LIVE NUDE THRILLS
by JOHN DAMER
Dir. Tobe Hooper
Directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), The Funhouse is an imperfect horror movie. It’s ten to fifteen minutes too long, and it features a Psycho reference that would make even Brian DePalma groan.
Yet because it contains there are genuine and troubling ideas, there's enough in The Funhouse to save it from the junk bin. It’s not a movie that just wants to scare you; it wants you to feel horrible about the nature and existence of exploitative entertainment. It evokes those pre-code Hollywood horror movies (i.e. The Island of Lost Souls or The Black Cat). It demonstrates that fairground carnivals are grimy hellholes that should be avoided at all costs.
Funhouse is standard for a Horror-film: some young people go somewhere and do something for fun, and then terrible things happen (which is also the basic story of Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The young people in the movie are stock characters of the genre: there’s the main character Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), aka the Good Girl; the Alpha-Male Hunk Buzz (Cooper Huckabee); the Promiscuous One, Liz* (Largo Woodruff); and the Sycophantic Nerd, Richie (Miles Chapin).
*Guess what happens to her.
The fun activity that these four do is go to a Carnival at night where they (surprise!) hide out in a Funhouse ride and, after witnessing a murder committed by a freakish yet strangely sympathetic ride attendant, find themselves trapped and hunted like animals. (There is also a slight sub-plot of Amy’s younger brother Joey (Shawn Carson) sneaking-out to follow Amy going to the Carnival and getting caught by a harmless carnival hand.)
There's a prologue in which Joey pulls a prank on Amy while she takes a shower at their family’s house. In a rage, Amy gets out of the shower, finds Joey taking refuge in a closet, curses him, and promises brutal revenge. During this flurry of vindictiveness, Joey takes Amy’s picture with a Polaroid camera, which falls to the ground. As Joey scurries away, Amy finds this photo on the ground and picks it up. Seeing her angry face reflected in the picture, Amy is horrified by her sadism.
The camera then pans and zooms into a nearby poster of the iconic image of Frankenstein’s Monster played by Boris Karloff, and then there’s a cut to a TV showing the famous moment in Bride of Frankenstein in which the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) is revealed. A visual linking of cruelty to two iconic images of the Horror genre, this is a reflective moment that can be interpreted as an implicit commentary on how Horror is often consumed. It posits Horror movie viewing as something that is rooted in sadistic pleasure.
This associative visual idea signals one of the basic themes of The Funhouse: exploitation, as a means of entertainment, is a dark and twisted practice. (Ironically, this idea does contradict how The Funhouse works on the surface.) Yet, Amy being shocked at her own likeness signifies another idea that Hooper and many other Horror-directors support: the Horror Film can be used as a mirror that displays unfortunate yet true aspects of human-nature and existence.
Horrible things are displayed through out The Funhouse. For instance: I can’t think of any other movie that better renders the sad, seedy world of a traveling carnival. The movie’s atmosphere is full of skeaze and dread. The carnival worker characters might as well be wearing T-shirts that say ‘dirty carny’.
Many traditions of the Traveling Carnival are each given their own scene. There’s a Barnyard Entities scene where the four teens see a two-headed cow and a human fetus in a jar (both foreshadow a bizarre reveal that happens later in the movie):
A near-unnecessary Magic-Show scene:
There’s a scene set in the tent of a Fortune Teller of indeterminable Slavic origin:
There’s a scene set in and around the Nudie Booth:
And to bolster the scopophilic nature of what The Funhouse is about, throughout the movie are Point-of-View shots that show what characters see as they spy on sex and violence through holes or cracks between floor-boards.
The Carnival functions as a microcosm for the graceless world of adulthood that a teen like Amy becomes become an autonomous person. Shown at the beginning, Amy and Joey’s parents are the only ‘clean-cut’ adults in the movie; all of the other adult characters are are threatening, run-down, and depraved in nature.
Also taking into consideration that Amy loses her virginity to Buzz when the teens first hideout in The Funhouse, it becomes clear thatThe Funhouse is also about someone’s (Amy’s) Innocence not so much being lost but being ripped-away from them during one disturbing and violent night.
Extending off of this, there is a chilling scene late in the movie in which Amy sees her parents retrieving Joey to bring him home after he snuck out. However, she sees this while trapped in the Funhouse and through one of the rides’ operating industrial fans, and her subsequent cries for help aren’t heard over the noise. If they don’t already, it’s a moment that intends to remind the viewer that he or she will one day no longer have their parents to rely on for any form of support. This is a sobering, even terrifying fact of growing-up.
The final scene and shot of the movie is similar. The following morning, traumatized Amy emerges from the Funhouse after enduring the terror inflicted by the ride operator and the ride attendant. Out of her friends, she's the only survivor.
As the camera cranes up to a bird’s eye view to reveal that the carnival is being torn down, Amy stumbles away. Creepy carnival music comes on the soundtrack, and the movie ends with a fade to black.
As a coda, this final shot is as unsettling and haunting as anything in The Night Of The Hunter
Out of all of Tobe Hooper’s movies, not much else comes close to the classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (And if you’re thinking Poltergeist, then its time for the truth to come out: it’s obvious that Spielberg at least co-directed that one.) Nevertheless, because it’s a horror movie that has something interesting and thought-provoking going on beneath its surface, the film indicates that the man isn’t just a one-trick pony as a filmmaker. The Funhouse is Hooper’s near-masterpiece;
John Damer writes The Blog Of Imagination.
This is his first piece for This Recording.