I’ve gathered from some of my perusal of reviews online that The Funhouse is not the most highly regarded horror film of 1981, which is probably due to the fact that the film is pretty back loaded; there’s not a killing until about the fifty-five minute mark, and even the titular funhouse is not visited until ten minutes prior to that. Additionally, save for the enchanting Elizabeth Berridge (probably best known for her role as Mozart’s wife in Amadeus) as the virginal (though frequently topless) suburban girl next door, the other three lead characters and performers are obnoxious and indistinct, which come to think of it are issues one could raise with Hooper’s seminal Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to which this film resembles the closest out of all in the director’s oeuvre (I’d argue even more so than Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2.)
What enjoyment I did garner from the film in the non-horror sections were Hooper’s keen eye for the suburban milieu of the early 1980’s (something he would exploit to even further lengths in his next film, Poltergeist) and the loving care and detail given to the ramshackle carnival and the societal outcasts that operate it (including DePalma favorite William Finley as a possibly demented magician). The rickety well-trodden yet temporal nature of the structures, the slightly askew and older faces of the carnies (and freak show animals!) and the sinister sheen of the rides’ animatronics give the film an eerie atmosphere, that frankly I found more effective than any suspense Hooper is able to churn once the film becomes a routine, yet oddly blood and goreless (the MPAA’s work?) body count slasher picture.
Hooper subtly and slyly comments on the changing landscape of fear and entertainment, and how something quaint like a hand built funhouse seem to youths such as the protagonists when compared to modern horror films. Like Massacre, there’s also a twisted display of family, and Hooper contrasts the killer with the “normal kids” of whom he shares a sexual immaturity and penchant for wearing Frankenstein monster masks.