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Wednesday, March 13, 2024

‘The Funhouse’ – Revisiting Tobe Hooper’s 1981 Slasher and Dean Koontz’s Novelization

Novelizations became popular at a time when home video was either unavailable or just too expensive to own. So these books were, in essence, cheap keepsakes after seeing and enjoying a film in theaters. In the case of 1981’s The Funhouse, however, the novelization came out first. This was on account of the film, directed by Tobe Hooper, taking longer to complete than originally anticipated. It seemed unwise to release the book first, considering the risk of spoilers. As it turned out, though, it was hard to spoil anything when the novel and film were as different as night and day.

Dean Koontz, who used multiple pseudonyms throughout the early years of his career, had yet to achieve any substantial success when he agreed to write the novelization for The Funhouse. On top of the financial incentive, the proposal of adapting Larry Block’s screenplay simply intrigued Koontz. After all, he was fascinated with carnivals: a setting that would later resurface in his work (Lightning). The childhood fantasy of running away to join the carnival, out of a need to escape troubles at home, found its way into Koontz’s version of The Funhouse. However, this particular plot thread and others are entirely absent from Tobe Hooper’s film.

While writing as Owen West, Koontz expanded on the source material at length, causing over two-thirds of his Funhouse novel to be devoted to pure exposition. The scenes found in Block’s screenplay are not even adapted until the last act of the book. In the meantime, Koontz delivered an engrossing mix of religious dread and psychological horror to go with morsels of carnival carnage.

The author’s own Catholic background had a huge impact on the novelization, resulting in a taxing throughline about (women’s) chastity and sin. She might have only had a minor role in the film, however, Amy’s mother, Ellen Harper (played on screen by Jeanne Austin), is crucial to the book’s story. If not for Ellen, there would be no conflict. Koontz conceived Mrs. Harper to be an irreparably damaged person, whose secret history gave rise to The Funhouse’s inciting action. At a young age, Ellen married a carny named Conrad Straker (played by Kevin Conway in the film). Their brief union was not without its problems, specifically Conrad’s physical abuse, yet the discord only worsened when their child turned out to be an anomaly. A freak, as the novel puts it.

Funhouse

Pictured: Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin in The Funhouse.

Believing her firstborn, Victor, was the punishment for running away from her oppressive homelife and forsaking her faith, Ellen set out to make things “right.” The only problem was, Victor was no ordinary baby; despite his size, he was strong enough to nearly overpower his mother. The plan all along was to snuff out the grotesque kid, but the attempted murder turned into an act of self-defense. Conrad did not see it that way, though, because he had no qualms with Victor’s appearance. In fact, he welcomed it. Conrad was a Satanist and saw Victor’s monstrous exterior as reward for his worship.

Koontz concocted an absurd, long-game plan of revenge after Conrad cast Ellen out of the carnival. Rather than taking her life then, the carnival barker promised to find Ellen again one day and, if she had any, murder her new children. The odds of such a vendetta coming to fruition should not have been in Conrad’s favor, but there is a possible supernatural force at play in this version of The Funhouse. One coordinating events and testing the characters. Conrad’s fifteen years of patience eventually paid off once his carnival traveled to Royal City, Ohio.

As repentance for her past, Ellen turned to religion and alcohol. And while she swore off having any more children, Ellen remarried and, reluctantly, gave birth to Amy and her younger brother Joey (respectively played by Elizabeth Berridge and Shawn Carson in the film). No one but Conrad knew of her “baby killer” transgression, and Ellen’s fear of the truth coming out manifested in the same sort of severe fanaticism she grew up with. Amy endured the most direct damage, seeing as the mother called her teenage daughter a “filthy, rotten, ungrateful little bitch” and “stupid little slut” as well as slapped her upon finding out she was pregnant. Ellen feared, much like when she was pregnant with Amy and then later Joey, her grandchild would turn out like Victor. “You don’t know what you might give birth to. You don’t know!” Nevertheless, the mother did the opposite of what Amy expected and agreed to an abortion. Ellen thought she had killed two birds with one stone, but fate would not let up.

At the time, not a lot of authors were writing about the subculture of carnies. At least not with the kind of accuracy and detail found in the Funhouse novel. For instance, Koontz revealed how carnies marry and divorce using amusement rides, and explained the role of a carnival’s “patch.” While the book does indeed prey on preconceived notions about carnival folk — their being dangerous — Koontz, surprisingly, painted the employees of Big American as a loving and tolerant found-family. These absolute outliers of society, with the exception of rotten apple Conrad, care about each other. Even Gunther, Conrad’s other son and Victor’s half-brother. The other carnies saw past his unsightly appearance and accepted him as one of their own. Of course, this was without knowing of Gunther’s “uncontrollable need to rape, kill, and taste blood.”

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Pictured: Wayne Doba as Gunther in The Funhouse.

As with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Funhouse holds up a mirror to family dysfunction. Although the film lacks the elaborate backstory unique to Koontz’s novel, there is still something very off about the cinematic depiction of the Harpers. For starters, Ellen is inebriated as Amy heads out for her date, and her husband is blasé toward his own children. Even weirder, neither parent is all that affected after picking up a lost and confused Joey at the carnival, and after they witness a carny get weirdly handsy with this boy he found sneaking around the fairgrounds. The same scene, when viewed from a less accusatory perspective, could be interpreted as the film’s only instance where an adult expresses genuine concern for Joey’s well-being. As for the carny family, the dysfunction is exclusive to Conrad’s clan. Gunther is his father’s attack dog, and his mother, fortune teller Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles in the film), barely acknowledges him. Oddly enough, in all of his efforts to develop the characters, Koontz overlooked Gunther; he is not sympathetic like his on-screen counterpart.

The novelization creates an additional monster in the story: Ellen. The Harper matriarch is certainly not on the same level as Gunther, yet she is no less destructive. And worse, the damage is done to her own family. Ellen’s self-loathing sets so many wheels in motion in the book; her toxic behavior sends her children straight into the arms of danger. Mrs. Harper’s nocturnal habit of drunkenly intimidating Joey urges the boy to run away to the carnival, and withholding her love after Amy’s abortion causes the daughter to seek affection elsewhere… and Amy thought she could find it at the carnival.

The Funhouse novelization was a big hit for both Dean Koontz and the original publisher, yet the film ended up being a box-office disappointment for Universal Pictures. And later on in a reprint published under Koontz’s real name, the author explained in the afterword that the book’s sales “plummeted” following the film’s release. He did not have the kindest of words for Hooper’s version, going so far as to say his film was a “curse” on his book rather than an advertisement for it, and the director did not realize “the potential of the [source] material.” The harm was so detrimental that the novelization was apparently pulled from shelves.

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Pictured: Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff and Miles Chapin in The Funhouse.

Horror fans tend to agree that Tobe Hooper’s masterstroke is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, yet The Funhouse should not be disregarded. Especially when reflecting on the aesthetic value of his earlier output. Hooper and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo compensated for the simple story by blessing their collaboration with a sort of artistry not always available in this classic era of teen slashers. Certain moments of this film are downright beautiful to look at — fans and critics have made comparisons to Marc Chagall’s work and Mario Bava’s films — as well as the foundation of Hooper’s burgeoning new visual style (as seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Lifeforce). The carnival also remains profitable as a thoroughly creepy setting.

The consensus for Hooper’s The Funhouse has shifted over the years. Even the slasher trend’s harshest critics, the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, reconsidered their initial opinions six years after the fact. Recognizing this was another “dead teenager” flick, Siskel still recommended The Funhouse as a “guilty pleasure;” Ebert said it was at least “more interesting” than its contemporaries. As for the novelization, Koontz wrote a nasty but absorbing companion piece worthy of its own screen adaptation. It is arguable that the book possesses the better and more fleshed out story, however, mere words cannot accurately describe the beautifully macabre carnival or the tightening atmosphere in Hooper’s film.

Back then, Tobe Hooper was given hell for how his first commercial project turned out; the studio acted like its first made-in-house slasher was a misfire and brushed the film under the rug. Today, though, The Funhouse has found its appreciators. This underrated slasher is still a dark ride worth taking.

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Pictured: The Owen West and Dean Koontz prints of The Funhouse novelization.

The post ‘The Funhouse’ – Revisiting Tobe Hooper’s 1981 Slasher and Dean Koontz’s Novelization appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3802540/the-funhouse-revisiting-tobe-hoopers-1981-slasher-and-dean-koontzs-novelization/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-funhouse-revisiting-tobe-hoopers-1981-slasher-and-dean-koontzs-novelization

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