Director: Tobe Hooper

After knocking one out of the cinematic park, as it were, with 1974's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, director Tobe Hooper was at the top of nearly every studio producer's wish list of directors for upcoming horror projects. In the middle of the early 80's slasher boom, Universal handed Hooper an interesting, if not entirely fulfilling project titled THE FUNHOUSE.

Four teens on a double date take a stroll through the local traveling carnival. Among the rides, magicians, fortunetellers, peep-shows, and other typical carnival sights and sounds, they come upon the funhouse. Toward closing time, the group concocts the bright idea to hide in the funhouse until dark, so they can spend the night smoking pot and of course, engaging in pre-marital sex. Before long, they witness a sexual encounter between two carnival workers, which ends in murder, and find that their own lives are now in danger. Will they survive a night locked in the funhouse, with a mad killer on the loose?

THE FUNHOUSE isn't nearly as gritty and horrific as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, however, it may definitely be a shade sleazier in some places. It's also not as generally fun or enjoyable. The four lead characters are so annoying and unlikable that I actually rooted for the killer from the very first time we're introduced to the four. The script isn't particularly great, but the acting is actually fair for a movie of this type. The man who truly steals the show is William Finley (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE), in an all-too-short cameo as a creepy magician named Marko the Magnificent. Wanna know why you see pictures of Finley's character used to promote this film often? He has much more flair and color than any of the other characters; the killer included. It boggles the mind to think what a different and perhaps better film could've resulted had they utilized this excellent character and performance to a greater extent. Also on-hand in no less than three impressive roles (all carnival barkers, of course) is Kevin Conway, whom you may remember as the evil mailman in the Chevy Chase comedy FUNNY FARM.

To call THE FUNHOUSE a slasher film is really trying to force it into a sub-genre, which it doesn't really entirely aspire to fit into. Yes, there are tense moments, yes there is a killer, and yes, a secluded setting with these two other elements generally suggests "slasher," however my take on the film is that it's a monster movie, which borrows some aspects of the sub-genre, due to its massive popularity at the time. The killer is human, although not by much. Early in the film, he wears an eerie Frankenstein mask but before long, he's unmasked and his truly grotesque nature provides for some of Rick Baker's most under appreciated makeup design work. The film isn't particularly bloody, but it does manage a few moderately suspenseful sequences. The most-impressive aspect of the film, I felt was the set design. The funhouse truly becomes a well-rounded character, thanks to the bizarre, creepy imagery within (which is used to great effect in an opening titles montage, and later in the actual funhouse sequences itself) The carnival itself also sets a spooky, sleazy tone. It's a place you most likely wouldn't want to find yourself in after dark.

Universal has given THE FUNHOUSE an anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is a bit on the grainy side but it's certainly presentable and is leaps and bounds better than the old VHS transfers. I was never able to pick up the previous non-anamorphic DVD release by Image before it went out of print, so I'm not sure how the image quality of this disc compares to that. Obviously if you have a 16x9 television, though, this is a no-brainer upgrade. As for sound, the disc has an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The areas where this track excels are definitely the sequences in the funhouse. Combined with the first-person POV shot the first time we enter it, the sounds (the crashes of cheesy, canned thunder, the rolling squeal of wheels, the rush of air as a giant spider comes toward you) help to enhance the funhouse ambience. We feel like we're right there, experiencing the ride along with the characters. I was impressed by the track. A flood of memories came over me, as I watched and listened, thinking back to my own experiences in low-budget traveling carnival funhouses (and strangely, the funhouses and carnivals of today don't appear all that different than those that were apparently on the road back in '81). English captions have been included for those who are hearing impaired, as well asFrench and Spanish subtitles.

For extras, we're only given the film's original theatrical trailer Given the wealth of behind the scenes footage and other supplemental materials found on Pioneer Studios' disc of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, it's upsetting to imagine how much more could've been included on the disc had Universal actually tried. A Tobe Hooper commentary, perhaps? Behind the scenes with Rick Baker in his FX shop? I suppose we will never know.

The cover art is a slight re-design by Universal, but actually looks much better than some of their other recent horror title re-designs (GHOST STORY, for instance). It utilizes a close-up of the creepy clown face from the original VHS artwork (which is generally preferred over the film's rather dull original 1-sheet artwork). The non-animated menus are colorful but somewhat drab. An insert is included with the disc, but only contains ads for other Universal horror titles. No chapter listings are given.

THE FUNHOUSE may not be a film you re-visit often, but for a cold October evening, it's not a bad warm-up for the holiday to come. It's a budget disc with a more than decent transfer, and at a budget price. For the price you can find this online, I easily recommend a purchase if you're a die-hard Hooper fan or even a casual monster movie or slasher fan. (Wes Ray)