Saturday, October 22, 2011

Overlooked Gems #11: The Funhouse

Grade: 70 (B)

Quick: what’s the first film that comes to mind when the phrase “self-aware slasher movie” comes up? The answer, obviously, is Wes Craven’s 1996 horror/comedy Scream. What’s the second? Probably one of the many lousy Scream imitators or mediocre sequels. How about Tobe Hooper’s 1981 film The Funhouse? No? Hooper’s film isn’t as strong as the Craven’s, but there’s a certain nutty charm to it, not to mention a breath of fresh air to its lack of overt winking to the audience.

Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is an ordinary teenager going on a double date with her more sexually experienced friend Liz (Largo Woodruff). Their dates (Cooper Huckabee and Miles Chapin) decide to go to a particularly sleazy traveling carnival. There, they smoke pot, peep on a strip show, see the “freaks of nature” exhibit with deformed animals, and heckle a fortune teller (Sylvia Miles). One of the more bone-headed members suggests they stay overnight in the funhouse ride. They fool around in the ride, but while there they witness the deformed ride assistant pay the fortune teller for sex and kill her after she refuses to give the money back. The ride barker (Kevin Conway) turns out to be the assistant’s father, and when they discover the kids in the ride, they decide they can’t let them leave.

The Funhouse begins with a knowing homage/rip-off of the opening scene of Halloween crossed with the famous shower scene in Psycho: an unseen figure puts on a Halloween mask, picks up a knife, and stalks Amy to the shower. It turns out the figure is Amy’s annoying kid brother, the knife is rubber, and he’s just playing a mean joke (although why the kid wants to see his sister naked in the shower is anybody’s guess). From there, it’s clear the film knows it’s a slasher movie and it toys with the audience’s expectations. Hooper cleverly builds-up the film with the teens gawking and jeering at a bunch of carnival freaks; these kids are, quite frankly, a bunch of dumbasses who came to the carnival for cheap thrills. They are, in this case, not unlike many of the ostensible audience members. The film was released in the slasher heyday. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, and other Halloween knock-offs imitated the John Carpenter classic without replicating any of its wit or atmosphere. Audiences came in droves for cheap thrills, gore, and nudity. The Funhouse takes a group of kids, drops them into a cheap freakshow (complete with odd grotesques and cheap “things jump out at you” shocks), and finally gives them more than they bargained for. An equally clever gambit has Amy’s irritating brother follow the teens to the carnival only to be scared out of his wits; plenty of kids had the bejeesus scared out of them by watching slashers and other horror movies at a young age, so why not make the thrills real?

The Funhouse works as a spiritual successor to Hooper’s best film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both films deal with unconventional families (a group of redneck cannibals in one, a group of carnies in the other) and feature the not particularly bright youth adrift in America. The victims in both are idiots, but their fates are genuinely horrifying nonetheless. Both films make already creepy or mistrusted groups (rednecks/carnies) more grotesque than usual. But where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is seen as a metaphor for Vietnam or youth adrift in Nixon’s America, The Funhouse’s focus is on a youth looking for cheap thrills rather than real experiences (Amy’ suggestion that the group go to the movies is quickly turned down, and she’s the only one who seems reluctant to visit the carnival). The film’s last third, where the teens are hunted, is not as strong as the build-up. The deformed creature chasing the protagonists is more interesting before it removes its mask; the real face is a fake looking letdown. Some of the deaths, while cleverly orchestrated, are too silly to be taken seriously (then again, with a death where the cogs working to kill someone are literally cogs in a machine, it might be intentional). But for all its flaws, The Funhouse is a clever genre riff from a talented horror filmmaker.

Next week: Exorcist III: Legion

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