Monday, November 8, 2010

The Funhouse (1981)

So, a little while back I saw over at The Final Girl Film Club that the new movie to review was Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse. And I thought "Well, heck, that's in my netflix queue anyway." So, to the top of the queue it went. I will admit that I had more than a little bit of trepidation in watching this one. I know that I am in the horror fan minority here, but I'm really not the biggest fan of Mr. Hooper.

With the exception of Poltergeist, which only sort of counts since it was largely Spielberg's baby, I haven't really liked anything he did. I know, I know, everyone will swear up and down that Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a milestone in the horror genre, and that it has such iconic scenes associated with it.

Sorry guys. I just don't like it. I will be honest, however, and tell you that I pretty much automatically dislike anything that has cannibals associated with it. I can't help it you guys, everybody has their thing, mine is cannibals.

But we're getting SO far off topic now. Enough about Tobe Hooper's other productions, we're here to talk about The Funhouse right now. Which, I'm going to go out on a limb here by saying, is my favorite of Hooper's works. Excluding Poltergeist, but we already covered that.

The Funhouse is essentially a Brother's Grimm-esque coming of age tale, modernized, and hidden under the guise of being a typical slasher film. Like the titular funhouse itself, the film is all about what goes on as far as the surface, and then the gritty things happenings that are hidden beneath that.

At first glance, The Funhouse is almost formulaic.

Step 1: Get a group of teenagers together.

Step 2: Introduce some sex and drugs into the mix (with the exception of the mandatory virgin)

Step 3: Teenagers come upon some sort of danger/madman/hillbillies/undead killing machine

Step 4: Said danger will then pick off teenagers one by one

Step 5: Token Virgin goes up against the Big Bad, with some sort of blunt instrument.

Step 6: The virgin escapes alive, older, wiser, and in need of about thirty some-odd years of intense therapy.

Throw in some insane carnies, a weird-ass dark ride (if you don't remember what a dark ride is, shame on you, and go back and refresh your memory), tons of jiggling boobs, and you have the outer shell of The Funhouse's infrastructure.

I'm not saying that escaping terrifying, potentially inbred, carnies is not a key factor to the film. It is. And if you don't really want to have a long think about things and watch the violence, that is potentially enough. However, there is so much more to this film than simply running through plywood sets whilst dodging the Elephantman's ugly cousin.

You just have to know where to look.

To fully understand the heart of the film, you have to understand the film's heroine. Meet Amy Harper.

Amy is in that frightening state of her teenager years in which she is uncomfortably sandwiched between her need to "grow up" like her "cool adult friends", and the crippling fear of what dangers will befall her as soon as she shirks the mantle of childhood in exchange for that of a grown woman.

As much as she wants to be a woman, so much that goes along with it essentially scares the crap out of her. But our little Amy is willing to put on a brave face and stride forward into the great unknown, despite the urge to puke from sheer terror at any moment.

The subtle workings of an after-school special are at work here as well. In the opening, as we see Amy primping for her date, in the background her father tells her how he "doesn't want her going to that damn carnival". Her mother, on the other hand, is busy voicing her disapproval of 'Buzz', the boy who will be taking Amy out.

Basically, Amy's parents tell her "SEX WILL KIIIIIILL YOU"

It was a lot like the Sex Ed bit from Mean Girls

Amy more or less tells her parents that they are full of it and flounces out of the house in her nifty wedge heels. We can wag our fingers and tell her that she should've listened to her Daddy until the cows come home, but if she did then we really wouldn't have a movie.

The aforementioned boy, Buzz, is picking Amy up so they can meet their friends Richie and Liz for a double date at the ominous carnival. I'm not really sure how Buzz fits into this group, because he looks like he's in his late twenties. But whatever. Liz, who I believe is Amy's best friend, is in an established, sexually active relationship with Ritchie. It's fairly evident that Amy not only looks up to Liz, but that Liz's opinion holds a fair amount of sway. I.e. if Liz is doing something, Amy wants to as well.

It's obvious how uncomfortable and inexperienced Amy is where sex is concerned. She shrinks away from Buzz when he starts to come on too strong in the car and is fairly rigid when he attempts to charm her while the four teenagers travel through the carnival. However, after a discussion of her virginity and "saving herself" in one of the Carnival's derelict bathrooms with Liz, Amy seems almost determined to loose her virginity. Even though it's not so much that Amy wants to because she genuinely likes this Buzz fellow, but because it's something that would make her more like Liz.

Sex scares Amy, but she's going to give it the old College Try. So she becomes progressively chummier with Buzz, even thought there are numerous moments where you can still see that she is a timid little girl in her facial expressions. Much like the other instances of Amy's susceptibility to peer pressure, when Ritchie makes the ludicrously moronic genius suggestion that they spend the night in the funhouse ride, Amy foes along with it. Despite the fact that it's, you know, a really really bad idea.

Especially since it becomes apparent that the only reason Ritchie wants them to stay the night in the funhouse is that it seems like freaky place to, well, get your freak on. So to the funhouse they go, and our happy couples are in the process of getting down to the nitty gritty there is a general disturbance from beneath the floorboards. Our merry band groups together and peers through the floor boards where they witness probably the creepiest part of the entire movie.

One of the carnies, dressed in a Frankenstein mask is propositioning the less than fresh fortune teller by means of grunting and waving money at her. It's a short lived encounter, as our boy Franky is not exactly a sexual dynamo, but the woman is still planning on keeping the hundred dollars she, pardon the pun, squeezed out of him. This makes hulk mad, and he murders the dumb broad to get back said cash.

Further proving to dear, sweet Amy that, oh yeah, SEX KILLS.

Needless to say, our band of heroes goes from "Hey look! It's Live Freak Porn!!" to "HOLY CRAP! THERE'S A KILLER TROLL ON THE LOOSE!". Except with way less panic then that, because they only make a fairly half-assed attempt at escape, despite having just witnessed a murder and knowing that there is just no way that this is going to end well.

So after some unenthusiastic shuffling around wiggling door handles, they decide that the best plan of action is to go back to the scene of the crime and sit on their asses doing nothing. Because that is OBVIOUSLY the best decision. After some time Frankenstein boy comes back with his angry hillbilly daddy in tow.

His daddy is pretty "hey man whatever" about the fact that his satanic offspring has offed a woman until he realizes who she is. And then he goes a bit apeshit because she's a fellow carnie. If she'd just been a local girl then, you know, who cares. But since she's part of the freakshow THIS IS WAY BAD LIKE WHOA.

Ritchie, being the fine specimen of humanity that he is, of course, manages to give the chillun's location away. Because he's awesome, and so, of course Hillbilly and son know that the only way to handle this situation is to eliminate all witnesses. Which, of course, leads to our intrepid heroes flailing around the freakish insides of the ride whilst being chased, and picked off by some of the most bizarre characters to grace the slasher genre.

But here's where The Funhouse deviates from the general slasher film. Because Amy manages to not be our general slasher film heroine.

Generally speaking, the Final Girl of any horror film's general arc is that she makes the progression from the victim to the empowered hero. Notice I used the term hero and not heroine. That is because, as nearly any text book on horror will tell you, the Final Girl's genesis has a tendency to stem from her taking on more masculine traits and leaving behind being a scared little girl. That is not the case in what happens with Amy. And that is a big part of why I don't consider Amy in the usual class of Final Girl.

If you will recall, at the very beginning of this entry I said that I viewed The Funhouse as "essentially a Brother's Grimm-esque coming of age tale". This is largely because Amy is more of a Grimm's Fairytale Heroine then a Final Girl.

For my money, Amy is an almost perfect parallel to Snow White.

She is essentially innocent, and despite the frequent opportunities that arise to sully her innocence, she escapes the tale with it intact. And like Snow White, the temptations to corrupt Amy's innocence are also potential threats to her life just as much as to her vulnerability.

In the original tale of Snow White, the Queen tempts her with more than just the apple. First there is a corset - meant to give her an adult womanly figure- or suffocate her, as it turns out. Then the poisoned comb to make her look pretty an appealing to the opposite sex. Things that are supposed to make Snow White appear as an adult woman, further more, Snow White is being pressured to appear as such. These trials we can almost think of as being embodied by Liz and Ritchie, Amy's pressures to lose her innocence.

Whereas, the poison apple can be the analogy for Amy's pressure to lose her virginity to Buzz - and in a more biblical sense, to the apple of knowledge that Eve ate - to gain the knowledge of adulthood.

Also, like Snow White, Amy must deal with the abandonment of her parents in the face of grave danger. After Snow White's mother dies, for the rest of the tail her father pretty much checks out, and no point even tries to help his daughter. And in one scene in The Funhouse, Amy's parents actually arrive at the Carnival to collect her younger brother. Amy sees them through a fan vent in the side of the funhouse and calls out to her parents. While her little brother appears to see her, the adults don't even glance in her direction. Like Snow White, Amy is on her own, no adult is going to help her.

Like is the case in most Grimm fairy tales, Snow White is not self rescuing. She does not take up a sword, march on the castle, and have a showdown with her Wicked Stepmother to reclaim her rightful thrown. In turn, Amy does not have the usual Final Girl moment of heroism, where she finds a large blunt object and stamps determinedly towards the villain to bash his brains in and save the day.

In this respect, Amy is not only like Snow White, but, honestly, like many of us would really act thrown into this situation. Your first instinct is not always to go into "Badass" mode. Most of use would behave just like Amy. We would run into the night, screaming like a banshee. Furthermore Amy doesn't, really defeat the villain, it's more dumb luck than anything else that saves Amy. Which, really, is more relate-able. That's normal, that's human

And while further delving into the symbolism that we can link to Snow White, Amy's suitor, Buzz, can almost be cast as the role of the Huntsmen. Buzz is, initially, a danger to Amy, he is older and more mature than her. Further linking the theme of sex and death, The Huntsmen initial role is to kill Snow White, and initially Buzz's role is to defile Amy.

Neither of these men perform their initial function. The Huntsmen cannot kill Snow White, and Buzz does not taint Amy's innocence. Both, however, essentially put their necks on the chopping block so that the innocent girl is given a chance to escape her would-be killer. Buzz takes on the Hillbilly brigade single-handedly so that Amy can make a break for it, in a scene that is almost direct remake of the forest scene in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The biggest difference, for Amy, is that at the end of this tale there is no prince to rescue her. There is no glass casket, or seven dwarfs. However, whereas in Snow White, her death-like sleep and awakening is the symbolism of her coming into herself as an adult, Amy's voyage through the funhouse can be scene as such.

Also unlike Snow White, there is no Happily Ever After storybook ending for Amy. Nor riding off on a white horse into the sunset. Amy's "happy ending" is that she gets to limp out into harsh light of the morning after, clothes torn, and on the verge of nervous collapse.

But not everybody can get that Disney ending right?


So, fairy tale allegories aside, The Funhouse is not perfect, though enjoyable. The special effects makeup is a little wanting, our lead villain is ... interesting looking, but by no means something realistic. Also on the subject of the villain, you don't really understand enough about him to feel anything towards him, empathy or otherwise, and to have a truly good villain, you have to actually like them a little bit.

There are points in which the characters actions make less than no sense, but that's a common trait in slasher. As is the fact that they really are not all that fleshed out. But still, I like to care a little bit about someone, you know, so I can be at least a little disappointed when they kick the bucket. I like to root for people even when I know that they're going to drop like flies.

On the other hand, Tobe Hooper artistically outdid himself in this one. It's beautiful to look at. The colors are rich, and there are some scenes that are shot so well it is almost jaw-dropping. So, really Mister Hooper, good job there. I may be alone in this, but I feel like The Funhouse kicks Texas Chainsaw Massacre's ass and takes its lunch money.

So that's what I got babies, even if you don't want to sit down and look at the film in an academic sense, it's good to just look at. Basically, it's a decent night in.

1 comment:

  1. I really love this movie! I remember watching this when I was a kid and it terrifies me a lot!