Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #5: The Funhouse (1981)

Directed by Tobe Hooper

By Amy M. Vaughn

Also released as Carnival of Terror, The Funhouse is a good times 80s slasher. It begins with an homage to Halloween (1978)—the younger, mask-wearing brother with a knife is stalking his older sister—but that turns out to be just a prank. Then the hetero-gender-matched foursome of late-teen/early 20-year-olds (who all appear far too old for their roles) heads to the carnival, even though they know two girls died at this fair’s last stop. The couples take in the attractions: see a magician, visit a fortune teller, spy on the strippers, and go to the freakshow.

The freakshow is populated by living animals, and though the barker promises 18, we are shown only two and they’re both cows. One has a cleft palate and the other a second face. As a special attraction, there is a pickled punk— a human baby in a jar whose skull is malformed. It looks as if it wanted to split down the center.

On a lark, the foursome decides to spend the night inside the Funhouse, the outside of which is decorated with a pterodactyl, a castle, a pirate, and a Chinese dragon among other things. The inside—a sort of haunted house ride—is no more cohesive.

Of course it is within the Funhouse that the murder and mayhem go down. Up to this point there have been subtle hints of the old freakshows—a little man kissing an average-sized woman; an animatronic Fat Lady perched atop the Funhouse; a mannequin of a very, very tall Chinese man—and a viewer would be forgiven if they thought the anomalously bodied were going to get an even shake from this flick. They would be wrong, but they could be forgiven.

The unhinged, nearly animalistic murderer turns out to be none other than the older brother of the baby in the jar. His skull is spread from the center and each side of his face has its own nose. He has snake-like fangs and, because he’s albino to boot, his eyes are red. He is savage and mute. This is not the sympathetic view of the differently bodied we’ve grown used to in this series. This is using “freak” as a cover for “monster.” The only saving grace, if there is one, is that there’s so little about him that’s human, he’s really more of a creature than a person. That, and the way he’s disfigured isn’t based on any known anomaly. 

Film novelization by Dean Koontz under the name Owen West

Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)) and writer Larry J. Block knew their carnival and sideshow lore, and they merged it with the late 70s/early 80s slasher motif in a way that makes for good fun. There isn’t much depth to the freaks in this film, but there are laughs and gasps and groans—everything you could ask for from Tobe Hooper in 1981.

3 ½ out of 5 Pickled Punks

Available for rent from most streaming services.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, will be released this October 20th from Thicke & Vaney Books and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.

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