[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like deformed psychos at an evil carnival.]
Oh, Final Girl Film Club I have missed you. Oh, blogging, I have missed you! I promise, people, things are gonna change. I’m gonna be a better blogger. I’m gonna make up for not posting a single goddamn horror-related thing during October. And it all starts now. Welcome to The Funhouse, motherfuckers. Directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper and released in 1981, this movie is way better than I thought it would be. Opening with awesome homages to Psycho and Halloween, we follow Amy (who looks about fifteen, which makes her nudity in the opening of the movie very uncomfortable; I’ve been told that she was of age when this movie was made. Doesn’t make her any less fifteen-year-old-looking or the nudity any less I-shouldn’t-be-looking-at-this-I’m-pretty-sure-this-is-illegal), her boyfriend Buzz (who looks about thirty which makes his relationship with aforementioned fifteen-year-old-looking Amy creepy) and their two intensely obnoxious friends Richie and Liz to a sleazy carnival.
Our main characters are pretty bland and often extremely annoying (especially Richie, who is the most first victim who was ever first in a fucking horror movie EVER; more on that later), especially compared to the much more interesting interpersonal dramas going on between the carny folk. Buzz, Richie and Liz (and occasionally Amy; she’s the ‘nice one’ which translates out to ‘she lives’) spend most of the time laughing at and making fun of the carnies. There’s a definite class element at play, which is represented visually by the difference in appearance/clothing between the kids and the carnies and is made especially evident during a scene where Amy is having her palm read by Madame Zena, the carnival clairvoyant. As Madame Zena is trying to keep her composure and take her job/act as a fortune teller seriously, the kids spend the entire session laughing rudely at her until she kicks them out, telling them not to return or she’ll “break every bone in your fucking body.” Their smarmy, middle-class snark kind of make you want to see them die.
And see you will. Even though this is a pretty atypical slasher type, it does still follow a structure and that structure is: these kids will die one by one until only the final girl is left. Since there’s only four of them, it takes us a little while to get to the killing but we already know long before then who’s going first: Richie. This kid is so fucking first. It’s ridiculous how first he his. There was a certain point in the movie, there there was a lingering shot on Richie and Andreas and I both said, “He’s first.” I’ve never seen a character be more first in a horror movie before. And he goes on to do things that ensure his status as the most first motherfucker who ever firsted in a horror movie, HE’S SO FUCKING FIRST. And when he dies, it’s some pretty fantastic overkill: not only does he get hung by a conveniently placed rope, but later he gets an axe to the head when Buzz thinks he’s someone else. And now, since I’ve run out of things to say, I turn it over to Andreas.
In its own humble, thrilling way, The Funhouse is a pretty sophisticated slasher movie. It has a lot to say about horror, spectacle, sexuality, and what happens when we cross the line between spectator and participant. It’s not the best-written horror movie out there; as Ashley pointed out, its characters – including final girl Amy – are mostly built on grating teenage stereotypes, and they make nothing but bad decisions (like, say, spending the night in a carnival funhouse). But it’s still a fun, fascinating movie because of its unrelenting infatuation with the imagery and environment of the carnival. Beginning with its unsettling opening credits, the movie professes a deep love for the uncanny, macabre artistry that fills the funhouse interior. As one teenager after another was dispatched by the monstrous killer, that love kept me watching.
It’s well over an hour into the film before Richie dies, which might suggest to you that this movie isn’t just about a string of brutal killings. It’s more about the relationship between the local kids, the carnival, and the carnies who run it. The four teenagers wander around the carnival, engaging with its many tableaux: the Dracula-esque magician, the achingly sincere fortune teller, the adults-only striptease, the sideshow with its two-headed cow, and of course the titular funhouse. Each one offers novel, transgressive visual experiences – glimpses into an alternate world where the laws of parents, teachers, and God do not apply. Speaking of the striptease, Buzz pulls out a knife to cut a little viewing hole into the side of its tent, and it becomes about the most vaginal slit I’ve seen outside of, uh, actual vaginas:
The real crux of the movie is Amy’s gradual exposure to just how horrifying the funhouse can be. As she navigates its garish interiors, and as the killer plucks her friends from her side one by one, she’s constantly entranced and frightened by all the creakling, glowing, giggling decorations – like clowns, skeletons, and a giant eye. The film really delves into the gulf between artifice and reality: in light of the danger that stalks them, the funhouse’s smoke and mirrors take on a new, very real meaning. The film goes even further during her final showdown with the killer, which takes place in the deepest bowels of the funhouse. Here, the mechanisms are all laid bare, and we get to see the gears and engines that make its spectacle work. This is where Amy, ragged and nearly catatonic, must truly face her fears.
As you can probably tell from this description, The Funhouse is full of subtle meta-cinematic discourse – i.e., it’s all about how we, as the audience, relate to horror movies. The opening Halloween/Psycho homage starts out in the bedroom of Amy’s brother Joey, which has posters from Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, etc. – all the “old-fashioned” monster movies. Appropriately, the voiceless killer is also first seen wearing a Frankenstein mask as if it were his own face. So the film’s characters are steeped in the history of horror cinema, even as they struggle to survive its present by outmaneuvering a new, Rick Baker-designed monster.
My point is that The Funhouse is very savvy about how horror works, and metaphorically presents the funhouse (and, by extension, the entire carnival) as a locus of real danger and power that should be taken seriously. They’re run by real people, even if those people are different, and don’t exist solely for the amusement of some shallow, horny locals. In this way, the film links up well with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as both films feature families who don’t take nicely to meddling outsiders, and in both films, Hooper’s sympathies are divided. No, the kids don’t deserve to die. But an unsettling sliver of the film wants you to feel bad for the abused, ripped-off, sexually dysfunctional killer. The Funhouse has many shots akin to the end of TCM, where Leatherface waves his frustrated
penis chainsaw around in the air, his prey having escaped him.
So ultimately, I see The Funhouse as an admittedly fun, fairly sharp movie. It has some missed opportunities – like where did the subplot with the little brother go? It just kind of cut off halfway through – but made the most of its already creepy setting. And as the ending proves, nothing – not even a fanged, drooling psychopathic carnie – is scarier than that fat, white-faced clown statue in the polka dot dress. Dear lord, deliver us from laughing clown statues. (Fun final fact: you may recognize Elizabeth Berridge, who plays Amy, as Mozart’s wife from Forman’s Amadeus . At least, I did. Man, she had to put up with a lot of obnoxious guys in the ’80s.)