If anything, The Funhouse is further evidence that Tobe Hooper was not the main cook in the kitchen during the making of Poltergeist. This came out in ’81, just before Poltergeist, and could not feel like more of a different movie, in spite of certain elements of suburban life that exist in both. In short, The Funhouse feels like Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Halloween meets Freaks, and Hooper’s fingerprints are all over it.
A twisted, bizarre family runs a traveling circus, and they just so happen to have a hideously mutated, subhuman among them who wears a mask and can’t repress his murderous instincts. Indeed, Frankenstein-mask Guy (I can’t remember his name) is very much nu-Leatherface here, all the way down to the non-verbal grunts and squeals. He murders the carnival’s own fortune teller in a rage, which is secretly witnessed by four teens who decided to camp out in the funhouse overnight on a dare. By the way – in the first act of the movie the final girl character is afraid to even attend the carnival during operating hours, yet she pretty quickly agrees to illegally camp there overnight among the plastic skeletons and werewolves. Weird.
Speaking of final girls, this did come out in the midst of the early 80’s slasher boom and features all four archetypes detailed in Cabin in the Woods: The Virgin, the Athlete, the Scholar, the Fool. It even has its own Harbinger of Doom. It begins with a ludicrously inappropriate prank scene that had to be an intentional homage to Halloween’s opening sequence, including first-person MaskVision and gratuitous boob shots. Once the group is trapped in the carnival Funhouse and the plot kicks into gear, it becomes a grimy, fun-loving, gory romp with tons of mileage wrought from the creepy animatronic decorations within.
It was certainly Spielberg that infused Poltergeist with heart, believable family dynamics, and the sensation of awe, for which Hooper received probably a fair portion of the credit. But for the whole Tobe Hooper experience, it’s Funhouse all the way. Worth watching if cheesy, grimy, gloriously 80’s horror is your thing.