From color scope to pan and scan black and white, either way, a practical joke between siblings veers into the horrors of Freudian malfeasance.
The opening credits showcase a parade of creepy dolls and mannequins, coming and going through a series of wipes; simulating a funhouse ride. On top of that, the first scene combines the opening of Halloween with the shower scene in Psycho, supplemented with Universal monster memorabilia and such (and Bride of Frankenstein is playing on TV). The twist here is that the creepy younger brother stabs her sister with a rubber knife, resulting in an unpunctured, yet still naked older sister. In a nice, assholey touch, he sticks a knife through the top of a creepy doll’s skull and leaves it for her to discover. Thank god I was never an older sister. Either way, Tobe Hooper is attempting to out self-reflex Brian DePalma in the slasher sweepstakes, refreshingly doing so in a cinematic territory that typically decries such witty meta-fun.
Our heroine Amy, unlike many of her horror movie peers, is truly sympathetic and believable as a girl next door in a small town (read: no fake tits). She has a date for the carnival with some jerk off named Buzz who works at a gas station (read: don’t name your kids “Buzz”). Being that two girls were murdered at the carnival ten years prior, she lies to her parents, telling them that they are going to the movies (where people are safe from the horrors of reality). Buzz looks a little too fast and sleazy for such a nice, wholesome, un-whorish girl like Amy. He even drives a bitchin' car with those big furry dice hanging from the rear view mirror. Why someone would roll furry dice I do not know.
The couple is flanked by our token blonde (thankfully wearing breathtakingly tight red jeans) and our token geek with glasses. After a little “puff, puff, pass”, they finally drive over to the carnival. Amy’s misanthropic little brother Joey sneaks out of the house to follow his sister to the carnival, as playing two disgusting practical jokes on his sibling in one night is apparently not enough.
Much of the run time is dedicated to the various amusements to be found at the carnival. They do the strength test where you smack a bell with a hammer, the wonderfully gimmicky cart rides, cotton candy (the most chemically mysterious of treats), etc. Our girls get some private time together in a very shady looking bathroom, and the blonde tells Amy that she should lose her virginity to Buzz because “he is a pistol". I readily admit I don’t understand women, but I think this means that he has functioning sperm, and isn’t “firing blanks”, as it were (or not, as chicks are a mysterious bunch). This leads into a wonderful scare when a creepy old lady jumps out of a shadowy toilet area and yells out "god is watching you". I guess she is the defacto soothsayer, but I don’t know what the fuck god has to do with any of this. Joey also gets a scare when a trucker pulls a gun on him and pulls the trigger. Unfortunately, the chamber is empty, and the trucker laughs maniacally. If only he knew what he was truly dealing with, he may have saw fit to load some actual fucking bullets.
Well, we finally get to see those carny freak tents. You know, two headed cows, monster fetuses, etc. We also catch wind of William Finley as Marco the Magnificent (bare ass naked in Dionysus '69…oh wait, he’s a dude…never mind), performing his vampire themed magic act, where he impales the heart of a squeamish teenage girl with a wooden stake. Wait a second…she works for the carnival and is in on the trick! Ah, the shameless treachery of it all! Arghh!!!
Another timeless attraction is the fortune teller (played by Sylvia Miles), who rants about the teens meeting a "stranger", but she gets pissed at the nerd (at this point baked out of his mind, eschewing the usual sober math homo), and thereby stops providing plot information . If this attraction seems weak, no problem; there is always the haunted house ride, where, like the opening credits, a bunch of wax dummies and stuff pop out and scare people. For the jaded (male) viewers, we have jiggling breasts courtesy of the burlesque portion of the carnival. Boy…those were the days. You threw on a smoking jacket and headed down to the carny to catch some magic and/or freaks and most definitely a parade of tits. Note to self: bring back the smoking jacket.
Well, the “kids” rightfully decide to spend the night in the funhouse. After all, while the rides are pretty creepy, you really get your money’s worth with a carny sleep over. Pesky fuckface Joey decides to stick around, but as soon as he bumps into that creepy old lady, he resorts to plan B - get the fuck outta dodge. After a quick make out session, the teens notice that they are “resting”above another room, and, through the floorboards, they see that the fortune teller is discussing moolah with some sort of faux-Frankenstein. I guess Frankie felt like he got stiffed, and he electrocutes Sylvia Miles, ending her run as queen of the crystal balls. This leaves our heroes to sneak around (a la Scooby Doo) through the various crevices, back rooms, and connecting tissues of this house of fun. Even little Joey gets his balls back and sneaks back into the carnival (to the extent that he has balls).
Frankenstein goes ape shit and pulls his mask off, revealing a deformed monster face, which is basically the fetus from earlier all grown up. I guess our comforting carnival of freaks has finally hit the reality wall…and so begins the teenie destruction. Of particular note is the blonde getting cornered by one of those fan corridors you only see in horror movies (or Alien 3). She pleads for her life by hitting on the monster, not realizing that most mutants are impotent (unlike studmuffin attendant Buzz).
Amy attempts to escape through the inner workings of the funhouse, in a more emotionally realistic state than others films of similar ilk (i.e. fucking hysterical). Amy doesn't suddenly turn into Rambo when confronted with the monster, but rather, just wants to go home and finish her homework. However, when confronted with certain doom, she does manage to whack the monster a couple of times with a crowbar, which causes him to fall into a live wire that is randomly situated near his villainous vicinity. The next morning, Amy wanders, disheveled and in shock, out of the carnival, while the various workers dismantle everything, unaware of her presence. They are ready to move on to the next town, coldly ignoring the ramifications of their handiwork.
The Funhouse has wonderful scope photography by Andrew Lazlo, as the frame is filled to the brim with onlooking dolls, mannequins, clown heads, and even actual humans, lurking in frame, their penetrating gaze subconsciously influencing a cast of innocents. The movie starts off in realistic terms, becoming more surreal towards the conclusion, achieving this with colorful lighting and expressionistic shadows. These “innocent” suburbanites become confronted with the freak dregs of society over the course of a long night, thereby dissipating their sense of structured existence; forced to deal with humanity in all of it's gloriously deconstructed chaos.
P.S. Written for Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club via the magic of a time machine. Here is her review. She brings up some good points I didn't touch on (like pedophilia, and other fun whatever).