Written by Michael L
Original Illustrations by Kaila Bell
If I didn’t know any better, I’d argue that Tobe Hooper harbors deep feelings of fear and distrust towards other people.
And, really, I don’t know any better, so let’s run with that assumption for a minute.
Here is a man who, again and again, creates a convincing American landscape, bursting at the seams with monsters and maniacs. At any corner of his very best movies, it is at least possible that a giant wearing a mask of human flesh could be lurking, his countenance the rotten yellow grin of whoever’s face he stole, ready to hang you on a meat hook and eat you for dinner.
And, in Hooper’s very best movies, that’s…exactly what happens.
While not The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, his 1981 offering, The Funhouse, is along the same stratum: both exist in a nadir of humanity, where every peripheral character seems to be afflicted with some extreme lack of moral judgement or prerogative, just as capable as the actual villain of committing some sort of atrocity against humanity as a whole.
Consider a scene in The Funhouse where a little boy is walking innocuously down a dark road.
A truck rolls up to him, and the driver asks if the boy would like a lift. But by the time the boy looks up to see the stranger, the man in the truck is brandishing a shot gun, aiming it at the child, and grinning with excitement.
And when the child (rightly) runs away in fear, the man dissolves into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
So…what’s up with that?
It’s reminiscent of the story Wes Craven likes to tell about the man who inspired Freddy Krueger: a guy who got his kicks by staring at a young Craven menacingly from outside the window while the child was sleeping.
When kid Craven clearly reacted in fear, the man walked up to the apartment complex, and tried the door.
At worst, this sick pup actually meant harm upon the child.
At best, he just ascertained some deep, pathological enjoyment from frightening children.
That is the best the populous in Hooper’s movies are capable of.
It is worth mentioning that the man in the truck is not the main antagonist; he is simply one of the locals, an every man in Hooper-ville, and part of a background tapestry dripping with anxiety and contempt.
It’s an effective one-two punch. Hooper spends nearly the first fifty minutes of The Funhouse simply building this world, the mood thick with paranoia of the disenfranchised, and what they might do, so that by the time the “monster” shows up, the audience is already wound pretty damn tight.
Consequently, the denouement of The Funhouse isn’t quite as effective as the build-up. The last hour or so answers the question “what’s the worst that could happen?”, and it’s almost comforting, because it is so movie-ish. Compare that to the first hour, where the film expertly manages to capture everything that is spooky and a little off about traveling carnivals, and then manages to suggest just a little bit more.
What we have here, beyond a survey of creepy locals and sadistic carnies, is a contemplation on the nature of exploitation. And of entertainment.
The Funhouse posits that they are one and the same. To be entertained by someone is to actively belittle and exploit them; similarly, if you’re not laughing with someone, you are laughing at them. Witness, then, our protagonists making fun of Madame Zena, the fortune teller, in one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes; see, also, the audience taking the piss out of the alcoholic magician, Marco the Magnificent, as one woman sternly suggests, “get a real job”.
The fact of the matter is, these live performers are not TV. They hear and feel and react to every snide, snotty comment these upper-class, suburbanites throw at them.
Hooper shows his maturity, then, as a surveyor of this kind of inter-personal conflict, continually drawing upon class as a motivational force. The real horror of the movie comes from its perverse sociology: if not the literal cannibalism of Chainsaw, then a figurative one, where rich children come to feast upon the inadequacies of these poor performers. Humiliation is their currency; hubris is their downfall.
So a bunch of rich kids emerged from the protection of their suburban homes to have a little fun at the expense of the carnies?
When one of those kids suggests to the group that they should spend the night in the funhouse (the real crux of the film’s action), it smacks of entitlement. But really, these kids don’t know what they’re getting into: visiting the carnival, they are like tourists. It’s their bratty entitlement that convinces them it would be a real gas to overstay their welcome and spend the night.
The basic plot of the movie is thus: while spending the night in the funhouse, the group of teenagers end up witnessing a murder, and spend the rest of their (short) lives being pursued by a homicidal maniac.
Yes, superficially, it’s a slasher movie (one of the very best, I should say), but at it’s heart, it’s a little bit more.
Aside from its observations about class, it is also the poignant tale of family, albeit a family with an incredible dysfunction at its core, perforated by an over-exposure to monster movies.
The clues come in the obsessive referencing; the movie is like a catalogue of films that have come before. At the film’s outset (a delicious opening that combines Psycho, Halloween, Peeping Tom, a dash of classic Universal Monsters pastiche, and maybe a dab of Hooper’s own Chain Saw), we have a young kid who attacks his older sister while she’s taking a shower, then takes a polaroid picture of her terrified expression. Presumably for keeps.
By attempting to relive the scene from Psycho, the kid is ultimately re-enacting a crime fueled by sexual frustration, with incestuous overtones. Strip away the irony, and the same thing is happening here: this kid isn’t just trying to scare his sister. He’s using her to complete some fantasy, based in the lurid suggestions of his favorite entertainment (again, shades of entertainment and exploitation being decidedly linked).
The real kicker is this: when she examines the picture he took of her, the camera pans up to a giant poster of the Frankenstein’s monster on his wall. The soundtrack then dovetails into that of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and the forest begins to emerge through the trees.
By continually aligning the girl’s younger brother with the image of Karloff’s monster, the film posits our heroine as Elsa Lanchester, the unwilling accomplice to the madness of his reality, the unwilling Bride.
Of course, he is just a child; hopefully his pathology is simply the product of his age.
But then there’s the sticky implications aroused by the fact that the killer in this film also wears a Frankenstein’s monster mask. He also acts like a child, and his crimes are also decidedly sexual. In the best Jungian sense, our heroine’s pursuer is nothing more than the shadow version of what pursues her at home.
It is beyond just a child’s obsession with horror entertainment: it is that horror entertainment literally coming to life, and choosing to attack you.
This role reversal brings it all home: The Funhouse is about when entertainment reacts; when the exploited strike back. And when our heroine finally leaves the funhouse by film’s end, stumbling dazed and tormented through the desolate fair grounds, a mechanical puppet starts mindlessly laughing.
If only it were mindless. By this point, our heroine has become life on the other side of that mirror.
And now the carnival attractions are laughing at her.
(Click Here for an enlargeable hi-res version)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
To close this sucker, I’d like to shout out to Stacie Ponder, over at the blog “Final Girl”, for hosting Film Club Day, where a bunch of rabid horror fans are gunna be watching and writing about The Funhouse today. She’s going to be writing about it too, so be sure to check it out over at http://finalgirl.blogspot.com!