Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Summer of Slash: The Funhouse

The Funhouse is a light-hearted, fun little slasher film that, when held up to all of the other slashers I've watched this summer (almost 30 now), actually achieves what so many hope to accomplish: to be (at the risk of sounding repetitive) a light-hearted, fun little slasher movie. What's even more shocking is that it was directed by Tobe Hooper – who turned down Steven Spielberg's offer to direct E.T. so he could make this film (the two would of course team up in one of the genres oddest partnerships that resulted in the pretty-awful Poltergeist) – a director I have stated numerous times on the blog that I am not very impressed with (his most famous film, you know that one about the chainsaw-wielding maniac, is a tad overrated in my opinion…good, hell even insanely influential, but still overrated). There are some genuine scare moments, and some memorable instances that evoked the kind garishness of an Argento film (the ending at the funhouse is painted with bright colors and oddball noises coming from every direction). It's ultimately a silly little movie, though, but it was probably the last time Hooper was ever any good.

It almost seems pointless rehashing story summaries with this series, as you can pretty much guess as to what the general story arc is going to be based on the film's title. However, The Funhouse has some tricks up its sleeve. Specifically the opening scene: a POV of someone with black gloves getting a knife from the drawer and donning a Halloween mask, creeping up on a girl in the shower (boobs within the first two minutes, by the way...it's clear we're getting into 'slasher glut' territory now), and violently pulling open the shower curtain (with faux Bernard Herrmaan music playing in the background) and attempting to stab her until we realize it's a fake knife, and that the perpetrator is the girl's younger brothers. So, right away Hooper is riffing on the material here, while paying homage to the subgenre he is indebted to he lets us know from the onset that isn't going to be a slasher flick that plays things straight.

After that awkward moment of sibling, ahem, rivalry, Amy (our Final Girl...but more on her later) deliberately disobeys her father by leaving the house to go hang out with some friends at a traveling carnival.  Now, it's not the fact that she disobeyed her father, but consider this: in most horror films you're supposed to empathize with the Final Girl, she is usually a character of virtue, of morals ans standards...certainly most Final Girls are not so brash and flippant.  And this is where Hooper compounds upon the fun he had in those opening minuets: the characters here suck.  And I don't mean that they're poorly conceived or that they aren't fully fleshed out characters; no, I just mean they suck as humans.  You're glad they get stuck in the funhouse and get picked off one by one.  These aren't enjoyable people to be around, and it is in that decision that Hooper does something interesting with what is your basic "dead teenager" movie.

Once in the funhouse Amy and her friends partake in the usual teenage hijinks: they harass the carnies, smoke some weed, peep in on a nudie show, view a magic show, and visit the freaks-of-nature booth.  After all of the hijinks (and we're talking a good 40-45 minutes worth, here, causing me to scream at Hooper to pick up the freaking pace) one of Amy's friends, Richie, dares the group to spend the night on one of the rides that a crazed carnie who doesn't speak (and wears a Frankenstein's Monster mask) is in charge of.  As they contemplate this they find themselves peering into a room where the obviously mentally askew ride assistant (still donning the mask, so obviously something weird is under there) is trying to hook up with a prostitute.  One instance of premature ejaculation later, and he finds himself strangling the hooker because she won't refund his money.  The kids see this in a "Scooby-Doo" type moment, and the film finally commences with the slashing.

Hopper establishes the off-ness of the funhouse -- its ethereal qualities where things come alive at night, where monsters literally dwell -- with gusto.  The film, for the most part, is a lot of fun once you realize that Hooper isn't interested in playing it straight, even for a second.  There's a lot of humor in watching this group of losers wander through the funhouse, getting offed by the manager of the road show and his deranged "son" (the 'thing' in the Monster mask, who when unmasked, provides one of the film's best jolts), who in one of the film's most bizarre scenes takes his frustrations out not on one of the annoying teens, but on a wooden shelf.  Scary!

The final 30 minutes (once the horrendous plot is tossed aside in favor of fun, creepy set pieces) of the film are indeed like a really good, spooky funhouse ride. Weird mannequins, clown figures, and various animatronics pop out of all corners, and come in all shapes and sizes – all with an equally annoying, high pitched maniacal laugh. The bright colors pop off the screen as you can clearly see that Hooper knew what to do with his budget, and that this wasn't just some throwaway low-budget slasher movie, but that he was trying to do what the Europeans - specifically the Italians - were doing with their garish and ethereal, not to mention completely unsettling and off-putting, set pieces. The Funhouse showed signs of hope for a director whose horror career began with a meteoric rise unlike anything seen in the genre, but sadly, after his next couple of films he would crawl back to the film that made it him famous, make a joke of it all, and then be forgotten forever.

When The Funhouse was in pre-production, Hooper received a call from Steven Spielberg to see if he wanted to direct his family film about an extra terrestrial (Spielberg wanted to release an R-rated horror movie about a month apart from his PG family film, and I find it odd that he approached Hooper for the latter).  Hooper, committed to his project at the time, respectfully declined and continued working on The Funhouse all the while wanting to work with Spielberg at some point.  Spielberg, unable to direct the two films at once (at least take credit for them), because of a clause in his contract with Universal, asked Hooper to take directing duties on Poltergeist; however, as it is somewhat famously known, the cast and crew all claim that Spielberg, not Hooper, made all of the decisions during the filming of Poltergeist.  The film, of course, was a huge hit, but Hooper would instead go back to having his name attached to smaller, science-fiction collaborations with Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon: Invaders from Mars and Lifeforce.  However, in 1986 he would put the nail in his own career coffin as he returned to the cannibal family that helped his name become synonymous with low budget, successful horror film.  The problem was that he turned his monstrous group of chainsaw killers and cannibals into a big, drawn out joke (more on that another time...a review of that film is pending), and audiences weren't wanting that.  The film doubled its 4 million dollar budget, but failed to enrapture audiences the way the original did, a metaphor for Hooper's career trajectory post-1980's.

Back to the film in question though: The Funhouse does serve as an example of the Hooper actually giving a damn, and the film has enjoyed cult status. Even though a lot of its notoriety probably came at first from having been put on the infamous Video Nasties list, a mistake, however, by the DPP after they confused The Funhouse with another movie floating around as a bootleg that was using Hooper's title (that film was called Last House on Dead End Street), the confusion was cleared up, and I think it's pretty clear that no real major cuts were made to this film (what was there that was objectionable to cut, anyway?), altering its tone or flow. But there's no denying that during the VHS bootleg era, if your film found itself on that infamous list, interest among horror buffs immediately piqued. But that's only part of the reason I think The Funhouse is a somewhat beloved slasher film (I don't think anyone would defend its merits too passionately), as I was pleasantly surprised while the film unfolded just how tight everything was in the film.  Its running time is just right, its scared are good, its aesthetic is pleasing and creepy, and it made me smile in a good way.  It's everything a fluff, tongue-in-cheek horror movie should be. And I think it's just now starting to be rediscovered in that vein, the kind of film that belongs with Evil Dead 2 and films of that ilk.

It's not just the humorous opening sequence, or the fun monster aspects of the film, but I also liked how Hooper plays with the conventions of the already established, albeit fairly young, prolific subgenre. The Final Girl, Amy, in The Funhouse is a wimp who doesn't rise to the challenge like the prototype for the Final Girl character that John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis laid out in Halloween. Amy cowers in the corner at the end of the film while the monster's buffoonery is the primary cause of its death.  She just screams and watches as he trips and blunders into a bunch of cogs and gears until he is killed. It's an interesting take on one of the slasher's most tried-and-true tropes.

I was trying to think of a modern example of the kind of feeling I had while watching The Funhouse , and I suppose I would liken it to Sam Raimi's 2009 return to horror, Drag Me to Hell, a horror film that plays by the rules and conventions of the genre, but doesn't take itself too seriously. It understands, like The Funhouse, that the audience is there to have a good time and have the pants scared off of them. Unlike another "funhouse" type slasher I watched earlier this summer, Tourist Trap, the tone of The Funhouse isn't confusing, it knows exactly what it is, what it's trying to accomplish, and doesn't strive to be exploitative or too serious (a major flaw of the otherwise enjoyable Tourist Trap). And for the better part of 45 minutes (all after the plodding set-up), Hooper's film succeeds in having the appropriate tone for this kind of slasher movie: a fun and scary trip through a funhouse of horrors. This one kind of snuck up on me, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.


  1. Hmm, I'll have to give this one a try. Sounds like fun.

    It's nice every once and while when a horror movie has all of the protagonists be appallingly awful, so we can just root for the killer, especially when it's done with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as it seems to be here.

    I'm appalled that you sully the good name of Tobe Hooper, though. What about SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION and THE MANGLER and INVADERS FROM MARS! All classics.

    Sometimes it's rough when your best movie is your first one...

  2. great review! i watched this on on demand. pretty fun & cool. loved the retro-ness.

  3. Excellent review - always enjoyed this film - really dig the connection you make between this and Italian horror films - I agree.