Ambush Bug here, shamelessly donning my Ringmaster top hat to put the spotlight on a special series of AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS columns—Send in the Clowns! To celebrate the news that my new circus horror comic, PIROUETTE from Black Mask Studios is available for order in July’s Diamond Previews (item code JUL140937), I am going to be taking an extensive look at all kinds of clown horrors in film and other media over the next few weeks.
PIROUETTE is a comic I’ve been developing for a quite a while with interior art from the fantastic Carlos Granda and a first issue cover by Ale Garza. The story is described as Raised from infancy by duplicitous clowns who entertain by day and menace by night, Pirouette dreams of washing the paint from her face and escaping to a better life far away from her cruel circus family… because when the spotlights dim and the crowds disperse, the clown princess’ big-top dreams give way to a nightmarish world of monsters with painted smiles. The book hits all of the coolest of cool comic shops in September, but you’ve got to tell your store owner to order it now in order to get it!
I can’t wait for folks to see the book which I promise is filled with big top terror and death-defying danger. In the coming weeks, I’ll share some behind the scenes stuff about PIROUETTE at the top of each of these “Send in the Clowns” columns along with a look at some cinematic examples of Coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) and try to get to the bottom of why clowns are so damn scary!
While THE FUNHOUSE doesn’t necessarily have clowns in it, per se, the carnival aspects of this classic horror film were definitely influential as I was writing PIROUETTE. So much that I paid homage to one of the more creepier aspects of the film—that of Kevin Conways roles as three different carnival barkers, by making the ringmaster, the Barker, and leader of the clowns all related as triplet brothers running the circus in PIROUETTE. So let’s talk about Tobe Hooper’s classic carnie horror film!
Retro-Review: Available on BluRay from Scream Factory!
THE FUNHOUSE (1981)Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Lawrence Block
Starring Elizabeth Berridge, Shawn Carson, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, Miles Chapin, Kevin Conway, William Finley, Wayne Doba as Gunther the Monster!
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Though Tobe Hooper will most likely go down in history for TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, the director did do some other effective films. Take THE FUNHOUSE for example. This was a film I saw the trailers for as a kid and was dying to see, but wasn’t allowed to do so. When I did get to see it, it was such a special experience that even if it was a piece of shit, I would have savored it because it was denied my viewing for so long. Luckily, though, THE FUNHOUSE is anything but and one of the best films I’m reviewing in this week’s column.
Elements of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE abound in this stalk and slash film set in a carnival amusement park. Hooper’s attention to sleazy detail come to the surface once again as a quartet of teens make their way through sideshow attractions of two headed cows and dancing girls. The automated mannequins of the sideshow, as well as the other intricate set pieces designed for the funhouse ride itself, are insanely detailed, yet bear the grime of age and overuse. The rusty moving dolls click and whirr, moving in a ragged and unconventional fashion that one can’t help but be creeped out by. The carnival in this film comes alive and though in some cases the same actors are used (Kevin Conway is in this one in three different roles as three different styles of sideshow barkers), all exude that twisted carnie gruff and roughness that can’t be washed off.
Shades of Hooper’s sequel TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 also surface in this earlier film as the monster itself, Gunther, is motivated by sexual rage and is more of a walking, clawing, drooling penis monster than anything else, much like Leatherface in TCM2 with his tendency to use his chainsaw as a symbol for his sexuality in that film. The theme of sex and death is prevalent in most slasher films, but here it is present almost in every story beat. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is playing on the television at the beginning and a poster of Frankenstein’s Monster is prominent on the wall. This story of a monster looking for a mate moves to the forefront as Gunther first tries and fails to purchase sex from a fellow carnie, which ends badly and then pursues the two female protagonists throughout the film as they try to escape the funhouse they become trapped in. In a scene that is almost never shown in slasher films, one of the girls even offers herself up for sex in hopes to escape being murdered by Gunther.
Though slasher tome wasn’t necessarily written in stone yet in 1981, Hooper bucks convention by having his lead actress and final girl Elizabeth Berridge smoke weed, have sex, and even appear nude in a shower scene reminiscent of HALLOWEEN with a mask being slid over the camera and then voyeuristically entering the bathroom to disrupt a shower. Though some may see this as a swipe, it felt more like a wink to a fellow filmmaker who was having a particularly good run than anything else. The scene itself is also cut much like PSYCHO’s famous scene with choppy edits at the reveal.
The cast in this one is amazing, as Berridge went on to star in AMADEUS. The kid who plays her brother, Shawn Carson, went on to star in another carnival horror film SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, and the aforementioned Kevin Conway who went on to be a talented character actor in GETTYSBURGH and OZ. Hell, it’s even kind of cool that the writer of this film went on to write the abysmal 1990 version of CAPTAIN AMERICA. And if you look closely, you’ll recognize the PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE himself William Finley as the twisted pale-faced magician.
THE FUNHOUSE pulls no punches and puts the teens who think it would be a good idea to sneak out of the Funhouse ride and spend the night in the carnival making out and getting into goofy teenage no-good. It has some gory kills and an absolutely horrifying monster in Gunther, a split faced monstrosity who moves like a spastic and uncontrollable animal. Hooper even adds creepy little details which give off a feeling of unease, such as an apathetic mother’s alcoholism and a scene where a carnie who “rescues” the young boy suggesting that he may have molested him a bit before returning him home. All in all, if you’re looking for a truly effective stalk and slash film which turns convention on its ear and isn’t afraid to go for the jugular, THE FUNHOUSE is the place to be.
And finally…here’s the creepy clown of the day!
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Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 3. Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller. Don’t forget to order his new comic PIROUETTE from July’s Diamond Previews (item code JUL14 0937) today!