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The Funhouse (1981)
I remember watching this originally with my father when I was very young and two images remained with me from that initial viewing – that of a character who sports a Frankenstein mask to hide his ugly and a specimen jar with a very deformed critter inside. I didn’t actually revisit this film until just a few years ago, but when I was in middle school, I read the book. Yes, there’s a book. My mother, who had a soft spot for all things Dean Koontz, at one point possessed nearly everything he had ever written. One of his novels is called The Funhouse. The movie is not based on the book however – the book came about as a novelization of the film’s script (which was written by Larry Block) and was originally published under the pseudonym Owen West. Koontz added a ton of back story and put his own spin on the characters and as a result the film and the novel only superficially resemble each other. It is interesting to compare and contrast the two, but the film really doesn’t support the story which Koontz chose to tell. The novel also isn’t one of Koontz’s strongest efforts and while it boasts more pathos and introspection than the film, I find it too pat and preachy for my tastes.
The film opens with a P.O.V. sequence that is a total Halloween
ripoff homage. Someone is sneaking around inside a house, and they enter a bedroom which boasts lots of creepy masks and torture device-y decor. The black gloved sneaky sneak takes a knife down from the wall and selects a clown mask. which they put on, so that now we get the full Halloween-through-the-eyesholes-effect. And because one imitation deserves another, the sequence now turns into a clumsy recreation of the Psycho shower scene. The knife wielding clown creeps into a bathroom – creep, creep, creep – where a young girl is loofahing herself, oblivious to the encroaching danger with a red nose. Suddenly the shower curtain is pulled violently aside – the maniac strikes – the girls screams! And then her shock turns to anger and she shrieks “Joey!” Joey? She unmasks the attacker – and why, it is just a little boy! But wait a minute – so too was Michael Myers when he murdered Judith. Oh, but look, the knife is a big fake with a retractable blade. It was all just a joke! What a lark!
We find that the girl in the shower is Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) and Joey (Shawn Carson) is her younger brother. What a trickster! What a perv! Amy is so upset with this little prank that she tells Joey she is not going to take him to the carnival on Saturday. And not only that – she is going to get even with him, oh, boy is she ever. So EVEN that he will NEVER forget it. NEVER!
Joey is a real Tommy Jarvis – his room would receive the Fangoria seal of approval with its monster posters, masks and other horror odds and ends.
Amy gets dressed and goes downstairs to wait in the living room for her date to pick her up. Her parents tell her that they don’t want her going to the carnival – it is the same one that went through Fairfield last year when the bodies of two girls were found across the street. Amy says she is going to the movies. (You know, even they aren’t safe – see: He Knows You’re Alone, Scream 2, Anguish, Demons.) Amy’s mother wonders why Amy is even wasting her time with someone who works in a FILLING STATION and can’t even pick her up at a decent hour. Joey who is eavesdropping knows that Amy is a big damn liar and is so going to the carnival.
Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) arrives and Amy says goodnight to her parents. Once in his car, she asks how he would feel about going to the movies instead of the carnival. She mentions that is it the same one that went through Fairfield and they had ALL THAT TROUBLE. Buzz is all Yay! Maybe we’ll get some action! So he’s into dead girls, is he? Amy tells him that she kind of sort of kind of promised her father that she wouldn’t go. Buzz tells her that her father just wants to “bum” her. Amy can’t believe he would say that! He doesn’t even know her father! And for that matter, he works in a filling station!
This date is off to a promising start, I’d say. They pick up the rest of the group – Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) and on the way to the forbidden fair they smoke up – thought Amy declines. Liz tells her to loosen up. She means “Open your legs girl! Have some fun! Have some sex!” Can you guess who is going to live and who is going to die yet?
Joey meanwhile is sneaking out of the house by way of a conveniently located trellis.
The gang arrives at the carnival of doom and boy is it hoppin’! Buzz attempts to bond with Amy – he apologizes for what he said about her father. See, he isn’t such a bad guy, even if he does work at a filling station. Liz is worried the two aren’t hitting it off and says so to Richie who tells her everything is fine, Buzz is A-OK. Liz says that when Richie is stoned he thinks Charles Manson is a terrific guy. The Laurie Strode of 2009 would agree and has the poster on her bedroom wall to prove it.
Amy and Buzz decide to start over and I really can’t say I see the point since he’ll probably be dead soon, but to each their own. The group partakes of the amusements – the ferris wheel and the carousel and the bumper cars and then the girls duck into the bathroom for some Girl Talk. No, not the truth or dare board game with the zit stickers – does anyone remember that? This kind of Girl Talk:
Liz: He is a hunk, he is an absolute pistol! If you play your cards right you may not have to spend the rest of your life a virgin!
A creepy and obviously insane bag lady come into the bathroom and offers the two a good natured “God is watching you! He hears everything!” before entering one of the stalls. Which gives Liz one of the best lines of the film: “I hate people who preach! Especially in bathrooms!”
Amen, sister soul.
Liz returns to what she was saying and tells Amy that she doesn’t understand what she is saving IT for. “Who says I’m saving it?” is Amy’s reply. From her stall the creepy, insane bag lady contributes a “God is watching you.”
Joey is strolling along the highway when a man in a truck pulls up next to him and asks – You want to come for a ride? Well, gee, when you put it that way. But before Joey can say anything the HILARIOUS truck driver produces a shot gun which he points and Joey and fires. It is either a gag gun or lacking ammunition because it just emits a click. The man bursts into laughter. Um… funny! Yeah, you’re a real cut up. I am actually curious about this man – is it a joke gun? Does he just drive around with his fake firearm and randomly do this to people? Maybe he should consider getting himself a job at the funhouse.
The gang has moved on from the rides and they visit Madame Zena – a boozy fortune teller who reads Amy’s palm and tells her that a tall, dark stranger will enter and change her life. You ain’t just whistlin’ dixie, lady.
Now they decide to getting their peeing tom on by peeking through a hole in the back of the nudey tent. Liz wants to see but Richie tells her to wait her turn – and, OK – now she gets the best line: “I’ll find my own hole.” Did carnivals really have tents like this in the 80s?
Richie gets the bright idea that they should all spend the night in the funhouse. Someone or other that Richie knows did it two years ago somewhere or other. I am telling you people, it is decisions like this that can change your life forever. Like, seriously.
Liz calls home and says she’ll be staying the night with Amy and Amy calls her parents and and tells them she’ll be staying with Liz.
Joey has since arrived at the carnival and tracked down Amy and he watches as she and her friends go into the funhouse – but when their cars come back out – they aren’t on them! These kids are lucky that a mentally deficient ogre whose visions is impaired by a Frankenstein mask is in charge of this ride or they’d never get away with it. Maybe it is just me, but I feel like an important of aspect of this job would be to notice if a group of people seemingly vanished while inside. But what do I know about the life of a carny? Just what I learned from the Jodie Foster/Gary Busey movie which came out the year before this – which is to say, not much bub, not much at all.
All the lights in carnival-land are going out, the rides have fallen silent and the midway is emptying – but Joey is still keeping watch on the funhouse.
The kids fool around inside for a bit, but when they hear voices coming from below they find they are right above what appears to be the Frankenstein mask dude’s living quarters – and they have quite a view through the cracks in the floorboards. Madame Zena is with Frankie and the two are attempting to strike a bargain – she swigs some booze and tells him she doesn’t come cheap. Old Frankie opens up a cash box and offers her a bill from it – she says MORE! – he offers her more and still she demands – MORE! When he offers her a hundred dollar bill she’s ready to get down to the nitty gritty.
Poor Frankie – he doesn’t know what to do. Zena asks him if he want to take off the mask and then yells, “What are you doing? Lay down already!” Boy, impatient much? Before anything really happens, he’s spent and she’s thinking, Hey, this is the easiest hundred I ever made. But not so fast! Frankie wants the money back but Zena believes firmly in the principle of a bargain being a bargain. Frankie doesn’t give up that easily though and when Zena starts berating him and threatens a curse – Frankie doesn’t say relax – he strangles her. Didn’t see that in your crystal ball, did you, dearie?
The group, having witnessed this, wisely decides to change their plans and get the hell out of there. They stumble through the darkness with the flame from Richie’s lighter guiding the way. They come upon a door – but it opens into Frankenstein’s lair where he has hastily covered Zena’s body but is nowhere to be seen. The group goes back into the funhouse and locate an exit, but it won’t budge and when they find their way to the front doors, those are locked as well. Are we having fun yet?
They hear voices from below again and go back to look down into the room – Frankie has returned with Conard, the barker, and we soon find out, his father. Conrad is upset because Frankie killed “one of the family” – he doesn’t care what “dirty business” his son gets up to with the locals, but he doesn’t want him messing with one of their own. Conrad tries to cook up a solution to the fix they’re in and when Frankie gives Conrad the hundred dollar bill that he had paid Zelda, his father is aghast at the amount he forked over. Conrad goes to put the bill in cash box and discovers that the rest of the money is gone. Conrad and Frankie get into it then, you better believe, during which Frankie loses his mask and we see his face – and what a looker! He bears a strong resemblance to a specimen the kids saw in a glass jar in the freak show tent. He seemed such a sensitive and naive monster in his Frankenstein disguise – but now the beast is unleashed. And his name is Gunther.
It is then that Richie’s lighter falls out of his shirt pocket and drops down into the room below. Conrad picks it up and estimates the situation – he says, “Hey you up there, come on down now. I want to talk to you, come on, ain’t nothing to be afraid of, I just want to have a few words with you. I just want to give you your lighter back. Oh, ain’t no reason to be afraid of him – he’s harmless.”
Buzz has a feeling that Richie took the money and accuses him to which Richie’s response is So what if I did? Liz suggests giving the money back but it is too late for that.
Joey is traipsing around the empty fairgrounds and when he creeps too near the funhouse, Gunther grabs him. Joey manages to escape but as he is running away he runs right into one of the carnies.
Buzz is a smart guy (even though he works at a filling station) and he says that they’ll be a hell of a lot safer if they stay together. I doubt this will last long, but at least he didn’t suggest they all split up and look for a way out.
Conrad and Gunther are having a heart to heart – Conrad mentions “bad business” in Dallas and two girl scouts in Memphis – I’m guessing they didn’t win free passes to the fair either – I’m thinking Gunther pet them too hard. Conrad is trying to convince his son to do “this one last bad thing” for him.
Back inside the funhouse Richie is telling everyone about a time when he was in the closet – no, silly, when he was younger his brother locked him in one – when suddenly a skeleton springs up from out of the floor and a noose drops from above, tightens around Richie’s neck and takes him up, up and away.
The carnie that Joey collided with was able to get his parent’s phone number from him and having called they arrive to claim their son. He has a fever and is rather despondent, and his grumpy old mother is not the least bit sympathetic to his plight. As Joey is about to get in the car with his parents he looks over at the funhouse and remembers Amy’s threat from earlier in the evening. Through a large exhaust fan Amy can see her parents and attempts to call to them for help but her screams are drowned out by the roar of the machine. Who will survive? And what will become of the prizes they won?
Now, it is time for me to say that I consider the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre an absolutely essential horror film – just look how influential it is, even after all these years. Who hasn’t seen it and in some way been effected? It is my opinion the purest, most perfect horror film there has ever been. Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote a great article about it in which he says TCSM makes “you feel like you are really experiencing what it is like to be murdered.” It is a harrowing, relentless masterpiece that is at the same time a truly artistic and beautiful piece of filmmaking. Sadly, Tobe Hooper has never made a film that even comes close to equalling it. But really, then again, who has? When you start on such a high note, where else do you go but down? Don’t get me wrong – he has made some fine films (and his share of awful ones) and in the past few years he seems to have gotten his spunk back. However, when I watch The Funhouse I have a hard time reconciling my mind to the fact that the same man who made TCSM is responsible for this. The director of TCSM was a visionary, a provocateur, a virtuoso of the highest caliber. The director of The Funhouse is a huckster, a hack with a workman’s eye who gives us rubber threats and canned terror. I realize it is quite unfair to always judge someone by holding them up to a previous success and I am not attempting to completely devalue The Funhouse – for what it is, it isn’t utterly awful.
The characters of Leatherface and Gunther are actually remarkably similar. Both mumble and whine instead of speaking in any easily understandable way and appear to only address a patriarch – in Leatherface’s case his oldest brother, in Gunther’s his actual father. And both have relationships with these men that are physically and verbally abusive. Both are also stunted in a kind of violent childhood and wears masks – Leatherface’s homemade garb is chilling and iconic while Gunther’s appears as if it was found in a discount bin at a drugstore the week after Halloween.
I’m never quite sure how seriously to take this film – some scenes are so flamboyantly over the top that I have to wonder if they were intended to be intentionally comedic – or are they real attempts at horror? The climax could have been something great but I find it dull and it feels like it drags on forever. I know I’m probably being too hard on this film – I feel like I should have liked it more, that it should have been fun, that it probably has some kind of dopey nostalgic charm that I’m failing to appreciate.
One thing I will say in its favor – it certainly lives up to its title. It is rickety, the seams show, it is full of “booyah!” scares and you never for a minute believe any of it. C+