Saturday, June 20, 2009

THAS: The Funhouse (1981) & Finally Some Thoughts on Tobe Hooper

A hushed compositional delicacy is exhibited in Tobe Hooper's fourth film, 1981's The Funhouse, and it is something we really don't get to see again from Hooper, at least to such a curiously remarkable extent as it seems is in practice here. The Funhouse is perhaps his most subdued, unaffected film, and, after the heavily contested Poltergeist, he would only find the room in the 1980s for such outlandish affairs as Lifeforce and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II before entering the grim world of low-budget 90s filmmaking. No surprise, then, that The Funhouse seems such a peak moment in his career, a work of pure sobriety, dramatic assurance, and Panavision elegance. It has since received some modest regard as a playful riff taking on the modern, New Hollywood and exploitation-era standards (read: the low moral ones) being set by (and for) the teenaged consumer in regards to horror entertainment, but in spite of Bruce Kawin's fine and academic praise of the film at the very time of its release, the film has otherwise remained part of the unfortunate annals of the Cult Horror film, and the slasher film that only slasher viewers bother to watch.

Made at a time when studios had just realized the commercial viability of exploiting teenagers' innate appetite for titillation through transgression, irony, and easy-button, market-tested vulgarization, and released in theaters a year after the seminal hit Friday the 13th certified the long life of the formula slasher flick, The Funhouse aims to work antithetically to the gerrymandered thrills of modern horror which so efficiently stroke the jadedness of its immature target audience. In this way, it almost becomes a soft-spoken predecessor to the similarly meta-textual Scream: both ruminate on the seeming bankrupt logic that is the teenager's impulse towards defecting from the notions of innocence to the dark side (or dark theater) of sex and violence (and, so, knowledge of the world). Scream years later takes it to more extreme, cutting-edge, and preachy levels, of course, attributing full-blown moral desensitization to this defection, which youth cultivates and which permeates into their moral responses and actions in the real world. Scream's permeable barrier is represented with movies and blasé sociopathy, while The Funhouse uses the carnival and the much more prosaic, much more ordinary condition of blasé adolescence (and adulthood). This reading of The Funhouse certainly bolsters the reasons and ulterior thematic purposes behind the film's "wet blanket" attenuation of the poison opportunism usually found in the tried-and-true teen stalk-and-kill formula.

The film effectively serves to mute the nasty, affected menace, mystery, and - lest we forget - prurience so typical of the debased horror genre. It does this through four main points: 1) generally, its forgoing of "pleasurable" slasher film conventions, e.g. no story about party-going pin-ups, no powerful mystery to its killer, no "slashing" at all in the typical sense, no milking of stalk sequences, etc. 2) a thorough, appropriative survey of horror movie imagery and conventions. The film begins with a Psycho and Halloween parody, both films the populist progenitors of nasty modern horror. Later, Hollywood's Frankenstein monster is utilized as a symbol for horror gentrified by yesteryear, and now being used to disguise the uglier realities of monstrosity; 3) the meta-artifice of the carnival setting - the cheap dolls, tin can sound effects, and sprung shock props acting as both undue distraction to the real-world danger as well as mocking jesters of the incongruity they present in the characters' very real life-and-death situation; and 4) by revealing the chains and cogs (literally, in the finale) of the beast's belly: those of the cheapjack funhouse (driven by repressed children and lorded over by childish adults), or that of the mechanized locus behind many the fallen teenager - the self-imposed blinders of youthful thrill-seeking and jolly-chasing, or perhaps something as great and terrible and truly beastly (and often inevitable) as the irreparable divide wrought from a child's bid for independence, and from the low, uninspiring bar parents too often set for themselves, as parents (or as plain functioning adults; just think of all the bums, creepers, and burn-outs the teens get exposed to as they romp about blithely). Even as nature has designated them guardians of the child from the dysfunctions of the world outside, they - like the ones in this movie - are often blind to dysfunction they themselves, and the home, all-too-typically engender and embody, as illustrated in the unhealthy match we may be witnessing in the main heroine Amy's placement within an unimpassioned middle-class family, with all their middle-class comforts and middle-class atrophy, as contrasted to the disfigured monster and his own placement, being brought up in an environment that exploits, vilifies, and serves as constant reminder of the status of the freak.

In support of the film being about the clinical patterns of both parent and child behavioral grooves, which so often serve the coldness, sterility, and inattention that occurs between the respective parties in disciplinarian-underling (parent-child) regimes, the movie's opening scenes are devoted to depicting a family household with a jockeying, detached wit - from the full-on self-reflexive and parodist opening, during which a stupid little brother snaps a photo of big sister in full-on ugly-disciplinarian mode (very much a catalyst to his eventual, ultimately trauma-bringing decision to sneak out), to the first scene between the full Father-Mother-Sister-Brother configuration that utilizes the most elegantly subtle and expressive framing and shot mechanics. For another case, the film's pivotal midpoint occurs with the sequence in which Amy's parents arrive at the carnival grounds to reclaim the runaway little brother, Joey. In a surprisingly touching moment, the carnival manager (played by Z-movie regular and director of the apparent cult abomination The Worm Eaters, Herb Robins) tenderly regards the boy with a mixture of understanding, nostalgia, and fatherliness in a strikingly hushed shot-reverse shot - a tenderness in sharp, ironic juxtaposition to the detachment of the parents: Joey's mother's face registers only impatience and annoyance, while his father's only concern seems his being in this rathole in the first place, as he eyes the strange carny and his trailer home with barely concealed distaste and the squeamishness of class superiority. The scene then immediately continues on with a powerfully stark situational manifestation of the great divide that often lies - or is slowly, imperceptibly created - between parents and children, as we see Amy amazingly catch onto the presence of her parents through a spinning funhouse fan. Maybe a mere fifty yards away, she is yet inexorably out of range for her parents to hear her desperate screams for help. The futile sight of the parents in the distance behind the spinning blades is a powerful image, and the scene also plays out in an eloquent shot-reverse shot that beautifully communicates the emotional scenario at play.

The Funhouse is ultimately an uneven work that, similarly to many of Hooper's most thematically evocative films, falls punishingly short of being a clear, focused discursive proffer. The suggested parallel between Amy and the monster as children in inverted, mismatched upbringings is certainly not as strong or as actively embellished as it should be, and emerges only in proactive analysis instead of striking one's cerebrum during the proxy of the film-viewing. The screenplay falters at points, such as scenes between the funhouse barker and his offspring, in which pointless macabre throwaways about "half-pint" victims, as well as creaky carny tropes like "You can't kill one of the family!" (Madame Zena the psychic?) and "We'll blame it on the locals!", are thrown about in sacrifice of logic or meaning. John Beal's score is effectively atmospheric, but also often overwrought and obtrusive. The film's best moments are consistently the quietest ones, where Beal's playful carnivalesque strings do not distract from the invisible harmonies Hooper has a knack of capturing in his actors' faces.

Hooper's craft lies in his profound inklings instead of his cogent assertions, his artistry in his sensitivity and circumlocutory abstractions instead of his (or his screenplay's) clarity and intellect. Unlike the highly calculated pop-sensibility of his two horror maestro contemporaries Wes Craven and John Carpenter, it is perhaps most damaging a factor that Hooper never seems to push his unmatched knack for emotional acuity past just that and into the realm of intellectual acumen. Carpenter is horror's foremost sociologist, Craven its pop purveyor, Romero the aesthete, and Hooper the aesthete who lacks the wit for pretension. With the possible exception of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it seems he is incapable of concocting works of pure stealth. Perhaps too involved is he in the creation of his own type of expressionistic form that his breadth does not encompass utilizing the accoutrements of pop-mechanic strategies to "fashion" his stories in any explicitly discernible, explicitly perceptible way; to forgo intimate unquestioning of his stories in favor of the benefits of true calculations of style; to engage viewers' desire to see the horror film as the sum of its audience-manipulating pieces, or, now as a detriment, ever really intellectualize his work to a fully satisfying extent.

Hooper's auteurist pedestal remains unassembled due to this certain unwillingness to "stylize" for the creation of simple entertainment, or unceasing affect and manipulation of audience synapses, or for even a commanding, prestige-attracting "intellectualist" cinema. Instead, his only insistence is creating humbly and within his means, yet for the high-aspiring reason of reaching true aesthetic sensitivity, subtlety, and the loftily artful construct, which often targets more the soul than the brain - his inability to cater to the smarts of the populace versus his great wish to unveil the depths of their (and his own) subconscious, which he elevates no higher than the audience (something those great intellectual auteurs like Haneke and Godard are wont to do... to often wonderful results, of course). But Hooper, his films never feel as if they want to impress, or impress on, the audience. He only deems to manifest aesthetic and emotional moods, in ways not showy or attention-grabbing, diverting or frivolous - only highly soulful and empathic, often subliminal, and highly refined. Lacking the high-thrill genius of the Carpenter touch and the hip novelty-baiting of Craven, his ultimate failure to command his audience - that is, mainstream genre audiences, often not looking for artistry at all - foretells his sink to the lowest rung of the one-hit wonders, with his most respected work remaining his most clearly fashioned and neatly, ingeniously one-note: that is, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which Hooper himself admits was conceived of a novelty factor executed mostly with the goal to get him noticed in the market. The Funhouse, then, might very well be the first project that is representative of Hooper's complete agency - his two previous projects in between this and Texas Chain Saw were Eaten Alive, which tries to capture TCSM's lightning in a bottle (with some great results, in my opinion) and Salem's Lot, which shows Hooper giving his best to hot - and so essentially ready-made - property, just in need of faithful crafting. The Funhouse was his first film as an established Hollywood director, one with the clout to choose a project and manage a Universal Pictures production on his own. As immaculate as TCSM is and as short as The Funhouse falls at times, the latter may well trump his touted career masterwork with its richer thematic and emotional concerns, as well as a scope larger than TCSM, yet as filled to the brim with Hooper's small-scale, finely-spun visual soulfulness and sense of the nebulous in internal emotional being.

The Funhouse - 8/10

Spot-On Reviews:
Bruce Kawin on The Funhouse (1) (2)
Analysis that goes into the film's strong deconstruction of phallic power, which I sadly overlook!
Kindertrauma's review of The Funhouse "Rather than spooking us with images of murder and mayhem, we have been treated to body mutation, both human and animal, and mounds of aging twisted flesh, the real horror of mortality and age."


Unknown said...

Beautiful! Someday The Funhouse will get it's due amongst horror fans. It's undergone a precious bit more appreciation in the past ten years and stands a better chance with widescreen DVDs available.

JR said...

Cinemachine's Chip Butty! I'm honored!

Hopefully I'll see a day when decked out, extras-laden super-editions of all of his films are on home video shelves.

Unknown said...

That'll only happen when the Eli Roth's crappy remake comes out, just like The Stepfather is out with extras now that there's a remake.

Have you read Bruce Kawin's 1981 scholarly comparison between Funhouse and The Howling? It's available in full here:

JR said...

As something of an Eli Roth apologist... the statement he made on what he'd do with a 'Funhouse' remake was dumb as hell.

I have read that Kawin essay. A while ago, but it's pretty clear some of my thoughts have been built off his (particularly the function of the Frankenstein mask). Thanks for linking me to that, I should probably have given him a nod or citation of some sort in my write-up.

Anonymous said...

Something that frustrates me a lot of this movie its that Amy survived: its the boring cliche where a female character is the last survivor. I hope, if this movie has a remake, it has a ending where Gunther kills Amy and the he continues with his life in the funhouse.

JR said...

I wouldn't say it's so much of a cliche as it is a common storytelling trope. There's got to be a survivor, right, or else whose story are we telling? The Funhouse is a film with a point of view, and it is most certainly Amy's, and this is what makes it so good. We're not watching Spoorloos here. It is a common cliche of the slasher film, but The Funhouse bypasses enough slasher tropes that I feel it's okay. What are your thoughts on Eaten Alive, in which (SPOILER) female characters survive?