I always wonder why The Funhouse (1981) doesn't get more attention among horror circles. Directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chain Saw Massacre fame, the film on the surface appears to be a routine slasher - masked killer hunting down not-so innocent teenagers - but it's put together with much more craft and effort than so many other post-Halloween imitators, and there's intriguing subtext about family and the seedy underbelly of show business.
After swearing revenge on her annoying little brother for scaring her, Amy (Elzabeth Berridge) goes on a double date with Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) and their friends Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) to a carnival. Amy lies to her parents about their destination; the last time the carnival was in town, some girls went missing, you see. The foursome have such a good time on all the rides and venues, they decide to spend the night inside the funhouse. But the funhouse becomes a nightmare when they witness a deformed carnie (Wayne Doba) kill a woman, and his father the barker (Kevin Conway) lets him loose to eliminate the teens.
On paper, The Funhouse reads like a routine slasher, but Hooper subverts many expectations. The first scene plays out like a riff on the opening of Halloween and the shower scene in Psycho before being revealed it's not a killer stalking the girl, but her obnoxious little brother. Later scenes at the carnival - the freak show tent, the magician's act, etc. - are set up with an element of danger before being revealed to be harmless while other elements -the truck driver pulling a shotgun on the brother, the old crone in the bathroom, the fact all three barkers look identical (suggesting inbreeding)- are subtly unsettling. This carnival, despite the carelessness of the patrons and the fun they're having, seems a little askew. Then, the murder occurs, and all bets are off.
Beneath the facade of a traveling carnival, there hides a twisted family. The barker, something of an abusive alcoholic, berates his son and hits him one minute and is calmly apologizing and promising to take him fishing the next, so long as he do "one more bad thing" (murder the teens). He hints at having covered up other such incidents elsewhere and looks forward to his son taking care of him in his old age. He scolds his son for murdering "one of the family" and chides him for paying her $100 for sex ("I could of got you one of them tent girls for 15."). Meanwhile, the corpse of the barker's other infant son is the exhibit out front in the jar. The outward image of the carnival hides a legacy of murder, incest, abuse, and exploitation.
Of course, Amy's family has some issues. I wonder what Freud would say about her brother scaring her in the shower as he does. She lies to her parents about where she's going twice, and her threats to her brother come back to haunt her. Her brother sneaks off to carnival, but after getting caught by other carnies, their parents arrive to take him, oblivious to her screams for help when she spots them through a ventilation fan. Maybe her brother would have told them she was in there if she hadn't sworn so vile a retaliation.
So that's The Funhouse, a genuinely creepy slasher. It was filmed at a real carnival, creating an authentic and sleazy atmosphere. I should also commend the effects of makeup wiz Rick Baker (who's done everything from An American Werewolf in London to The Nutty Professor) and the cinematography of Andrew Lazlo, who did The Warriors and First Blood. There's more craft to this film than you'd expect.