Saturday, June 18, 2011

Siskel and Ebert on The Funhouse

A tip o' the hat to reader "Good Ash" for finding this rarity. Good, bad, you're the guy with the link!


In 1987 Siskel & Ebert did a special "Guilty Pleasures" episode. I'm not a fan of these guys, because as Pauline Kael told Ebert at a party, if she wanted to know the common man's opinion of a movie, she didn't need to find out from a TV show. Doing a "Guilty Pleasures" special is itself symptomatic of their dull phoniness. Were not most of the films they reviewed every week designed to be thoughtlessly consumed and quickly forgotten? More importantly, if a movie entertains you in any way whatsoever, hasn't it done it's job? What's guilty about that? People who actually feel guilty about enjoying fine trash are too worried about what other people think of them and have internalized mainstream pressure to only feel comfortable enjoying stuff that immediately appeals to 20 million people.

The only films that might fall under the cliched label of "guilty pleasure" are those which are unintentionally funny, like The Room or Plan Nine From Outer Space. The closest that Siskel and Ebert come to choosing titles like those which are deliberately silly, like the 1975 martial arts fantasy Infra-Man and the blaxploitation martial arts parody The Last Dragon. These films were made the way they were on purpose, but in Siskel and Ebert's minds that makes either the filmmakers "guilty" of something or they themselves "guilty" for enjoying them. The most dubious "guilty pleasure" choice in this special is Pee-Wee's Big Adventure - which is only one of the funniest films ever made - but believe it or not, a lot of critics at the time thought Pee-Wee was annoying or only funny in small doses.

Speaking of genres which get no respect, The Funhouse gets discussed at 15 minutes, 25 seconds in.

Bold text emphases are added.

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SISKEL: My final guilty pleasure, a film I'm, embarassed almost to admit I like, is a film that starts out like a mad slasher movie, except it turns out to be a rubber knife, little brother's having fun with his sister - and I don't think I've knocked any other category of film more often than slasher pictures, but this movie, The Funhouse, gets beyond that very quickly when it tells the story of four teenagers - two couples - who visit a carnival and have a lot of fun, until one of the guys makes a suggestion about staying a little bit longer.

CLIP:

RICHIE: "Let's spend the night!"

AMY: "What?"

RICHIE: "In the funhouse!"

LIZ: "You're crazy!"

SISKEL: Beneath the funhouse floor they spot a troubled, disfigured boy who hides behind a Frankenstein mask. And he seeks love, from a fortune-teller.

CLIP:

MADAME ZENA: "Not enough!"

SISKEL: Eventually the bad guys who run the carnival discover the kids and there is a chase in the funhouse itself.

CLIP:

Buzz struggles with The Barker.

SISKEL: This picture was directed by Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, and he's quite stylish here. I'm also a sucker for films set in carnivals. I liked that film with Gary Busey a while back called, Carny. They always seem so creepy, carnivals do, around the edges. And it -- the -- terror is really inherint in Funhouse, in it's beautiful setting. Funhouse is rated R, and it's not for kids, because the violence does get quite bold at the end, but I still like it, it's a worthy film, well directed.

EBERT: Well of course the irony about a lot of these R-rated films is that uh, on video, I mean we might as well admit this, they are, uh, are rented by kids and they are seen by kids anyway.

SISKEL: Yeah.

EBERT: And uh, this one is not as extreme as The Entity, but it has --
SISKEL: No.

EBERT: The thing about it is though, at a time -- it came out at the time when we had all the dead teenager movies --

SISKEL: Yes.

EBERT: Which essentially just consisted of a lot of teenagers, being killed.

SISKEL: Yes.

EBERT: This film was somebody who had a story he wanted to make, and a world he wanted to set it in, and that made it more interesting than uh, than most of them.

SISKEL: And he also has a tragic killer at the end, that, poor disfigured boy under the Frankenstein mask, I mean we feel for the guy.

EBERT: Well, we -- 

SISKEL: Sort of.

EBERT: I've felt -- I've felt more for movie characters deeply in my, in my career.

SISKEL: Yes.

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First of all, credit is due to Gene Siskel for recommending The Funhouse on national TV. It may have been six years after the release, but he probably got a few more people to rent the tape and he actually recommended it to horror fans back at the time of release in Fangoria #15, 1981. A little credit should also go to Roger Ebert for at least conceding the film was "more interesting" than the average slasher.

Their reserved praise says a lot about the problem of The Funhouse in finding an audience. Siskel mentions off the bat that he hates slashers, but this one was okay - not really a great selling line for slasher fans. Indeed, at the time, The Funhouse wasn't what fans of Friday the 13th and Halloween wanted. The body count is minimal and the killings aren't sensationalized. There were more slasher movies released in 1981 than any other year in movie history. Funhouse got lost in the shuffle and ignored by critics and audiences alike.

Siskel is speaking as a man who can't help but notice great filmmaking in a genre he doesn't regard as worthy of serious appreciation. I think what he refers to that the film "gets beyond" is the workmanlike direction in something like The Prowler or My Bloody Valentine which functions to retain suspense between murder set-pieces and occasionally liven the mood with comic relief. The Shower Scene which begins the film indicates a stranger mix of moods at play and is aimed as much at incredulous critics like Siskel as anyone, so it's fitting he mentions it right off the bat in his review.

It's also interesting that Siskel refers to The Monster twice as a "disfigured boy." I've never really thought of him as a "boy," but I suppose he could be a teenager or young adult like Amy & Co. Being retarded and able to physically overpower everyone else, it's not particularly important. Siskel also notes the pitiful nature of the killer, another distinction from the slashers of the early 80s, but of course Ebert has to smugly mock him for that.

Roger Ebert is really insufferable to longtime horror fans for never taking the genre seriously and even crusading against the slasher genre itself during it's heyday, calling for boycotts and protests against Hollywood studios. From the guy who wrote Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, this is not only hypocritical on a professional level but a weird example of doublethink: simultaneously appealing to the censorial urge of the "Moral Majority" who elected Ronald Reagan while condemning such films for their supposedly puritanical ethos of punishing teenagers engaging in sex and drugs with violent death.

No one wants to be thought of as a prude, though. In past defenses of himself, Ebert has pointed to films like Halloween and Dawn of the Dead and Alien as examples of horror done right. The problem is that as far as Ebert is concerned, those are the only three horror movies that need to exist. Once you've got a slasher movie with great direction or great special effects, or a zombie movie with smart cultural satire, why make any more?

The reason critics like Ebert hate horror movies is that they don't need critics to justify their existence. A great horror movie like The Funhouse, made in a way that critics can appreciate, is still just a horror movie and you should really be watching something with socially redeeming value.

If every film critic in America had singled out The Funhouse as either the greatest slasher movie since Halloween - or the slasher movie for people who don't like slasher movies - they'd be appealing to one audience at the expense of the other. Neither recommendation would be completely accurate, because the film is ultimately for fans of all kinds of horror movies who can appreciate how the film follows some slasher conventions, disregards others, and layers its simple story with all kinds of allusions to the history of the genre - the Frankenstein mask being the most obvious example.

10 comments:

  1. You're welcome.

    Mark Kermode is the only film critic I know who is a fan of horror films. Great guy. You can find his reviews on Youtube.

    Slasher flicks are generally mediocre. The film makers mimic Halloween but they don't understand that movie. The killers dress up in halloween costumes and walk slowly after their victims, just like Michael Myers, and they're unmasked at the end. They're overlong Scooby Doo episodes with death and sex. That's why I have a soft spot for Prom Night (1980) because the killer in that one is realstic. The killer isn't super strong or unkillable or defying the laws of physics to always be ahead of the victims no matter where they go. This is a killer who falls down and can be outsmarted and isn't all seeing and all knowing. The Prom Night murderer isn't some monster from the dark. It's just a guy dressed all in black and wears a ski mask.

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  2. I watch Siskel & Ebert to get a laugh or two. They were funny on Letterman.

    Too bad Siskel died so early. Ebert is absurd. Have you read his review for The Howling? http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19810101/REVIEWS/101010341/1023

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  3. Wow, I forgot about that Howling one. Populist standup drivel.

    I tried Slasher movies after a long time without and discovered they could be pretty broad in definition; there are definitely immortal masked killer films but also films that feature the killer as the main character, or are mainly inspired by Texas Chainsaw. The ones that are ripoffs-of-Carpenter ripoffs with gore setpieces and a Scooby Doo reveal (as in the original Friday the 13th) can have camp value. You have to dig a little but there's some great filmmaking here and there in the broad category of movies where multiple people die in memorable ways.

    Apparently your boy Kermode agrees, and interviewed Hooper and others about it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EcBO37LnD4

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  4. Do you think critics hate the horror genre?

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  5. I mean, horror movies do get positive reviews.

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  6. Critics do give positive reviews to horror movies, but professional movie reviewers aren't allowed to dismiss any entire genre out of hand. They have to give a passing grade to at least half of everything they see, or their employers would think they didn't like movies at all. In terms of mainstream respectability, the horror genre's always been just a step above porno. I would guess that your average romantic comedy or action film has a better chance of being well reviewed than any horror title of comparably mediocre quality.

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    1. I don't think most horror movies that come out each year get the amount of wide distribution and advertising as the majority of romantic comedies or action films in any givien year; and most of those movies don't get high praise either.
      If the horror genre is too often looked at as one step above porno, it's because most offerings are sold like porno. Focus on money shots (of violence instead of sex), lead up to them with titilation, make the characters desposible and uninvolving, and load up on formula cliches. If filmmakers are really serious about making scary or distrubing movies about the dark side that will appeal to wide audiences, they need to focus more on suspence, atomosphere, and character and less on shock effects.

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  7. http://siskelandebert.org/video/G9W1NYS7XH25/Hidden-Horror-1988

    Gene and Roger spotlight overlooked horror movies that they liked.

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  8. http://thecinemasnob.com/2011/10/03/radiodrome-siskel--ebert-on-women-in-danger.aspx

    Cinema Snob gives a rebuttal to a near 30 year old Siskel & Ebert episode.

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  9. They don't hate all horror movies. They like Halloween and Ebert likes the recent Cabin In The Woods.

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