Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Funhouse Shout! Factory / Scream Factory Blu-Ray Review

The Funhouse Blu-Ray has finally arrived in my mailbox, and like Daffy Duck awaiting his subscription to Dick Twacy I have anticipated this with nearly religious fervor. JR received his the week before I did, but he was good enough to wait for my invitation to watch together.

The Funhouse has been overdue for a special edition since the early days of DVD. I remember buying the "Goodtimes" DVD release and eagerly getting completely creeped out by seeing the film for the first time in widescreen, not even knowing the picture was way too dark. A few years later the Universal DVD release fixed the brightness and really popped for the first time on home video. The Funhouse is only the second Blu-Ray I've bought, the first being Charles Kaufman's Mother's Day, and the most compelling upgrade on the new format has been seeing more color and detail not so much in the carnival and funhouse, but in the actors' faces. You can actually see the change in tone on Liz's face where her makeup was applied, and practically count the hairs in Kevin Conway's beard!

Kevin Conway is actually the first order of business in assessing this new package, since Shout! Factory's new horror sublabel "Scream Factory" has taken on the tough and largely thankless work of old film re-discovery and promotional re-release. Most of their Blu-Ray and DVD re-releases have new original art, with varying success. What we have for The Funhouse is by artist Nathan Thomas Milliner and it's kind of a wash, but oddly enough this is the first official art for any promotion of The Funhouse to feature Frankenstein OR any members of the cast up front. 

Unfortunately the kids and Frankenstein look traced from film stills, and as much as I love the character, The Barker really SHOULD NOT be on the cover. If you'll recall last month's scene analysis, the initially peripheral presence of Kevin Conway as the various barkers of the carnival - and then reappearance as Frankenstein / The Monster's father, the Funhouse Barker - is a great surprise for first time viewers, and now the cat's out of the bag even for the new audience. It's not like revealing Norman Bates is really Mrs. Bates, but still. Moreover, the illustration of Conway is more caricatured than the way the teens look, and the drawing styles clash. Worse than that, check out the bottom of the cover - they cut his gun out of frame! Now he's just a creepy guy with mutton chops, center stage. I can't imagine this enticing new viewers on sight alone.

The back cover is a better story because the plot summary actually reads as written by someone who gets The Funhouse's strengths, whereas previous editions were always inaccurate in some way...half-true promises of "a killer in a Frankenstein mask" and teens being dispatched by various implements of destruction inside the funhouse. These inaccuracies can now be swept away thanks to this deft description at the top of Shout! Factory's release:

Director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) pays affectionate tribute to various classic horror movies in this tale of two teenage couples who spend the night in a sleazy carnival funhouse.

Wow, perfect! They mention the mostly-ignored undercurrent of horror genre homage and using the word "sleazy" cuts straight to the appeal of the first half of the film spent exploring the carnival at large. On a minor note, the interview with Kevin Conway isn't listed with the other special features as it was a last-minute get.

The best accommodation Shout! Factory offers to fans of The Funhouse and other re-release titles is the inclusion of reversible sleeve for the disc case itself, showing original poster art. This is a great choice to have in the modern era, when original poster art never survives unscathed by Photoshop on newer home video packaging. The jack-in-the-box guy, whom I'm not particularly fond of, is nonetheless an iconic and stark piece of shlocky graphic design. The original drooling mouth poster (which emblazons this blog) still finds its way into the packaging on the cover of the disc itself, which is terrific. All in all, flawed but very thoughtful packaging, which helps make up for the smaller size of the case - that's a minor gripe with Blu-Rays in general, getting less plastic for my dollar.

The retrospective interviews are of course what longtime fans like myself and JR have been waiting for. Neither of us have been able to check out the extras from across the pond on the Arrow Video UK release - which include commentaries with producer Derek Power, longtime Hooper special effects man Craig Reardon, video interviews with Hooper and Miles Chapin, and an essay by Kim Newman inside the packaging. Even with all that, I think Scream Factory got the more valuable interviews thanks to home field advantage: music composer John Beal, executive producer (and trash auteur) Mark Lester, an audio clip of William Finley and the aforementioned Kevin Conway interview. Shout! also includes the deleted TV broadcast scenes which first surfaced on YouTube, and the original TV spot with Cooper Huckabee and Elizabeth Berridge - real treats. Craig Reardon and Miles Chapin are sorely missed, as are the commentaries from the British horror critics Justin Kerswell and Howard S. Berger.

Tobe Hooper puts in his time on this release doing a commentary track, moderated by Tim Sullivan as his assisted-living nurse. Sullivan is known amongst a certain kind of well-meaning but desperate horror fan as the director of 2001 Maniacs. Having a co-host actually is a necessity for Hooper; the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 commentary felt like a sleepwalk despite the best efforts of that track's moderator, Chainsaw scholar David Gregory. Before JR and I sat down to watch, listen and take in the new picture and new knowledge, Jules advised that what we were about to hear might not be good, and I knew what he meant.


As the film plays, Hooper and Sullivan's commentary sounds frequently like an excited fanboy pestering a fuzzy, kindly old master about the depths of subtext in an old masterwork, which the old man patiently explains were mostly happy happenstance. Which isn't a bad thing at all. Despite Sullivan's eye-rolling clumsy proclivity towards juvenile pretentiousness (he all but asks,  "Isn't it WE who are really the freaks?") he does get some good "where did that come from?" questions in edgewise, which Hooper always answers as best as he can remember. Sullivan also deserves credit for putting The Funhouse in context within the rest of Hooper's career, mentioning for instance his pattern of working with children in other films like Salem's Lot and Invaders From Mars. Good job, Tim!

As for the interviews, all four members of the creative crew have anecdotes not repeated in the commentary, and all look surprisingly healthy - except for Bill Finley, RIP. Kevin Conway looks especially spry and is highly articulate at the ripe old age of 70. Amusingly, Finley completely blows up Tobe's spot from beyond the grave by contradicting the commentary track and mentioning what a troubled production The Funhouse was, which reminded me how virtually every account of the film has corroborated this since 1981. What a rosy picture this Blu-Ray paints by comparison!

Kevin Conway, still lookin' good

The Funhouse on Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory / Scream Factory is overall the kind of release I really appreciate as both a longtime fan of the film and a fan of special edition home video - an exponentially smaller niche market since all the big name genre films of the past, and even most of the lesser known ones, have already been exhumed and re-polished. Other reviews will remark that this film is a "lost gem" and to follow that cliche a little further, the color has never shone brighter. Despite the piles of critical analyses available on the Arrow Video release, I think American fans have gotten the better package if one had to choose between the two. Don't you already get enough subtextual analysis here?

Click here to buy The Funhouse on Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory

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