Teenager Amy Harper goes on a date with her older boyfriend Buzz to the carnival, over her father’s objections. Joining them on a double-date is her friend Liz and her boyfriend, Richie. Arriving at the carnival, they have fun experiencing the horrifying attractions, such as the animal freak show, filled with two-headed animals and other oddities of nature. After taking in a magic show, they decide to visit the fortune teller. The drunken psychic, Zena, reads Amy’s palm but grows annoyed by her friends, who are high on marijuana, as they laugh uncontrollably and mock her. Angry, Zena throws the teens out of her tent, threatening bodily harm if they ever return.
After leaving the fortune teller, Richie proposes they go on the funhouse ride and exit the cars inside, hiding until closing and staying the night in the facility. Everyone agrees to the plan, and they enter the ride, which is run by a man wearing a Frankenstein Monster mask. Once inside, they leave the cars and wait for the carnival to close. After closing, they see the rides attendant in a room under the floorboards negotiating with Zena for sex. When he prematurely ejaculates and wants his money back, Zena refuses. Enraged, the man lashes out at her and strangles her to death. After witnessing the crime, the teens are eager to leave the facility and begin to search for the exit.
Finding themselves outside the room on the lower level, Richie enters, presumably to check to see if Zena is dead. Once inside, Richie loots the cash box before returning to the others. Finally locating the exit, Buzz tries to open the door, but it is chained shut from the outside. Returning to the upper level, the see the man has returned to the room with his father, the ride’s Barker. Discovering that his son has killed a member of the Carnival family and not a local, the Barker becomes furious, slapping his son. After some thought, he decides to dump the body in the area and blame her death on the locals.
Noticing the cash box is empty, the Barker flies into a rage, searching the room for the cash and prodding his boy to beat himself in the head for losing the money. While he frantically beats himself, the man rips his mask off, revealing a horribly deformed albino face. The sight of the inhuman face startles Richie, who drops his lighter into the room, alerting the Barker to their presence. As the four friends hurriedly try to find an exit, the Barker convinces his son to help him kill the trespassers to protect themselves from the authorities.
Buzz, convinced the Barker and his deformed son would try to kill them, arms himself with an ax from the exhibit and finds a knife for Richie. Startled when a skeleton pops up from the floor, they do not notice a noose drop from the ceiling and loop over Richie’s head. As they watch in helpless horror, the rope is pulled tight as Richie is pulled up into the darkness. Frightened, the trio hears one of the ride’s cars moving on the tracks towards them. As it passes, Buzz buries the ax into the head of the vehicle’s occupant, not realizing that it is Richie. As the car continues on the track, a hysterical Liz runs after her dead boyfriend and falls through a trapdoor that Buzz and Amy are unable to open.
After falling through the trapdoor, Liz, bruised but unharmed, has an encounter with the deformed attendant. In a bid for escape, Liz offers her body to the man to get him close to her. As he embraces her, she plunges a knife into his back. Enraged, the attendant violently attacks Liz and slashes at her with his clawed hands.
While Liz has her deadly encounter, Buzz and Amy are confronted by the gun-wielding Barker. Buzz attacks him but comes out on the losing end of the fight. Rising to his feet, he rushes at the Barker, driving him back and impaling him on a display’s sword. Hoping to find the keys to get out, Buzz tries to search the man, but he still lives and grabs onto Buzz, trying to pull him onto the sword as well. Buzz shoots the Barker repeatedly, finally killing him.
Dropping from the ceiling, the deformed man attacks Buzz while Amy runs off into the ride. Hearing a single shot, she stops moving and hesitantly starts to head back to Buzz. She is horrified to see a prop clown approaching on the track carrying a dead Buzz in its arms. Scared for her life, Amy runs deeper into the facility as the ride’s animatronics frighten her, making her see the deformed man everywhere. Finding herself outside the man’s room, she locks herself in the room and discovers Liz’s body with her face horribly slashed. The deformed man soon arrives and breaks through the door as Amy flees into the lowest level of the structure.
Amy finds herself in the heart of the facility, which contains the gears and pistons that power the ride. Locating the only exit door, she is disheartened to find it padlocked. Suddenly, the Barker’s son drops into the room and attacks her. Grabbing a crowbar, Amy begins to beat him on the head. While grabbing the crowbar from her it makes contact with the fuse box, sending electricity arcing across the room. As sparks rain down on them, the man is jolted by the electricity and becomes entangled in the hooks and chains that move across the ceiling, pulling him along their path towards two giant intermeshing cogs in the center of the room. Grabbing on to Amy, he is crushed between the gears, screaming as he dies an agonizing and horrible death.
Deeply traumatized by the ordeal, Amy finally escapes the funhouse as dawn is breaking, slowly walking past carnival workers as they tear down the attractions to move to another town.
The Funhouse is a highly entertaining terror film that is masterfully directed by Tobe Hooper. Hooper deliberately constructs the movie with a series of illusory horrors before reaching the real terror in the last third. In the film’s opening, an unseen person dons a mask, which Hooper films this through the eyes of the mask, as Carpenter did in Halloween‘s opening. Then in an imitation of the famous scene in Psycho (1960), the masked intruder attacks Amy in the shower with a knife. As she fends off the assault, the illusory nature of the horror becomes apparent as Amy realizes the assailant is her younger brother armed with a rubber knife.
Later in the film, Amy’s brother Joey sneaks from the house to attend the carnival and encounters a man driving a pickup truck on the road. Like Joey, he enjoys cruel jokes, pointing a rifle at the terrified boy before laughing and driving off. Once again, Hooper presents the audience with illusory horror, manipulating the audience while not placing the characters in danger. This theme would continue throughout the film until the group encounters Zena. As they anger her, the illusion of her gypsy fortune teller is stripped away as she drops her accent and threatens them with bodily harm. In that scene, Hooper begins to switch gears, showing the audience that the illusory violence is safe, but underneath that facade is something deadly and monstrous.
This idea is represented by the deformed monster in the film. Initially, it is seen wearing a Frankenstein’s Monster mask. This image has been in the public’s consciousness for decades and no longer elicits fear, but comforting familiarity. It’s fitting that Hooper would use this comforting image of horror to mask a real monster underneath.
The idea of real terror lurking underneath the veneer of illusory fear is present throughout the rest of the film, most notably in the setting of the killings inside of a funhouse. As the cast makes their way around cartoonish animatronic horrors, they are stalked and killed by a monster that lives in a room underneath that facade. Even the final encounter with the monster occurs in the lowest levels of the funhouse, where ominous and monstrous sized gears that power the ride resides.
As in Hooper’s masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), family relationships play a vital role in the film. Like the murderous clan in his previous film, the Barker is protective of his deformed son, covering for his crimes and only becoming upset when his son’s urges injure part of their extended “family.” While willing to protect his son, the Barker is also disgusted by him and refuses to have a typical father/son relationship. Similarly, Amy’s family life is equally dysfunctional. Her mother appears to be a functioning alcoholic, and her father is distant. Hooper represents the distance in their relationship in a brilliantly crafted scene in the carnival. As Amy and Buzz try to free Liz from the trapdoor, she notices her parents outside the funhouse retrieving Joey. Amy frantically shouts for her parents, but the noise of fan drowns out her cries, and they leave her to the mercy of the killer.
While not a classic, The Funhouse is a highly entertaining film that delivers lots of terror. The movie, while not overly bloody, features a great monster makeup designed by Rick Baker. Baker’s outstanding work can be seen in such disparate films as King Kong (1976), The Incredible Melting Man (1977), Star Wars (1977), The Howling (1981), and many more blockbusters, including the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983). Craig Reardon, who sculpted the monster based off of Baker’s designs, would go on to handle the special effects for Poltergeist (1982) and The Goonies (1985), creating the memorable makeup for Sloth.
Dean Koontz, under the pseudonym Owen West, wrote a novelization of the script. Due to delays in production, the novelization was released before the film. Due to the novel coming out first, and the added backstory and characterizations by Koontz, many people mistakenly believe the film was based on the book instead of the other way around.
Running Time: 95 minutes
Cooper Huckabee, Miles Chapin, Largo Woodruff, Sylvia Miles, William Finley, Elizabeth Berridge, Kevin Conway, Wayne Doba, Shawn Carson
Executive Producer – Mark L. Lester, Mace Neufeld; Producer – Steven Bernhardt, Derek Power; Associate Producer – Brad Neufeld; Director – Tobe Hooper; Writer – Larry Block; Music – John Beale; Special Effects Design – Rick Baker; Special Effects Execution – Craig Reardon