by the traps and mechanical scares behind the scenes in the exhibit. While nowhere near as gory as some of the slashers that would follow (or even some of its contemporaries) it more than makes up for the lack of explicit blood and guts with style and atmosphere.

Elizabeth Berridge plays Amy, our scream queen here and while she's game for looking frightened and showing the requisite amount of 80's skin, her character isn't particularly memorable for being resourceful or brave at any point during "The Funhouse" (in fact, her survival in the end was based in large part on sheer luck). There's also a subplot about her little brother Joey (Shawn Carson) following the group to the carnival and getting his own series of scares which serves to give the slower first third its own frights.

"The Funhouse" isn't Hooper's best, but it's one of his best-looking, I think, from the POV gloved stalker fake-out in the movie's opening, to the prolonged chase through the funhouse in the last act. Plus, it's got a terrific twist with its killer that makes it one worth seeking out.

And Shout! Factory has made that a very appealing prospect with this disc.

Presentation and Special Features

Shout! Factory's disc is generally very nice, with fine, natural skin tones and "hot" garish colors where appropriate. Occasionally, problems with the original materials crop up with the lightest of scratches in the print (and even those I only noticed because I was close to my TV during one scene). During the scene where the monster is strangling the gypsy, there is a minor presence of some kind ow white artifact at the very bottom of the screen for about half this sequence or more.

The main feature here is running commentary from director Tobe Hooper moderated by indie filmmaker Tim Sullivan. While not exactly a lively back and forth, Sullivan is able to get some interesting details about the making of the film, its effects, and working with the performers.

Additionally, the disc includes four featurettes: "The Barker Speaks" (11:15, HD), an interview with Kevin Conway who played the gravelly voiced carnival barker who somehow looks younger today than he did 30 years ago. In "Something Wicked This Way Comes" (8:44, HD), an interview with producer Mark Lester who shares his recollections about the making of "The Funhouse" from treatment to production while in "Carnival Music" (10:01, HD) focuses on composer John Beal who really wanted to use a synthesizer score for the film, but ultimately went with the sweeping orchestral score based on direction from producer Mace Neufeld. Finally, there's a three-minute audio interview with actor William Finley who has a small part as the carnival musician--the late "Phantom of the Paradise" performer talks about learning tricks for the film and his brief, boozy performance.

A selection of five deleted scenes present footage added for the television broadcast of "The Funhouse," but most of this footage--Buzz meeting the Harpers, the kids getting tickets, more of the magic show--is simply padding. Finally, four theatrical/TV spots are accompanied by four radio spots for the film.

"The Funhouse" is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory now. View the trailer below: