Tobe Hooper’s aptly titled The Funhouse (1981) was meant to be his breakthrough film. It was his first theatrical film with real money and a real studio—Universal—behind it. (How much this had to do with the “scandal” of the Museum of Modern Art adding The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to its permanant collection is anybody’s guess, but it couldn’t have hurt.) But Universal didn’t much care for the movie he delivered (even to spreading it around that he was incompetent and went over budget—neither claim seeming justified). Likely they simply didn’t get this typically Hooper blend of local legend with a backwoods flavor mixed with the then-popular horror genre. They were wanting a Halloween or a Friday the 13th of their own. What they got was a quirky film that went out of its way to poke fun at those films. (Its opening, for example, is a jokey reworking of Halloween.) Apart from a bigger-than-average budget, probably the only thing Hooper really got out of the arrangement was the ability to feature his monster in a rubber mask of their trademarked Frankenstein Monster. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same as his earlier films—exploring the creepiness of the underside of small-town and rural America. In this case, it’s the dark side of one of those traveling carnivals that you rarely see anymore—the kind with the sideshow boasting supposed Thalidomide babies floating in jars and a barker lying that what’s inside is “alive, alive, alive!” The difference here is that there is something alive and pretty nasty on the carnival grounds, as the hapless teens in the film find out in the course of their ill-advised night on the midway. It’s creepy and effective and a kind of fun horror picture we don’t see anymore.
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