Tobe Hooper is a name that’s been implemented firmly within horror history, inspiring an entire generation of genre fans alongside filmmakers such as John Carpenter and Wes Craven. Classic films such as Poltergeist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are often credited with being among the scariest movies ever made, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 has an army of fans who’ve claimed it as an all-time great horror sequel (and they’re right about that). While these films more than deserve the recognition in which they’ve been bestowed, a lesser-known Tobe Hooper film, though it’s every bit as great as those previously mentioned, has fallen by the wayside: The Funhouse.
Like most horror fans, slasher films are a part of my DNA. I grew up in the 90’s, idolizing classics such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, all the while being catered to by the Scream franchise, which held those horror films on the same unattainable pedestal as I did. Slashers, though unique unto themselves, tend to resemble those before it in template, adhering to their rules and carrying themselves in similar fashion. In 1981, however, at a time when slasher films were all the rage, Tobe Hooper broke the mold and crafted a slasher that was anything but familiar. In fact, you could be fooled into thinking that The Funhouse isn’t a slasher at all.
The setup is simple enough: four teenagers attend a travelling carnival that has come to their town. They hang out, view the weird attractions, and eventually decide to stay in a ride called “The Funhouse” overnight. What elevates the film, though, is Tobe Hooper’s execution. The director doesn’t rely on tropes of the great slashers of the past, instead crafting a slow-burning horror film that establishes an eerie atmosphere through the creepy setting, odd characters, and an unnerving strangeness.
The Funhouse doesn’t reveal itself to be a slasher until the latter half of the film, beginning with the particularly horrifying moment in which Gunther removes his mask. Hooper masterfully drops hints throughout the film that something is off about the people of the carnival, revealing its troubled past through conversation, and subtly establishing the bizarre deformity of the film’s villain without allowing the viewer to anticipate the terrifying true identity of the awkward carny dressed as Frankenstein’s monster.
When Hooper shows his hand, viewers are suddenly placed in the midst of what is arguably the most frightening-looking horror villain we’ve ever seen. Gunther’s face is severely deformed with sharp protruding teeth, thinning white hair, and red eyes. The visual aesthetic, accompanied by Gunther’s shrill scream and unhinged nature, is actually the thing that nightmares are made of.
With the slasher premise now in place, Tobe Hooper masterfully utilizes the setting of the ride in purely horrific fashion as the teenagers are stalked through the funhouse by Gunther and his dad, the barker of the ride (played scarily-well by Kevin Conway, who stars as three separate carnival barkers- each possessing a unique personality), who is even more dedicated to making sure that the teens don’t survive the night.
The Funhouse, even when it becomes a “pick off the teenagers” kind of slasher film, is unrelenting in its strangeness and tone. Tobe Hooper never once sacrificed his vision in favor of mainstream normalcy, which proved detrimental to box office success, however, is the very reason that The Funhouse is admired and considered to be vastly underappreciated in its time 37 years later.
The legendary Tobe Hooper passed away yesterday at the age of 74. Truly one of horror’s all-time greats, there’s no denying the influence he’s had on myself, as well as multiple generations of horror lovers. While you’re revisiting his work in remembrance, don’t forget about The Funhouse. It deserves your love too.