It Was a House, if you Insist on Being Technical

I wanted to like this entry in the Final Girl Film Club so much more than I did. I tried! It wasn’t the punch to the groin that Hellbound was but it certainly didn’t rock my socks the way that Onibaba did. In a weird aside, people find my blog by searching for Calvin Levels from Hellbound at least once a week. Wtf? In case you can’t recall, he was the very hungry Rick James/Whoopi Goldberg hybrid. I’m as confused as you are. Anyway, this week’s film is The Funhouse and when I heard that Tobe Hooper directed it I was very excited and expected to be scared. Sadly, I wasn’t.
How can a movie about a carnival not be scary? Carnivals themselves are scary. They’re staffed by strangers that may or may not be secret weirdos. Plus, there are all the health-code violations and the sixteen-year-olds running the rides. I love carnivals, ok? I love them so much, especially funhouses so I take this movie’s lack of scares personally. Please don’t hurt me, carneys of America.
Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely creepy moments. This isn’t necessarily a bad movie, by a long shot. But when a movie freaks me out, I notice that I write “Holy shit” all over my notes. Sadly, this notation was lacking. And it’s not like there weren’t opportunities. Funhouses themselves are supposed to be spooky (My inner pedant would like me to note that the funhouse of this movie is actually a dark ride.)
Hooper definitely takes advantage of the inherent creepy factor of animatronic puppets. Those thins give me the wiggins, even though my nemesis, Laughing Sal, was absent from this movie. The opening credits are actually full of good old-fashioned nightmare fodder.

If you’re looking for a movie to fulfill all the slasher tropes then this is it. I’m still not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. Amy, the lead and eventual final girl, is nude within five minutes of the movie starting. I actually counted. She’s attacked in the shower by a knife-wielding psycho in a clown mask. Sadly, the psycho is her little brother, Joey, and the knife is fake. Can I get a collective “EEEW?” There is something so wrong about sibling on sibling nudity.
The plot is as follows: Amy is meeting Buzz for the first time ever and they’ll be double dating with their friends Rich and Liz. They’ll be going to…the carnival! The characters definitely fall into slasher tropes. Liz is the pretty not-virginal girl, Buzz is hunky, Amy is quiet and virginal, and Rich is the Screech of the group. He inspires the same, “Why are these attractive people letting this spaz hang out with them?” kind of questions that the original Screech inspired. I really don’t know how he’s dating Liz.
There’s foreboding aplenty. Amy’s dad doesn’t want her to go to the carnival because two little girls were killed when the same carnival was a couple of towns away. Importantly, Amy tells her dad that she’s going to the movies so only Psycho Joey knows where she really is. Also, Psycho Joey sneaks out to see the carnival.
Then, they run into this creepy guy at the fair.

Also, there’s a creepy old lady in the bathroom screaming about how god is always watching you (Even when you poo?) This leads to my favorite line of the movie. Liz says, “I hate people who preach. Especially in the BATHROOM!” This makes me almost want to forgive her for wearing a people top with red pants. Almost.
The next three-quarters of the movie are them frolicking at the carnival. They see a human mutation at the freaks of nature tent. More foreshadowing?

They see a magic act, with Beetlejuice’s mortal cousin as the magician.

They piss off a fortune-teller, Madame Zena. As vengeance, she tells them that their bike is in the basement of the Alamo. Finally, they peep in on the saddest strip show since the invention of Suicide Girls.
Then they come up with the idea to sneak into the funhouse and stay there all night. What could be more fun than an evening locked in a dark, closed space and then getting beaten by carneys in the morning? Those wacky irrepressible teens! Let the real creepiness begin.

While Psycho Joey is scared by the bathroom lady, the teenagers witness a guy in a Frankenstein mask kill Madame Zena. He paid her $100 for sex but then prematurely ejaculated and she wouldn’t give him his money back. She should really clarify her return policy. The teens want to leave but they are locked in. Things go from bad to worse when Frankenstein’s dad, the funhouse barker, shows up. It turns out that not only is the guy in the mask totally deformed, but he’s responsible for the killings that follow the carnival.

Oh, and Rich’s lighter falls through a slat in the ceiling so carney-dad and the mutant know that they have witnesses and EXACTLY WHERE THEY ARE. Wouldn’t Carney-Dad and the Mutant be a great title for a detective show? It has a Jake and the Fat Man kind of ring. Rich also stole money from the cash box in Zena’s room. Way to go, Screech. Please die, Screech.
This is where the pace of the movie finally picks up. It’s like the movie only has two servings of tension that they’re trying to stretch between ten people. I get that some movies are slow-building, like The Exorcist, but this movie lacks tension and I dislike all the main characters. Liz, Rich, and Buzz are all annoying to various degrees and Amy can best be described as milquetoast. I don’t expect her to turn into an automatic Ripley, but a reaction besides screaming and hiding behind Buzz would be swell. The worst part is that I really wanted to like these people, especially Liz because she was sassy, but they were mostly douchebags who inspired my “Hey, kid, get off of my lawn” reflex.
From here, the teens are dispatched. I found this to be unthrilling. While the effects are good, especially the hatchet to Rich’s head, I didn’t care much about any of them. The father-son killing team wasn’t very threatening either. They just didn’t come across as blood-crazed hillbilly killers. More like moderately blood-liking hillbilly fist-fighters. The stakes didn’t seem to be high for the killers. Carney-dad had a pistol. WHat kind of psycho killer uses a pistol? He should at least have a rusted, bloody meat hook or a sawed-off shotgun named Bessie.
Also, what happened to Buzz? One minute he was impaling the carney-dad. Then, Amy’s alone in a room and an animatronic figure brings out Buzz’s corpse. Did he fall onto his pocketknife or something?
I will grant that the engine room of the funhouse was pretty intimidating. It was all hanging hooks and grinding gears. If only I cared more about Amy. She survives not due to any particular skill or pluckiness, she just has the luck to be the last one left. Amy, you are no Laurie Strode. I guess that that’s the greatest sin of the movie, that I care more about the peripheral characters than the leads. I was sad when Madame Zena died and I guess I was sad when Liz died. But I really wasn’t invested in Amy’s survival. Actually, I guess the greatest sin is that the movie failed to be scary. Come on, Tobe Hooper, scare me!
What I think could have made the movie scarier was if the killing was unexplained, if there was no motive for it. Take away the deformed son or make him look less like a C.H.U.D. and more human, then add a family of carneys that just gets off on killing the locals. Unexplained evil is usually scarier. Why was the devil plaguing Regan? Why did Michael Myers choose Laurie Strode in the first Halloween movie? There’s no explanation, it just is, and it’s hard to fight something like that.
Incidentally, does anyone else remember a young adult horror novel from the mid-nineties called The Funhouse? I swear, I used to see one all the time on the paperback rack at the library, but I was a pretty strict Christopher Pike reader with occasional forays into R.L. Stine territory, so I never picked it up. If anyone else remembers this please let me know!


About scarina

I like scary movies a little too much. I thought I'd share my obsession with you.
This entry was posted in 1980's, film club, slasher and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to It Was a House, if you Insist on Being Technical

  1. Howdy hi,
    Love your review and site. As an aside, I get weird search results finding their way to my place all the time. I’d like to meet the person who was looking for “formless whores” and settled for my little series on “Formless horrors.” Well, maybe I’d like to meet that person with a safety barrier between us, but you understand.

    Lazarus Lupin
    art and review

    • scarina says:

      Ahoy-hoy!Why, thanks. :] Your blog’s pretty swell, I’ll be visiting.
      I’ve been getting the creepiest search results since I posted my review of Teeth, the movie about the teenage girl with vagina dentata. Apparently, if you search for “teenage girl vagina” you end up at my blog.
      Although the person who searched for the “saturation volume of clown scariness” rocks.
      I do wonder what a formless whore would be like…

  2. FRC Ruben says:

    One time, at the Carnival of Terror (aka the Tracy, California mid-Summer Carnival-for-no-good-fucking-reason [that mysteriously shows up and randomly vanishes] at Monte Vista Middle School) — I saw the balloon dart Carney on his knees behind the counter of his booth. With two darts points-down in the 2×4 counter, he was staring trans-fixedly at them, eyes wide mouth agape.

    It was them that I realized that a diet that consists mainly of cotton-like sugar and caramel apples could probably increase the ;likelihood of maniacal laughter.

    • scarina says:

      I don’t think I’ve ever been to a carnival in NJ. I don’t think we do carnivals here.
      I kind of want to live the carney life, though. Fried dough and caramel apples sounds good.

  3. Charlos says:

    Dean Koontz wrote the novelization, which was published in 1980. The movie release was delayed till the next year. Koontz says that the book sold very well until the movie was released, whereupon the book sank out of sight.

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