A group of pot-smoking teens head out to the carnival one night when one of them has a dimwitted idea: instead of going home they'll get on the haunted house ride, depart the rail-guided vehicles halfway through, and spend the night having sex among the creepy skeletons and pneumatically fired jump-scares. That sounds like a dreadfully routine horror film, but The Funhouse is actually one of my favorites because it skims over the usual pitfalls. Director Tobe Hooper gives us exactly what we want without boring us with all the stuff we've seen a million times before.
As a bonus it's a time capsule of what appears to be a genuine carnival. You can't tell the difference between stock actors and real carnies, while some of the transients who wander into frame look as if they actually did. You might argue "nothing happens" for the first forty minutes or so, but I don't think that's fair. No, an unusual amount of world-building happens, which only heightens everything that follows. During this extended setup, a seemingly banal visit to a (possibly real) freak attraction actually answers a question we'll have later on.
Why is this movie so compelling to me? Because these aren't your typical movie teens. They're teens, period, and they're remarkably well cast. Do you know how long it's been since I feared for a character's life? How long it's been since I muttered "oh shit" while watching a movie like this? Everything about Funhouse feels real even though it's far from it. I couldn't give two shits about realism, I just want a movie that suspends my disbelief.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of all is the way the film looks: lens flares are everywhere and there's been no attempt to touch up the grain and some of the imperfections now that it's on HD. It's not quite as gritty or handheld as the movie that put Hooper on the map, but the look lends itself to the horror every bit as much as that one did. It's one of those films that prove that pretty much all horror movies should be shot on film and viewed in a resolution no less than that provided by Blu-Ray.
So yeah, you could say it's "just" Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a fun house, but that's not really a complaint, is it? I might actually prefer this movie to Massacre. I haven't even mentioned the antagonists—not because they're weak, but because the less you know about them the better. The Leatherface analog conceals his face with a Frankenstein mask, which makes it easy to see the influence classics like that had on Hooper and his contemporaries; Leatherface and the "bad guy" in Funhouse both have strong roots in cinema's most memorable and empathetic monster.
When Funhouse's antagonist takes his mask off... it's just one of those moments I live for.