As a kid there were some VHS cover boxes on the shelf at the video store that just always really creeped me out. One of those creatively marketed titles was Tobe Hooper’s 1981 thriller The Funhouse.
While it goes well beyond cliché to say that clowns are generally creepy, the clown on the cover of this title cannot and should not be described in any other way—he’s scary as hell. So you can imagine my surprise when, some twenty years after this film first caught my eye, I finally sat down to watch the thing and there wasn’t a single damn clown in the entire movie! What I found instead was a slow burn thriller that actually pays off quite nicely—if you’re able to stick it out for the nearly 50 minutes it takes before the movie’s first kill.
Capitalizing off of the success of his underground hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, director Tobe Hooper crafted this film’s story very much in the same mold. Where it differed greatly was in the film’s execution (pardon the pun), which undoubtedly left fans of Massacre wondering when the other bloody shoe was going to drop.
The set-up is a simple yet effective genre staple: four pot-smoking teens looking for some excitement at a traveling carnival that stopped in their town. One of the incorrigibly horny guys has the great idea that they should hide in the funhouse and stay over when all the carnies have called it a night. Amazingly, the others agree and, just like that, we have a horror movie.
Once inside, the teens witness a murder at the hands of one especially demented Carnie (who is essentially a carbon-copy of Chainsaw’s Leatherface.) The rest of the night (and the film) is spent with the teens, as they attempt to escape the creepy killer and his equaly deranged father. The teens are, of course, picked off one by one before the break of dawn.
There is no denying that The Funhouse is a slow film, even compared to other 80’s horror. You can tell that Tobe Hooper really took his time with this one. If you look closely, you can tell that he did put great care into the film—the cinematography is tight, the creature effects are solid and there are a few legitimately impressive long-take crane shots. He even managed to slip in an homage to both Halloween and Psycho, as well as some gratuitous nudity—all in the opening 5 minutes!
And, for what it’s worth, Tobe Hooper turned down a film that was offered to him by Steven Spielberg in order to make The Funhouse. The film he turned down? E.T.Ouch.