For those of you that missed it in person and for those of you who would like to relive it in the comfort of your own internet, here is Darrell Buxton’s introduction to Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse from Friday 17th November.
Hello and welcome to Fright Club, for our special tribute night to legendary horror director Tobe Hooper. As time passes, we’re reaching the point where most of that productive crop of inspirational, challenging horror directors of the 1970s are now in their 70s, and sadly we lost the zombiemeister himself, George A. Romero, during the summer. No sooner had the horror world recovered from that blow than we heard that Tobe Hooper had also passed away, in late August.
We’ve screened a few of Tobe’s movies here at QUAD in the past, but have decided to pay our respects by showing one of his less well regarded productions, THE FUNHOUSE, originally released in 1981 and ideally suited to the big screen, where you will really notice the impact of the carnival set design at the heart of the film.
Hooper struck horror gold first time out – his 1974 low budget sensation THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE might just be the most truly frightening and disturbing horror movie ever made, perhaps the closest that any filmmaker has come to capturing the relentless, ‘no escape’ quality of an actual nightmare. His 1986 sequel, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, achieved a miracle by being almost as good as the original, though in a far broader and more cartoon-like manner. Tobe’s other work includes DEATH TRAP aka EATEN ALIVE, in which lunatic hotel owner Neville Brand feeds the guests to his pet crocodile; LIFEFORCE, the crazy British science fiction epic made for Cannon Films and memorably featuring naked Mathilda May, essence-draining space vampires, and a possessed Patrick Stewart speaking with a woman’s voice; pretty decent remakes of INVADERS FROM MARS and TOOLBOX MURDERS; an adaptation of Stephen King’s story about a killer laundry press, THE MANGLER; and the pilot episodes of TV shows like FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES, DARK SKIES, and TAKEN.
In between revving up his chainsaw, we saw the rather unlikely occurrence of Tobe going mainstream – in 1979 he was chosen by CBS to helm their lavish two-part version of Stephen King’s vampire best-seller SALEM’S LOT, memorably bringing some of his grindhouse style to the small screen and moving into the big leagues, working with major stars like the cultured James Mason and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ pin-up idol David Soul. And in 1982 Steven Spielberg, a huge fan of Hooper’s work, hired Tobe to direct POLTERGEIST, a film which plays almost as the shocking flipside of Spielberg’s own smash hit from the same year, E.T. – watch those movies in a freaky double bill sometime and you’ll see the similarities, most notably the sunny suburban housing estate settings and the way in which both play heavily on childhood fears and anxieties. Speaking of childhood fears, the aforementioned SALEM’S LOT features a scene that has gone down in history as being possibly the scariest ever example of a director capturing juvenile terror on screen – if I say ‘Danny Glick at the window’, that may stir a few shuddersome memories with a few of you.
What’s not so well known is that in between SALEM’S LOT and POLTERGEIST, Tobe Hooper cranked out another film – a low-key teen horror, made right in the midst of the early 80s ‘stalk and slash’ movie craze. THE FUNHOUSE has a very basic premise, like much of the competition at the time – four teenagers get trapped in a visiting carnival funfair attraction after dark, and are menaced by a killer. But Hooper transforms this into a real ghost train thrill ride. The fairground setting after nightfall – and, to be honest, even in daylight – provides a forbidding and eerie backdrop, and Tobe reverses the TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE situation by having the weirdos coming to your town rather than you accidentally stumbling upon their homestead. THE FUNHOUSE livens up its sketchy set-up by pulling off a string of multi-levelled shock scenes – Hooper sets it all in motion with an imitation PSYCHO//HALLOWEEN-style shower knifing shot from the stalker’s point of view, which initially has you yawning and rolling your eyes at its familiarity, but then adds a spin of its own, and FUNHOUSE continues to play around with standard horror images throughout, constantly offering surprises just when you think you’ve got a handle on it.
Once we arrive at the carnival, the gloves are off. It’s like these kids have stepped into another realm, and even though the safety of their town may be a way just down the road, such home comforts might as well be a thousand miles distant. Garish, lurid colours, outsize painted decorative animatronic figures with evil facial expressions, the devilish promise of strange attractions hidden behind canopies and curtains, all yours for an admission price that you may soon regret paying. The carny characters are quite a bunch, too – the rancid old fortune teller Madame Zena, played by Sylvia Miles; the bag-lady portrayed by Sonia Zomina in a manner more like a cackling mediaeval witch; William Finley stealing the show as an insane, grinning, white faced magician; and Kevin Conway, superb in three different roles as various carnival barkers, fronting each tent or sideshow, reeling you in with his increasingly sinister patter – he’s horror’s answer to Joel Grey’s waspish, bitchy Master of Ceremonies from CABARET, lording it over the funfair and possessing an almost omnipresent, God-like status, knowing everything but keeping a few secrets to himself despite his bluster and sales pitch.
Oddly, a couple of the young cast members here went on to associate with the great Czech director Milos Forman, of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST fame. Miles Chapin, who plays Richie, appeared in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and MAN IN THE MOON for Forman in the late 90s; while the heroine of THE FUNHOUSE, Elizabeth Berridge, went straight from this movie into a major role in Milos’ grand, Oscar-winning epic AMADEUS. The wonderfully-named Cooper Huckabee, who plays Buzz here, appeared as one of the whip-wielding plantation slave overseers The Brittle Brothers in DJANGO UNCHAINED thirty years later.
So yes, it’s ‘teenagers get bumped off in the dark’ time once again – but this is the quality end of that particular market. THE FUNHOUSE is a rich, layered movie, with a lot going on under the surface, and it’s no surprise that Hooper chose to adopt a grand carnival setting for the second half of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 five years later, as he really feels at home here. The film builds up to a stunning climax too, as we literally get to see the cogs, gears, and clanking machinery that have been shifting this entire terrifying tale along its tracks.
Time, then, to finish your candy floss, put down that fluffy teddy bear you’ve just won at the shooting gallery, and to make your way to the candy-striped canvas marquee with the brightly painted sign inviting you inside. THE FUNHOUSE is open. Pray that you survive this rollercoaster ride.
Next up on Fright Club:
Friday 15th December at 8:45pm – To All A Goodnight