Spookshow Sideshows – The Funhouse (1981)
While not completely forgotten, The Funhouse has never quite gotten the attention of Tobe Hooper films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Poltergeist, often getting lumped in with serviceable ‘80s horrors of the Prom Night variety. It never got a sequel, and didn’t produce a fan-favorite villain, but it does include a lot of amazing, real-life carnival imagery, since Hooper filmed at a Florida site used to store travelling rides and attractions in the off-season. Along the way, it also tells a bleak story of alienation and the breakdown of communication and support within the American family.
The plot is particularly simple. On a whim, two teenage couples sneak in to spend the night inside the Funhouse of a travelling carnival, where they witness a murder through the floorboards, ending up trapped and fighting for their lives. A barker claims the Funhouse is full of “goblins, ghosties, and ghoulies,” asking “Who is man enough to enter that world of darkness?” It represents a desire for scares and thrills that are assumed to be harmless, and with their sheltered lives, the couples at first think what they’re seeing is funny, unaware that their light-hearted walk on the wild side contains real horror and danger.
Protagonist Amy is introduced in scenes that show her separation from her pesky little brother, Joey, and her parents. Watching TV on a pastel sofa, her mother nags her about her date’s prospects (“We’re not getting married!”) and her father tries, unsuccessfully, to control her behavior. In their nice, big, comfortable house, the couple doesn’t seem at all happy, and the mom drinks heavily, appearing quite drunk in her later appearance.
She doesn’t fare much better with her friends, who can’t appreciate the good sense that could keep them alive. Her father had legitimate concerns about “that damned carnival,” which is connected in the public mind with the previous deaths of two children, but when she tries to avoid it, they pressure her with “Loosen up, will you?”
Joey sneaks off to the carnival himself, just in time to see them go into the Funhouse, and when he’s found there after hours, his parents are called. In mid-ordeal, Amy sees her entire family right outside, but her brother, who knows she’s there, hasn’t told anyone. No one can see her, and she can only scream for unheard help, then watch them drive away.
All this adds up to a theme of isolation and alienation. We never see any part of town but Amy’s house, and the carnival is reached after passing through empty countryside. There are random glimpses of a sinister world, not directly related to the carnival, but showing the supposedly normal world. A bag lady unnerves the girls and Joey in separate incidents, and Joey is — jokingly? — threatened with a shotgun by a passing motorist. He doesn’t have any Goonies or a Monster Squad, no friends to back him up; he just goes out into the night alone.
Similarly, the young couples, in training to be future nuclear families, don’t have any other friends who know what they’re doing. They enjoy their individuality, the lack of restraining neighbors or authority figures, until they need help and can’t reach it. Their lives, and deaths, take place in a vacuum of individuality.
Ironically, the barker and his son are murderers, but they have a sense of protective community which the teenagers do not. The barker doesn’t care what his son does to the “locals,” but is angry that he’s killed “one of the family.” When he urges his son to kill the witnesses, he justifies it by saying “We gotta take care of each other.”
The film’s conclusion reinforces this idea, echoing the earlier scene where Joey remains on the site as the carnival closes down. The camera pans back and he becomes very small, all but disappearing in the frame. At the end, with her friends dead, Amy emerges onto the carnival grounds as if into a wasteland, and again, the slow pan back of the camera highlights how small and alone she is in the vista of the hostile universe, becoming smaller and smaller, until she’s swallowed up by the carnival. Brother and sister are both shown in this same position, but they remain isolated and separated, never meeting after their argument in the beginning of the film.
Throughout the films I’ve watched here, carnivals and amusement parks are used as potent symbols of a common human desire to escape the grind of life for pleasure and a sense of freedom, but audiences are always reminded that stepping outside the norm can lead to danger. That can arguably be seen as reinforcing a certain social order, meant to keep young people, especially, in line. But the carnival’s very visual appeal in a film like The Funhouse also reminds us that too much constraint is incompatible with the human spirit. While its carnival people are presented as threatening, even murderous grotesques, there’s a level of grotesquerie outside in the so-called normal world, as well, and even with the supposedly safe confines of the nuclear family.
It is not to disparage the film’s style or originality to say that it fits the basic template of formula, in a way that earlier films like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies or She Freak did not. Those were strange, shaggy beasts, and this is the work of professionals, conscious of an audience with certain expectations that need to be met. Formulaic films can be very entertaining in the ways that formula is used, but they do feel different from the horror films that were made before the formulas had gelled into a set of conventions.
Hooper’s film is far from generic, veering in some unexpected directions, but its basic outline is shared with dozens of horror films from the 1980s: teenagers break the rules and, as a result, face deadly consequences. By Hollywood studio standards, this would probably be considered a fairly low-budget genre film. But while it retains the oddball touches Hooper is known for, it’s still slicker and glossier than any of the other films discussed.
Note: The Funhouse clearly references a long-time tradition of treating “freak show” performers as monstrosities, which unfortunately plays into negative stereotypes of disabilities as strange and threatening. A similar issue plagues all the films in the Friday the 13th franchise. This is tempered somewhat by the moral villainy of the physically “normal” characters. Although a physical deformed and mentally incapacitated Frankenstein Monster commits a murder out of instinct and anger, it’s his father who covers up the crimes, perpetuating them rather than allowing him to face the consequences, and manipulates him to commit murder in cold blood.