Tag Archives: The Funhouse

Fright Club: Best Tobe Hooper Movies

The film community lost another of its greats, and we want to celebrate the wonderful and the weirdly watchable of Tobe Hooper.

Hooper’s ability to pervert social expectations, his unsurpassed gift for creating terrifying atmospheres among America’s backwoodsfolk, and his nonchalantly visceral presentation made every film an experience worth attempting. Not every one paid off, but those that did left a nasty mark.

5. Eaten Alive (1976)

We open on a backwoods Florida whore house. A bewigged young pro loudly protests the request of her new customer, Robert Englund, who plays a hillbilly who prefers backdoor action. She’s cast out of the cathouse with nowhere to go and nothing to do with that ridiculous wig, until kindly maid Ruby (Betty Cole, wardrobed in a traditional maid’s uniform because hookers are such sticklers about the way their help looks) offers her a stack of cash so she can afford a room at the nearby motel.

Unfortunately, the guy who runs that motel is a sadistic pervert who feeds his problematic borders to the gator out back.

Hooper’s follow up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a lurid affair once again focused on delicious interlopers who misunderstand the customs of the locals.

Eaten Alive tries more openly at humor, mostly failing to find laughs (other than the ironic sort) but succeeding in creating an unsettling atmosphere for the carnage. It’s a B-movie, the kind that screams for a drive-in theater and a tub of greasy popcorn, but there is a time and a place for those movies, too.


4. Lifeforce (1985)

A naked alien vampire woman sucks seemingly willing men dry on her first trip to London.

Nope, Lifeforce is not a porno. It’s a silly horror film, especially if you come in expecting the kind of visceral gut punch Tobe Hooper tends to deliver. But as a SciFi guilty pleasure (and mash note to Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit), it’s a bit of fun.

Mathilda May sure is naked. She plays one of three aliens saved from an otherwise decimated space ship found hiding in the tail of Halley’s Comet by European astronauts. Mysteriously, that European ship meets its own disaster before safely dropping off the three aliens on earth.

But wait! Don’t open her case!!

Of course they open her case, and she and her two henchmen begin sucking the life force from all they can find, creating their own kind of Brit zombipocalypse in one of the film’s nuttiest and greatest scenes.

The movie is a mess that lacks any hint of the characteristic Tobe Hooper vision, but it is more than peculiar enough to be compelling.

3. The Funhouse (1981)

Hooper creates a creepy atmosphere on the Midway with this periodically tense freak show. Double dating teens hit the carnival and decide to spend the night inside the park’s funhouse. What could go wrong?

Well, as would become the norm in every carnival-themed horror film to come, the ride is the secret hideaway of a carny’s deformed and bloodthirsty offspring. He hides his misfortune beneath a Frankenstein mask, but he can’t contain his violent rage when teased. (Not that it’s ever wise to pick on a premature ejaculator, particularly in a horror film.)

Sure, The Funhouse follows all the protocol of a slasher set inside an amusement park, and is, for that reason, somewhat predictable. Still, Hooper delivers pretty well. He develops a genre-appropriate seediness among the carnies, as well as an unwholesome atmosphere. He also pays open homage to the genre throughout the picture. (As a way of paying him back, the genre would rip off this film for years to come – most blatantly in 2006’s Dark Ride.)

It’s hard not to find Hooper’s post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre films lacking. This one’s no masterpiece, but it is a tidy, garish, claustrophobic and unsettling piece of indie filmmaking.

2. Poltergeist (1982)

This aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps Hooper’s potent horrors inside producer Steven Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia. In both of Spielberg’s ’82 films, the charade of suburban peace is disrupted by a supernatural presence. In E.T., though, there’s less face tearing.

Part of Poltergeist’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.

Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Not everyone considers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid.

Tobe Hooper’s camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.

Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming.

He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.

But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.

So, poor, unlikeable Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave-robbed. They just want to make sure Grampy’s still resting in peace – an adventure which eventually leads to most of them making a second trip to a cemetery. Well, what’s left of them.


Carnival Sideshow Countdown

We don’t watch a lot of TV, but when we do, it usually stars a bloodthirsty Jessica Lange. The 4th season of American Horror Story premiers this week, putting us in the mood for some carnival side show prep work. If you, too, are eager for the new season, here are some flicks – some great, some magnificently awful – to help you gear up.


9. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival comes to Greentown, IL, drawing the attention of most of the lonely hearts in town. It is especially appealing to two lads, but Will and Jim quickly learn that Mr. Dark has nefarious schemes in mind. Jason Robards to the rescue! The film is dated in that nostalgic Disney live action way, but there is still something sweetly spooky about it.

8. Passion Plan (2010)

Mickey Rourke falls in love at a side show. That sounds about right. In this enormously flawed yet weirdly watchable mind bender, Bill Murray, Megan Fox and Rhys Ifans help a down-on-his-luck trumpet player find redemption at the carnival.

7. Stitches (2012)

There are a lot of scary clowns in films – the best being It’s Pennywise and Robby’s terrifying toy in Poltergeist. But, not that many can carry an entire film. Stitches can. This Irish import sees a half assed clown accidentally offed at a 6-year-old’s birthday party, only to return to finish his act when the lad turns 16. Dark yet bawdy humor and game performances elevate this one way above teen slasher. Gory, gross, funny and well acted – it brings to mind some of Peter Jackson’s early work. It’s worth a look.

6. Vampire Circus (1972)

Here’s one of Hammer Horror’s early Seventies vampire flicks, replete with oil painted vampires, nubile and naked (sometimes striped) women, costumes, torches, and a nay-saying scientist/doctor. But there is one piece of novelty: these vampires work in a circus. Handsome Emil – kind of a cross between Jim Mrrison and Pauley Shore – comes to town and soon midgets, acrobats, panthers, strongmen (played by David Prouse – that’s right, kids, Darth Vader!), and gypsy women are killing all the children in town. But they don’t know that the hero possesses the power to make a cross glow. Think of how that would have been totally wasted had he been born during the Zombiepocalypse rather than an old timey vampire infestation!

5. The Funhouse (1981)

Double dating teens hit the carnival and decide to spend the night inside the park’s funhouse. What could go wrong? Well, as would become the norm in every carnival-themed horror film to come, the ride is the secret hideaway of a carny’s deformed and bloodthirsty offspring. Director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) develops a genre-appropriate seediness among the carnies, as well as an unwholesome atmosphere. This one’s no masterpiece, but it is a tidy, garish, claustrophobic and unsettling piece of indie filmmaking.

4. Nightmare Alley (1947)

Tyrone Power plays a carnival barker and conman trying to get mystic Madam Zeena’s secret clairvoyance trick. Once he does, he hits the bricks with his new love interest and swindles gullible richies, but ruin is never far away for ol’Tyrone, and when you start off a carny, down is the wrong direction to go. A lot of real carny folks and a surprisingly dark storyline make this a standout era flick.


3. The Last Circus (Balada triste de trompeta) (2010)

Who’s in the mood for something weird? Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia (Perdita Durango) returns to form with The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain. Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty. The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.


2. La Strada (1954)

Fellini’s beautiful tragedy of naïve Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) and the brutish strongman (Anthony Quinn) who purchases her casts the life of the traveling performer with surreal poetry. Beautiful, melancholy, sometimes absurd and often punishing, it’s perhaps the auteur’s saddest, dreamiest effort.


1. Freaks (1932)

Short and sweet, like most of its performers, Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks is one of those movies you will never forget. Populated almost entirely by unusual actors – midgets, amputees, the physically deformed, and an honest to god set of conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) – Freaks makes you wonder whether you should be watching it at all. This, of course, is an underlying tension in most horror films, but with Freaks, it’s right up front. Is what Browning does with the film empathetic or exploitative, or both? And, of course, am I a bad person for watching this film? Well, that’s not for me to say. I suspect you may be a bad person, perhaps even a serial killer. Or maybe that’s me. What I can tell you for sure is that the film is unsettling, and the final, rainy act of vengeance is truly creepy to watch.