The freaks actually come out at night in Tobe Hooper's cult classic 'The Funhouse.' And I'm not only referring to the carnies working the rides or the "barkers" swindling the curious into their "joints" — although there are quite a few of them which glare disturbingly at the film's heroine - and at us. There's also the creepy, filthy-looking vagrant wandering the fairgrounds in a daze with what appears like blood streaming from the top of his head. He's just one of several weird things occurring in the background, and we bump into him a couple of times. Then there's the dirty, old bag lady with a witch's cackling laugh, spouting about God watching everyone as she walks into the toilet stall to do her business. If that weren't enough, a "freaks-of-nature" booth has a two-headed cow and an abnormal newborn in a jar, which we later discover has an older surviving twin.
This is the eerie, bizarre fun to be had in 'The Funhouse,' a splendid little horror flick that still holds up thirty years later and remains one of the better features to come out of the 80s slasher craze. The small quirky things happening in the background while slowly building up to the main attraction creates a semblance of a real carnival show. We carouse the other amusing attractions of the fair first, enjoying their quaintness and colorful display with childlike splendor, biding our time and saving what we hope will be the best ride until the end. And this is precisely what Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) and her date, Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) are doing, taking in the festivities and spectacle offered by this traveling funfair visiting their quiet town. They are on a double date with Amy's friends, Liz (Largo Woodruff) and her boyfriend Richie (Miles Chapin).
From the director of the seminal horror classic 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' and the memorable TV movie 'Salem's Lot,' Hooper takes his wonderful, sweet time in the first half of the movie, following the four kids as they enjoy the carnival rides and we sit here watching them like rubes. I'm not pointing this out as a complaint, mind you, but as a praise of the director's style, an admiration of his technique to provoke and arouse his audience's curiosity, like one of the "barkers" tempting us into peeking inside the tent. Our peek happens when one of the teens foolishly suggests spending the night inside the funhouse ride where they witness the murder of Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles) at the hands of Gunther (Wayne Doba), a gruesomely deformed creature hiding his face beneath a Frankenstein's monster mask. What started as a fun little dare quickly spirals into a night of terror and survival.
One of my favorites aspects of the film is the way in which Hooper displays his skill behind the camera with an awareness of the techniques in creating suspense. It opens with a POV shot of someone entering a bedroom with a variety of scare tactics, like rubber insects and a dummy's head. The individual ultimately chooses a knife and a clown's mask, narrowing our visibility to the two eye holes. We then move to a shower scene where we see the silhouette of a person sneaking up to an unsuspecting young woman. With the fling of the clear curtain, a reaction shot and the shrieking sounds of a violin, the rapid camera movement quickly abates our shock and instead brings a smile. The entire sequence is homage to John Carpenter's 'Halloween' and Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' in essence, paying respect to their immense influence in horror cinema.
Going beyond that, I think Hooper was subconsciously striving to achieve that same level of success and inspiration with 'The Funhouse.' For loyal cult fans, I would say his film is a terrific scare romp that can be enjoyed with an equal level of entertainment, but I don't see it being the equal of those two. Still, the movie is definitely one of the better and more originally inventive slasher flicks to be produced during the genre's golden heyday. Larry Block's script faithfully adheres to the formula, down to Amy being the virginal final girl, but it never feels confined by it. Hooper does excellently in having fun with the rules, to use them as devices for making a memorable film rather than be hindered by them.
As he demonstrates here, and which also falls in line with references to the aforementioned classics, buckets of blood and gore are not always necessary for a good horror movie. Story and style are. 'The Funhouse' is pretty tame by comparison to other slasher features released around the same period, and it's all the better for it, making this deliciously fun ride a Hooper classic in its own right.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'The Funhouse' to Blu-ray as a Collector's Edition package under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the normal blue case with brand new reversible cover art and a cardboard slipcover.
At startup, the disc goes to a generic main menu selection on the left side with the movie's music and full-motion clips. Also, if you buy direct from the Shout! Factory website, fans can get an exclusive, limited edition poster of the newly commissioned artwork with their purchase and while supplies last!
'The Funhouse' takes a ride on Blu-ray with this surprisingly excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The picture is sharply detailed with resilient fine lines on costumes, the exterior of the carnival rides and inside the dark haunted ride. Natural facial complexions expose the tiniest blemish, bits of stubble and the pores of the young cast. Despite the poor lighting and the endless amount of deep, ominous shadows, we can clearly make out every aspect and detail of the ride's animatronic dummies.
With inky rich blacks throughout and a nice ultra-thin layer of grain, the 2.35:1 image has an appreciable cinematic quality with a pleasing depth of field. Contrast is quite vivid and bright, but never causes any visible artifacts that distract. Colors, especially reds and blues, are richly-saturated and vibrant without feeling exaggerated. In the end, it's a fantastic high-def presentation of a cult horror favorite.
As Scream! Factory has done with other releases, this edition of 'The Funhouse' comes with two listening options — one is a 5.1-channel surround while the other is 2.0 stereo. Given the choice, the latter is the superior of the two and definitely the preferred method of enjoying this fun flick.
The 5.1 soundtrack is an obvious upmix of the original elements, forcing musical cues and other discrete effects to bleed into the background. Unfortunately, the track only succeeds in filling the room with low-level noise, almost to the point of white noise. It's horribly distracting, and it makes vocals seem flat and hollow. It's a terrible option that should simply be avoided.
The lossless 2-channel stereo mix is a massive improvement, offering a better sense of presence and fidelity. Dialogue is clear and distinct in the center, although a couple conversations tend to be mildly drowned out by some of the louder action sequences. The front soundstage is broad and engaging with lots of discrete, convincing background activity, keeping the movie lively and energetic from beginning to end. Dynamics are sharply-rendered with excellent range and differentiation in the musical score of John Beal. Low bass is adequate and appropriate, providing a noticeable depth to music and action.
For this latest release of 'The Funhouse,' Shout! Factory offers a nice assortment of new special features fans will love, and they are the same set found on the DVD releasing the same day.
One of the better horror films to come out during the heyday of the 80s slasher, Tobe Hooper's 'The Funhouse' is an amusing and stylishly creative suspense ride with a fond love of classic horror. Starring Elizabeth Berridge and a hideously deformed poor soul with a murderous rage, the movie is a cult classic with plenty of smarts and intelligence in its style and approach to the genre. The Blu-ray offers a fantastic video presentation that fans will absolutely love, and with two lossless audio option from which to choose, the 2.0 stereo mix is a massive improvement to previous releases. New supplemental material makes this collector's edition a recommended package and a must-own for loyal followers.