Amy's scream of horror could have ended the film already, just snap black to credits in the throes of The Monster's agonies. To end a horror film at the apex of excitement has been a frequent technique in Hooper's filmography since Leatherface thrashed his chainsaw about in the last shot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Instead here he gives us a magisterial eerie coda uncommon for the nominal slasher film.
Amy's exit out the wrecked doors is handled deceptively as matter-of-fact, as if the near silence of faintly howling morning wind will be pierced by the shout of concerned carnies, or approaching police, or maybe even mom and dad.
As a non-living but animated character, the Fat Lady doll has been focused upon at several crucial tonal points throughout the film: first as an avatar for director Hooper, then in dissolve upon Tad the mutant fetus, and the last time was an encounter by the easily spooked Joey. She is the twisted soul of the carnival, the bloat and ugliness of life painted into grotesquerie prompting us to laugh at the shamefulness of our bodies. Irony is the glory of slaves, though, and the insufficiency of this clowning's therapeutic qualities in preparing anyone for real death and/or sex has been the subtext of the tale.
The Fat Lady's canned hoots and hollers are now heard isolated from last night's carnival racket and the message of mockery is direct to Amy alone. Despite not even being alive, this mechanical character we (and to her visible horror, Amy) project a character upon is the only character to emerge the fateful night unscathed, and her message to Amy is as they say about casinos: the house always wins.
The uncanny creepiness of the moment is compounded by the game Hooper has been clandestinely playing with old childhood feelings towards dolls since Joey made his ventriloquist dummy's head wink at the camera in the opening scene; conditioning us to accept the titular funhouse and its puppet denizens as "alive", so effective is their gonzo simulacra of trap doors, lighting flashes and sound effects, including an ever-rolling chorus of incongruous laughter.
As with Joey's sighting of the Fat Lady's errant arm movement, there's no real reason for the doll to be spontaneously jerking to life. With the addition of the laughter, this is the "final scare" of The Funhouse in terms of a slasher film's beats wherein the killer thought dead surprises us one last time. Except in this case the killer is an institution, The Monster's home which is standing in for the institution of horror films. As Bruce Kawin noted, the "overweight, chuckling doll" is Hooper's surrogate and "the last laugh" is his. Elizabeth Berridge really captures the spiritual desolation of Amy in her reactions.
A more cynical or less sensitive filmmaker than Hooper could've easily had Amy crack up in the face of the Fat Lady's guffaws, perhaps with a slow giggling that gradually rose in pitch until their voices are joined in a chorus of madness...snap black to credits. A really superb predecessor of sorts to The Funhouse, Tourist Trap (1979, David Schmoeller) had an ending like this after exposing its Final Girl to an excess of puppetry. Abruptly ending a horror picture on the heroine's fractured sanity after one final terrifying indignity is usually always ascribed (or blamed) on Carrie (1976) but Tobe Hooper predates De Palma with Marilyn Burns' shrieks of relief that reverberate with shattered sanity. The film is concluding gracefully rather than forcefully, reinforcing the classical structure of the overall piece and giving us the literary equivalent of an epilogue.
[LAUGHTER SLOWS AND STOPS]
When the laughter dies, John Beal's pensive wind instruments pick up, announcing the full circle is complete: the flute lick that began the film is signaling the end of Amy's, and our journey.
In short succession, Amy walks by some creatures of the carnival with special symbolic significance to where the night's terrors have left her. Barely visible in the background is Carmela and her dad Marko the Magnificent, the sole healthy parent/child relationship in the film, which says an awful lot.
Carmela is under her father's wing, and this familial closeness placed at the opposite end of Amy subliminally reminds that homecoming will never be as it once was. Halloween ends with teenage Laurie Strode weeping to a gun-toting b-movie psychiatrist and imitators like Friday the 13th with Final Girls babbling to bad actor cops. Lingering on Amy in silence, one gets the sense that grateful as she may be for survival, she'd like nothing more than for the world to turn back a day and return her to the world of childish innocence and ignorance.
BAG LADY: "God is watching you..."
Amy receives denouement from The Bag Lady, someone we surely thought we'd seen and heard the last of. Her reiterated warning at this time is kind of cruel, basically an "I told you so" for irony's sake from Hooper. The timing is so good you can't help laugh a little, indeed there were a couple nervous chuckles from the crowd both times I've seen The Funhouse in a theater. The fact that Amy is already sobbing from this psychic whupping with tail between her legs is a particularly sad detail.
Regardless, Hooper's rapidly distancing crane shot and the self-conscious quality of letting the film's doomsayer get the last word reminds us that this is, after all, "only a movie" and one that hasn't allowed its audience the comfort of genre cliches being rapidly codified by 1981's massive influx of slasher film product.
The last fairgrounds straggler to cross Amy's path is also the most marginal: the nameless raggedy man credited only as "Geek" who was the first person Amy's path crossed upon entering the carnival. Just before she and the group walk past him he's ignored by a mother and her young daughter, and Amy's bunch pays him even less attention, as it so often is for the destitute and visibly broken. Amy now walks among his ranks.
He even reaches out to her like a kindred wounded soul, and is ignored again. In conjunction with the crane shot, Amy is blending in among the refuse and dirt.
Unlike screaming Sally from Texas Chainsaw or so many other Final Girls, we're given breathing room to ponder Amy's life beyond the film as her long walk home commences. This is helped too by the placement of her exit from the funhouse at daybreak, the restoration of external normality, something considered rather old hat by the time The Funhouse was made.
In spite of what I said before, there's a strong cynicism to it, just a quiet kind - Amy's future is mundanely easy to imagine and not all that bright. Innocence lost, Amy Harper will return to the ordinary life she was living 90 minutes ago in movie time with a newfound sense of the world's darkness that will either more likely cripple than toughen against it.
She may become a nun, she may become a mom, she may become a drug addict. A nurturing home, as we know, does not exist to come home to, so what happens when Mr. Harper greets his little girl at the front door? What about the anguish they'll feel upon realizing they nearly could've saved her during the same trip to the carnival that recovered Joey?
My first exposure to The Funhouse was actually flipping past it watching TV on a weekend afternoon, on the then-horror heavy Sci-Fi Channel of the mid-to-late 90s. Something about everything was immediately terrifying to me and yet I was inexorably drawn to it because I kept flipping channels back, watching for as long as I could before it became too scary. In my mind, the fragments became a version of the horror wherein the funhouse really was alive and was inexplicably inhabited by a lurking monster as well.
The last time I flipped back was this tracking shot, which at this point is hovering above Elizabeth Berridge at an altitude where if you had just started watching, you might not know she's the focal point. As a kid, I thought this ending was a gaze out upon the carnival after the girl who was running through the funhouse and then being stalked in a chain-filled room by a monster must have met her inevitable death.
On some level the version in my imagination was always scarier and discovering the more mundane truth of the story was a disappointment. On later viewings there was still something that made the film sit ill at ease in my stomach, and eventually I realized it was precisely the low key nature of the story, the slow burn leading up to that monster who's really just a freak. Impossible (yet rickety-looking) funhouse aside, it's all more plausible than Halloween or Friday the 13th. Combined with the texture - the sight and sound of this bright and grimy world of Hooper's which made the frightening impact it did on first contact - my fascination with the film grew.
A few years later I found Bruce Kawin's essay on the film (and Joe Dante's The Howling) in Film Quarterly of 1981, reprinted in the book American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film, which I've quoted extensively throughout this analyses. His great insight was that this was partially a horror film about our attitudes toward horror films but more broadly, our categorizing horror images as entertainment, whether at a movie or at a carnival.
What really made me want to attempt this analysis was a book on They Live by Jonathan Letham, part of a series of film analyses by literary authors called Deep Focus - "A Novel Approach to Cinema" published by Soft Skull Press. The meticulousness appealed to me and although The Funhouse did not contain as many cultural and political layers to delve into as the John Carpenter film, its artistry and character seemed equally worthy of a longer look. Moreover, a blog could contain the most thorough scenic dissection possible outside of the 24 hour slow-motion version of Psycho screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Julius Banzon, who blogs about Tobe Hooper exclusively at The Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society, has indispensably added his words and continued inspiration during this project through discussions of the film and Hooper in general.
I like the way The Funhouse ends; we're able to catch our breaths and even begin mulling over the entirety of the picture, with a Godlike view of all the pieces.
In our distance, and the slow fade, we watch ourselves watching.