In this series I’m taking a look back at the films that, in the early 1980’s, were caught up in the Video Nasties moral panic in the UK. When video first arrived in the UK it was not covered by our censorship laws, and that, combined with the reluctance of the studios to embrace the technology, meant that many of the early releases were lurid, uncensored, horror films.
The tabloid press mounted a campaign against the films, and with a new right wing government in power and the growing influence of pro-censorship campaigner Mary Whitehouse, the Director of Public Prosecutions was instructed to draw up a list of films liable to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. I’ll be looking at every one of the 74 films that made this list, giving you a snapshot of the controversy around each film before watching and reviewing it.
Did former BBFC director James Ferman just have a raging hate on for Tobe Hooper? His Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned at the cinema and both Death Trap and this film ended up on the DPP list. The Funhouse is a curious inclusion, so much so that some have suggested that the DPP meant to list Last House on Dead End Street under one of its alternate titles, but seized this by mistake, a theory given some credence by the fact that Dead End Street doesn’t appear on the list (which, happily, means I never have to watch it again).
However it came about though, this innocuous, almost blood free, film did end up on the DPP list between September 1984 and June 1985. A shortened version was released on VHS in 1983 (the cuts truncated only the plot, none of the brief violence was affected), and then reissued in 1987 with an 18 certificate. In 2007 the film finally came to UK DVD, fully uncut, with a 15 certificate.
Once you’ve made a film as distinctive and as groundbreaking as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre it’s always going to be hard to recapture that same edge. The Funhouse isn’t a bad film, but like so much of Hooper’s subsequent filmography (the heavily disputed credit of Poltergeist notwithstanding), it just feels rather by the numbers. The craft is there on the visual side, but Hooper apparently doesn’t care to spend time on little things like character and pacing.
The Funhouse sees four teens (including Elizabeth Berridge, who would soon be seen as Mozart’s wife in Amadeus and, aged 19, makes her debut here) on a double date to a carnival. They decide – because it’s in the script, basically – to hide out and spend the night in the Funhouse ride. Unfortunately they witness a murder, and are soon confronted by a monster that wants to kill them. It’s all very standard stuff, distinguished largely – oddly for DPP listed film – by the restraint Hooper shows. There is an evident attempt to make this something of a throwback to classic horror, with particular reference to Karloff’s Frankenstein performance, though the 80’s do raise their head with a little light gore and the gratuitous unveiling of Berridge’s breasts (hey, thanks, the 80’s).
The film starts strong, with a fake out that nods to (read blatantly rips off) both Halloween and Pyscho for a fun first scare. Unfortunately after that the film settles down into a very slow first half in which we largely just follow the teens around the carnival. Sadly, despite being played by at least reasonable actors – the delicate Berridge is the standout – the kids are pretty dull, none has much personality, and I don’t even remember their names. It’s not a problem that has gone away in this or any genre, but if you are going to have a slow opening… try setting up characters, it will really help us give a shit when things happen to them later. This is also where the pacing issue comes in, for the best part of an hour the film just treads water, and then in the last 30 minutes it begins to move very quickly through scenes and victims, in a way that is a bit jarring.
What Hooper does well in this first half, and throughout, is throw us into the world of the carnival. It’s a creepy setting (those puppets are just WRONG), and there is a great sense of space, sometimes, as in an overhead shot of crowds leaving as the carnival shuts for the night, eerily so. Once we get inside the Funhouse the rides props are used for some great shock moments, and Hooper uses the space creatively (a shot of the monster framed behind a large fan, in largely red light, is stylish and scary). However, there is that ever niggling problem of the fact that there’s little to care about here; yes Amy (Berridge) is pretty and sweet and we’d rather not see her get killed, but that’s about it in terms of investment. It also doesn’t help that the mute monster doesn’t have a whole lot of personality either, though the make up is properly nasty; imagine Sloth if The Goonies had been set in hell.
The Funhouse really becomes a series of moments, some are effective, like the off frame killing of a girl, whose end is much more brutal feeling because you don’t see it. Some moments are promising, but fumbled, sadly this includes the final confrontation, in which Amy never really steps up to the plate as you’d like her to, and the death throes of the monster are so drawn out you wonder if they’ll ever end. Other moments are just odd – why in the name of all things holy does a man in a truck try to pick up Amy’s 8 year old Brother? And a few moments just feel unfinished, including, sadly, the last shot.
On the whole, The Funhouse is a mixed bag. There are stories of behind the scenes problems, and of Hooper only having the chance to deliver one cut. There’s a good possibility that there was a better movie in the footage that was shot, because the technical side of this film is unimpeachable, unfortunately it just never generates enough interest in its characters to sustain a creepy feel, and there’s no real sign of splatter to make up the difference. It’s not a bad film, but I can’t see the lost slasher classic that some do.
Next Week: Love Camp 7. Pity me.