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 middle...hair 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 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 it...as 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- there are class issues at work with the privileged suburban kids heading 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
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
The Horror Digest
The United Provinces of Ivanlandia
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
My Daily BM Downloads
Maynard Morrisey's Horror Movie Diary
Pussy Goes Grrr
This Girl Digs Horror
The Son of Madblood!