FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Nov 8, 2010

Film Club: The Funhouse

When I was in my early teens I had this best friend, and this best friend had an older sister. She was just a couple of years older, but old enough that we were never in the same school at the same time...if she actually went to school. I'm not entirely sure she did, to be honest. She was a bit of a metalhead burnout, I guess you could say. She had walls covered with posters from Creem magazine, a grimy jean jacket, and long, perfectly straight hair parted down the she'd spend hours on, although you'd never guess it. Her younger sister found her completely irritating, but I found her completely fascinating. I was infatuated with her in that way that girls have, where they can become totally consumed by anyone who is not just like them (see also: Chris Hargensen in Carrie, Jennifer Check in Jennifer's Body). She was so different than my awkward, nerdy, studious self. Where did she go? How did she spend her time? The truth is she probably just got high with her friends in the McDonald's parking lot, but in my mind whatever she did was even more illicit than that. I've no idea why, but I've always been into sleaze...and if I'm calling her a touch sleazy, I mean it as a compliment.

I say all this because The Funhouse is, to me at least, the cinematic equivalent of that older sister. It came along in 1981, during the prime time for the slasher flick, and yet it's always been a bit outside the pantheon, lurking on the fringes. It's the seedy older sister to movies like Halloween, all scuzzy and sexed-up and illicit-feeling. In The Funhouse, the good girl- the final girl- will go all the way on the first date. In The Funhouse, monstrously deformed men pay $100 for a handjob while a low-rent magician smokes and mumbles his way through his act.

I hadn't seen this film in years before resurrecting it for Film Club and I have to say- it's aged well. I find my admiration of it, in fact, has grown beyond the nostalgia-wrapped love I have for everything from my youth- a reaction most unexpected. In The Funhouse, shit be crazy!

Despite the warnings of her father, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) heads off to the carnival on a double date. They ride the rides, gawk at the sideshow, peep at the peepshow, and generally do all the things one does when the carnival rolls into town. When it's time to split, however, Richie (Miles Chapin) has a big idea: why not spend the night in the funhouse, like, doin' it and stuff? The girls agree and parents are called, but Amy's younger brother Joey (Shawn Carson) knows the truth- he snuck out of the house and followed her. He watches as Amy and her date ride into the funhouse, and he waits but they never come out.

While inside, the couples watch as a carnival worker dressed as Frankenstein gets a handjob from the fortune teller, Madame Zena (Sylvia fucking Miles). When he...finishes a bit too quickly, he wants his $100 back but Zena refuses to return it. Things escalate and turn violent, and Zena winds up dead. Amy and her friends have seen the whole thing transpire, and now they just want to go home. Before they can find a way out, however, the murderer's father is alerted to their presence and he sends his son after them. They'll get rid of the bodies and the carnival will roll away in the morning, no one the wiser.

Oh yeah...and his son is somehow monstrously deformed.

What The Funhouse gets right, it really gets right- and what it really gets right is atmosphere. This movie nails the carnival aesthetic better than any other movie I've seen; when I was a young-un, the Coleman Brothers show came to town every summer and it was just like this, from the constant sideshow refrain of "A-live, a-live, a-live..." to the dinginess to that other world behind the tents to...hell, even the scattered hay in the parking lot. This is as genuine a portrait of the cheap carnival as you're going to get, and it instantly brought to mind that Bikini Kill song (oddly enough, it's called "Carnival") which also sums up the experience so succinctly- "This is a song about 16-year-old girls giving carnies head for free rides and hits of pot...I'll win that Motley Crue mirror if it fucking kills me...see the girls with the feathered hair- they're wearing plastic, not real leather."

Plastic, not real leather: that whole "reality vs illusion" is a big theme at work in this film. At every turn, Tobe Hooper plays with our expectations and reveals the truth behind the facades. The film opens with a sequence that pays heavy homage to both Halloween and Psycho, as we follow a masked killer's POV into the shower, where Amy is brutally stabbed...with a rubber knife. Later, as Joey walks to the carnival, a man pulls over and offers him a ride, only to immediately pull out a shotgun and threaten him with a joke. The low-rent magician kills a young woman on stage, but of course she turns out to be his assistant (and daughter). The villain of the piece wears a hideous mask, which only hides the even greater horrors underneath. And no matter how much the incessant laughter of the wonk-eyed animatronic fat lady tries to convince us, the funhouse is anything but all fun. Simply put, appearances are not to be trusted.

And what of that Frankenstein get-up worn by the monster, the one echoed in the Frankenstein poster on Joey's wall? There are certainly parallels between the old Universal monster and the one in The Funhouse- both, in essence, are created by man and then shunned by their creators. Both have urges they can't understand and emotions they're unable to keep in check, and both are ultimately tragic figures with whom the audience might sympathize a bit. Still, in The Funhouse the boy's father does reluctantly come around and show some begrudging love for his son. When he tells the doomed teenagers that he can't let them go because "blood is thicker than water", he's obviously referencing one of Hooper's favorite themes- family. The monster's murders don't really matter, we're told, until he kills Madame Zena: one of their own, a member of the carny family. To differing degrees, both Amy and the monster have dysfunctional home environments; the carnival is an obvious band of misfits, but even Amy's lovely nuclear family hides ugliness, with an ineffective father and an alcoholic, indifferent mother. In fact, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive, and The Funhouse make for quite a trilogy, that of the fucked-up family...but perhaps a fucked-up family is better than none.

There's also the vile whiff of pedophilia throughout the film, as the carny father waxes a little too enthusiastically about the "girl scouts" from a town or two ago. Let's not overlook the carny who finds Joey on the grounds after hours and gazes at the sleeping boy a little too fondly and touches him a little too tenderly. It's that sleaze factor rearing its head again! I even found a bit of Deliverance in the film this time- class issue come into play when the privileged suburban kids head into the hinterlands for some fun, only to mock everything and everyone they see. The tables are turned and the "other" strikes back the only way it knows how: with violence. Man, who knew that The Funhouse was a gift that'd keep on giving? It wasn't that kind of movie in my memory, that's for sure.

In my memory, it was a slasher flick- a seedy one, as I said, but a slasher flick just the same, complete with the requisite crazy townsperson doomsayer bleating about the wrath of God to indifferent teenagers. As such, it's still an effective film, if a little slow at times- it's scary and unsettling, and surprisingly light on the explicit violence and gore. What's most surprising, though, is that The Funhouse may have a little more going on under the surface than you might anticipate. Wait, it's playing with my expectations again...Funhouse, you're blowing my mind!

Film Club Coolies, y'all- big turnout this time! Give 'em some love:
Things That Don't Suck
Chadzilla ROARS!
Sucker Punch Cinema
The Horror Section
From Midnight, With Love
Scarina's Scary Vault of Scariness
In One Ear...
The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense
Zombie Cupcake
The Horror Digest
The United Provinces of Ivanlandia
Vegan Voorhees
Banned in Queensland
Confessions of a Contented Wallflower
The House of Sparrows
The Verdant Dude
I Will Devour Your Content
The Girl Who Loves Horror
Dave's Blog About Movies and Such
Cinema Gonzo
Strange Spanners
My Daily BM Downloads
Maynard Morrisey's Horror Movie Diary
Pussy Goes Grrr
This Girl Digs Horror
The Son of Madblood!


deadlydolls said...

Heck yes. The atmosphere is quite possibly the best of the '80s slashers. I do wish the ending was a little stronger in matching that fantastic buildup, but overall, this really does tall in the pantheon of horror. And I totally agree about how well it's aged. Maybe it's just me, but I was shocked at how much better a film this felt over the weekend than it did for me ten years ago.

Stacie Ponder said...

I agree completely (uh, obvs)- I really enjoyed it more this time than I ever did back in the day. That never happens!

Chadzilla said...

I too was surprised at how well it has aged, not to mention just how much atmosphere and character complexity that Hooper and company managed to wring from such a seemingly simplistic source.

About the pedophilia thing. I read an interview with Hooper (at either Dread Central or Shock til You Drop, I think) where he talked about the scene with the kid, and how he purposefully directed the actor that played the creepy carny to play it as if he had just molested the kid. Hooper loved how the guy delivered the line "You wouldn't believe what I had to do to him..." :shudder:

Hooper, what happened to you? What did Cannon DO to you?

Stacie Ponder said...

Yes! I was like, STOP CARESSING HIS CHEEK! It was really uncomfortable to watch. Well done, Hooper, well done.

Thomas Duke said...

"She was a bit of a metalhead burnout...she had walls covered with posters from Creem magazine, a grimy jean jacket"

Sounds like my dream woman.

I especially love the scene where the two girls are in the bathroom and the witch jumps out of the shadows, as well as the very atmospheric scene where the girl wearing the red jeans gets cornered in that fan. There's a similar scene in Alien 3, I believe.

Kirk said...

I've always considered THE FUNHOUSE a member in good standing from that beloved Class Of 1981, but it had never reached the awesomely mythical "1981-fucking rules" level of say, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, which was relased around the same time (they often shared a double bill that year!...sigh). But, as time has gone by, THE FUNHOUSE just keeps getting... funhouse-ier. Atmosphereic as hell, well shot and acted, I think it's easily a minor classic and it certainly, in retrospect, stands out amongst the typical slashers of that year in much the same way MY BLOODY VALENTINE does. It has subtext, authentic mood, realistic characters and sleaze, the latter of which is one reason it was lower on my list for the last 29 years: handjobs in real life? Count me in! In a movie, administered by a skanky 'ole fortune teller on a drooling, violent Rick Baker monster? Not as big on seeing THAT when I was 11 years old, despite the fact that it's a key plot point. Me, I'd rather watch TJ declare his selfish, romantic blue-checkered, be-flannel-shirted love for Sara on the cliffs of Glace Bay (I was young and had a crush on Brooke Sheilds and simply wanted to KISS her and nothing else, so cut me some slack). And anyone who thinks Tobe Hooper couldn't have been the visual author of POLTERGEIST should take a good look at THE FUNHOUSE and note the care taken with composition, lens choices, blocking, camera movement etc. THE FUNHOUSE is a skillfully shot, creepy little gem that deserves better than it has gotten over the years.

dementia13 said...

"She was a bit of a metalhead burnout, I guess you could say. She had walls covered with posters from Creem magazine, a grimy jean jacket, and long, perfectly straight hair parted down the middle"

Dream woman? I think you just described Ms.13, except that she was talented enough to draw her own posters and paint Ann Wilson portraits on her own jean jacket. Anyway, nice writeup. I saw this when it came out, and haven't seen the whole thing since, but I need to give this another looking at. It's fun to see Constanze Mozart get chased around by a murderous, cleft-palate freak wearing Michael Jackson's clothing. And remember: that's a $100 in 1981 dollars handjob. In 1981, the kind of escorts you see in Brian DePalma movies wouldn't have charged that much (OK, I'm assuming a little bit on that one, I'm not by any means an expert on HJ price trends), let alone an aging Sylvia Miles, so you can understand how he was a little peeved. BTW, speaking of sleaze, was that fortune-teller supposed to be related to him somehow?

Lazarus Lupin said...

Thank you for letting me play in your reindeer game. Love your review it rocked the casbah!

yours weirdly
Lazarus Lupin

Hud said...

Great insights, Stacie! I hope I wasn't the only one to notice the presence of one "Adrienne Bourbeau" in the end credits - she must be found!!

Hud xx

Andreas said...

I also noticed Adrienne Bourbeau:
What an awesome name for working in horror in the 1980s!

I thoroughly enjoyed The Funhouse's brand of well-meaning sleaziness. And that carnival was great, by the way! I wish that the carnivals when I was in high school had had magicians, strip shows, and handjob-dispensing fortune tellers.

Thanks, Stacie, for picking this super-cool movie!

David Robson, Proprietor, House of Sparrows said...

My favorite film in the FGFC so far (and a lovely piece of writing from you, dear host).

By some weird coincidence, Film Comment just put online a 1986 article by screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, reflecting on his experience writing TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 2, including many, many quotes from Hooper on his art and process. It's worth a look -

Patrick said...

Ok, it's been a thousand years since I saw this on it's first tun on HBO as a pre-teen. I had already read the novel by Owen West (who much later turned out to be Dean Koontz...who knew?!?), and I was sorely disappointed.

The movie had thrown out all but the bare skeleton of the book (the heavy religious themes, the family connections, the genetic freako history) and I was one of my standard junior high school nerd snit-fest over it, and I haven't seen it since.

But, Stacie, you have worked your mojo on me. I've just added it to my Netflix queue, and I'm ready to revisit it as an adult with a more cultured eye for film and a less raging boner for the source material.

"Where Horror Gets BENT!!!"

Carrie said...

I've read this review.
Now I must see this film.
That is all.

cjschuette said...

Great review, Stacie.

I remember stumbling upon this movie in the 1980s, right about the same time I saw "Tourist Trap" and "Burnt Offerings."

Where the hell my parents were, I have no idea.

AE said...

What Carrie said! I gave Film Club a miss this month -- what was I thinking?? Adding to queue! I'll be back next month agreeing with everything everyone says in hopes of being allowed in the club again...

Unknown said...

Great resource! Thanks!

AbbyNormal said...

Awesome post! To the person who mentioned the novel by Dean Koontz as being the "source material" for the movie, the opposite is actually true, as weird as that sounds. The novel was written using the script that Hooper had given to the author, and Dean Koontz basically was just allowed to run with it.

They were supposed to come out around the same time but the film got delayed in post and the book came out on time, leading people to think the movie is based on it. I love this movie so much! Its way more sleazy if you keep in mind that the fortune teller character in the film is actually the monsters mother in the novel! Talk about dysfunctional families!!!

kindertrauma said...

Great analysis. I love the "Deliverance" aspect you mentioned, with the suburbanites attempting to venture into the wild side (while mocking it) and then paying a price. When Funhouse came out it I think it paled in comparison to "Halloween" but now it seems like one of the few slashers that can really stand beside JC's film and be a worthy companion to it. They're both deceptively simple, almost fairy tale like and there is a sense that the heroine almost lures the darkness toward her and that she has a connection to the monster. I'm one of the many people who didn't quite get knocked out by it at first but it's a film that you HAVE to see more than once to really get. It's brilliant really and I see different things in it each time I view it. I have to say also that Amy is one of my favorite slasher "heroines" too because she's a bit of a jerk and a coward and she doesn't transform. Plus, the funhouse is just a great setting and Hooper's eye for color I think is just amazing.

PS I agree with all the praise for the book! I read it again about a year ago and it was just as great as I recalled.-Unk

Stacie Ponder said...

"...the heroine almost lures the darkness toward her and that she has a connection to the monster."

Yes! I love all the shots where she has some lengthy eye contact with various carny folk and her friends don't notice. Very eerie.

And this:

"...she's a bit of a jerk and a coward and she doesn't transform."

Also yes. Man, at the end, she really lucked out. Got away by circumstance, otherwise she'd've been screwed.

I've had the book sitting on my shelf for ages (I loves me some novelizations). Better make some time for it, it seems...

The Movie Waffler said...

There's a book???