Face-Off: The Funhouse vs. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

We're losing our masters of horror. Filmmakers whose projects altered the genre in the '60s - '80s are leaving us one by one. A couple years ago Wes Craven passed away, this July we lost George A. Romero, and just one month later we lost Tobe Hooper as well. Whenever one of these icons moves on, we like to put together a Face-Off in tribute. For Craven we did A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET vs. NEW NIGHTMARE, for Romero it was NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD vs. DAWN OF THE DEAD. When I sat down to figure out what sort of Face-Off I could do for Tobe Hooper, two of his films stood out as having strong similarities. I hadn't put it together before, but 1981's THE FUNHOUSE and 1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 are both about horny, homicidal masked men with crazy family members, and in both films these killers inhabit some kind of amusement park. So in memory of Hooper, we have a Face-Off between them.
Too often horror filmmakers seem to feel obligated to start their movies off with a random kill rather than taking their time to build up to the violence. Sometimes an opening kill can be great, other times they feel unnecessary. THE FUNHOUSE is one of those films that wisely takes its time getting to the murder and mayhem. We're introduced to virginal heroine Amy and her friends as they head out for a night of fun at a traveling carnival - even though Amy's father doesn't want her going to the carnival. Last time it passed through the area two girls were found dead, and he doesn't think it was a coincidence. His suspicion sets the stage for the horror that follows, and puts Amy on edge as she enters the strange atmosphere of the carnival. The teens bump into some odd, unsavory characters as they check out the freak animals, peep on a strip show, take in an unsettling magic show, and get on the bad side of the fortune teller. By the time they decide to check out the funhouse, we've been following them through this unpleasant carnival for around 25 minutes. There may not be murder happening, but this carnival is so slimy and off-putting that this section of the film is almost more disturbing than the section dealing with murders in the funhouse.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 has an opening kill sequence, and it's a doozy with no sense of real world logic to it. With a madman wielding a chainsaw tearing into their Mercedes from the bed of a pickup truck that is driving in reverse beside them, the occupants of the vehicle never attempt to hit the brakes. Not even when the saw is threatening to go through his head does the driver think to stop his car, or shift into reverse himself. That's just the first example of TCM2's over-the-top charms. The audio of that murder is caught on tape by the radio DJ the people in the Mercedes had called before the attack began, and a former Ranger who has been tracking the killers from the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE for a decade urges the DJ to play that audio over the radio to lure in the killers. The killers take the bait, resulting in another bloody attack that the DJ is lucky to survive - and when the killers leave the radio station, she is so dedicated to making sure they're brought to justice that she follows them back to their lair, with the ex-lawman following their trail as well. CHAINSAW 2 has an interesting and clever set-up, and the DJ and the ex-Ranger we follow on this journey are both fantastic characters, formidable opponents for the cannibalistic killers.
Credited as The Monster and played by Wayne Doba, Gunther Twibunt wasn't destined to become a horror icon, but if you ever see his face you're not likely to forget it. Gunther works at the carnival funhouse, wearing a Frankenstein's Monster mask while helping load passengers into the dark ride's cars. Beneath that mask, Gunther looks like a ghostly pale bat-person, with fangs, red eyes, an extra-wide head, and a few noses. He seems to be a conflicted character - he's an outcast, beaten down by the world, and he wants to do right, but he can be driven to murder quite easily. That doesn't mean he feels good about killing people, though. It's often Gunther's libido that leads to death. He's horny, he's a lonely man with strong urges, but his disfigurement guarantees that no one would want him. Still, he tries, and the women often end up dead. Life is tough for this mentally deranged bat-person.
The original Leatherface was very much like Gunther - a masked, high-strung, mentally off-balance character who was worried about the world around him and beaten down by family members. That carries over into this sequel, where Leatherface also develops a libido like Gunther's. Unlike Gunther, Leatherface doesn't get forceful. When he finds himself face-to-skin-masked-face with the female radio DJ, it's love at first sight. Leatherface is really smitten - he considers her his girlfriend. He wants to hump her with his chainsaw, slap someone else's face over hers and dance the night away. It'd be sweet if it weren't so sick. Leatherface's romantic feelings are handled in a comedic way, as he exhibits as child-like embarrassment over the situation when his family finds out and the DJ tries to talk her way out of it with a "It's not you, it's me" break-up speech. It's very funny.
Gunther has a very dark relationship with his father, carnival barker Conrad Straker (Kevin Conway). Conrad cares for his son to a degree, but is also disgusted by him, so much so that he will knock Gunther around if he dares to call him "Father". He has been very abusive to Gunther over the years and can drive him into a frenzy with a threatening tone of voice - Gunther would rather beat himself up than be hit by Conrad, and Conrad encourages to him to hit himself. Conrad knows that Gunther is homicidal, and will tolerate him killing townies, but has warned his son not to kill anyone associated with the carnival. Yet even when Gunther does cross that line, Conrad would rather kill the four teenagers who witnessed the murder than give his son over to the authorities. It's complicated, there's an equal measure of love and hate going on here.
Jim Siedow reprises his CHAINSAW 1 role of "The Cook" Drayton Sawyer, the harried older brother of Leatherface. Drayton is just trying to run a catering service that happens to have human meat in its meals, and the burden of having to get fresh meat while dealing with his wild, dimwitted, maniacal younger brothers weighs heavily on his shoulders. Bill Moseley became a horror icon with his performance as brother Chop-Top, the twin of the first movie's Hitchhiker who has all the Hitchhiker's quirks, but dialed up to 11 and mixed with his own '60s-influenced madness. Drayton is the brother who chews out his siblings and bosses them around, while Chop-Top is the teasing clown of the family who amuses himself while embarrassing and frustrating the others. The interactions between these three are frequently hilarious.
I've been to my fair share of small town fairs and carnivals, but never once have I taken a trip through one of their dark rides. If I did, I buy that the funhouse here is representative of what I might see. Small sets populated by cackling animatronics. Storm sound effects, wind blasters, flashing lights. This isn't over-designed, it seems like something that could be moved from town to town, broken down and set up again. It's not scary in itself, but I don't expect one of these things really would be. THE FUNHOUSE scores some points for realism, or at least believability.
The Saywers have taken up residence in an abandoned theme park called Texas Battle Land, but aside from some statues, murals, and a fake mountain, there's not much left to show that this place was a park - or if there is, the Sawyers have covered it up with their own macabre interior design tastes. There is nothing realistic about the Sawyer lair, this place is simply a feverish nightmare put on film, with skulls and skeletons adorning every inch of it. Yet somehow the cannibals are living here legally, and Drayton is not happy about the high property taxes.
For a movie that came out during the 1981 slasher boom, THE FUNHOUSE is quite restrained. The murders don't begin until nearly 50 minutes in, with the strangulation of a middle-aged woman that is presented with style - a fusebox is damaged during the struggle, sending sparks flying and causing lights to flash and animatronics to start moving. Unfortunately, the teens witness this strangulation and have to be killed before they can report it. There's a hanging, an accidental axing, electrocution, impalement, a shooting, but very little blood. Even with its small body count, this film spares us from the sight of a couple of the murders. This was not meant to be a bloodbath, and that's a respectable choice.
But if you want to drench your sets with gore, that can be a respectable choice, too. It's all about what works for each individual movie. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 is a glorious bloodbath, with Tom Savini unleashed to spill guts across the floor, show a hammer beating in brutal detail, have a skinned man get to his feet long enough to say goodbye to a loved one, split a person's head in half, let a madman go slash-happy with a straight razor, and other cinematic atrocities. TCM2 had the opportunity to be released unrated, and Hooper and his FX man took full advantage of this. Viewers thought the first CHAINSAW had been gory, even though it didn't have much bloodshed. This one shows how gory CHAINSAW really can be.
If you know me and my movie tastes, it should come as no surprise that THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 came out the winner here. TCM2 is one of my favorite movies of all time, among the top tier that I am most passionate about. I love that movie... but THE FUNHOUSE put up a good fight, as it is a great film in its own right. I'm not as big a fan of THE FUNHOUSE as I am of Hooper's CHAINSAWs, but it's up there as one of his best.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you think THE FUNHOUSE should have taken the win? Share your thoughts on these films by leaving a comment below, and also let us know what your favorite Hooper movie is. If you have any suggestions for future Face-Offs, you can send those to me at [email protected].



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