Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cult Oddities: The Funhouse (1981)

Anyone who's actually ridden a funhouse ride knows the scariest part is that they charge admission. They're often shoddy, senseless and short, with central attractions more bewildering than based in thrills and chills.

Thankfully Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse exceeds (and celebrates) those subpar origins. It's classic monster movie material meets 80's slasher sleaze, with a few touches of the elegant dread Hooper showcased in his untouchable genre debut, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He's still wise enough to keep that subtle gallows humor intact, and never does this film lose those mindful winks to the audience. Hooper knowingly references the likes of Halloween and Psycho within the first few minutes. His film also references and acts as the inbred thematic cousin to "creation is cruel" classic, Frankenstein.

One of Hooper's best holdover strengths is pushing his characters into a surreal, strategic web, and making their escape as nightmarish as possible. The hormone-fueled couples' idea to stay overnight in a funhouse doesn't seem particularly fun, but it's not outside the realm of the teenage boredom that led them to a funhouse in the first place. See the sights, smoke some dope, and slip something to your significant other. (To be young again...) At least all that partially explains how they get lost in a place with a full-length track directly to the exit.

The Funhouse does falter and lag on occassion, but it boasts a few sequences that are terrifically effective and suspenseful in their own right. One sequence in particular is a mesmerizing mood setter that stylistically sets the trap - an impressive pullaway from our foursome entering the funhouse to reveal the whole of the carnival fairway shutting down. Lights flicker and fade away as the crowds dissipate and the mechanized laughter stops - isolating our core group with a terror we've yet to encounter. Likewise there's a very special sequence in the air-ducts that cements all the film's thematic hopelessness as our lead's screams for nearby loved ones are lost to the whir of an endless and cruel cycle.

Our final girl, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), is a bit like Halloween's Laurie Strode but with tit shots. Both are the quiet, competent girls who toke up before their night of terror and are traumatized early on by their bitchy friend's prodding over never having given up the goods. Unlike John Carpenter's classic, which may have only unintentionally made a comment on the "sex = death" scenario, screenwriter Larry Block has all teenage transgressions lead directly to the diabolical. Amy's first mention of virginity actually cues the entrance of the film's prophetic doom and gloomer -- a classic horror cliché. This time it's one of the many homeless people wandering the fairway, dirty and aimless, but she's certainly a woman touting her own cruel cautionary tale, "God is watching you. He sees everything." There really is no escape.

(God sees everything, but apparently can't smell everything.)

If anything The Funhouse charts a rite of passage for Amy's character; a childish ride that quickly descends into the harsh unknown. She ends the film frazzled, bruised and broken, without a clue where to head next. Amy's innocence is lost, and aimless and dirty she becomes indiscernible from the homeless wanderers amongst the carnival crowds.

Creation is truly cruel. You don't need two heads to see that.


Pax Romano said...

Loved this sick little movie ... Sylvia Miles was in it, right? Didn't she give the monster a hand-job, or am I thinking of something else? Help me, Adam, am I recalling this correctly or has old age finally rotted my brain?

Adam said...

Your memory serves you right! She's a foul-mouthed fortune teller who gets $100 bucks for her two-second tosser with the sideshow freak. Of course she loses it once she's brutally strangled, but she knew good business when she saw it.