Friday, April 29, 2011

Joey Inside The Funhouse

"Alive, alive, alive..."

"Step right in, ladies and gentlemen."

"The show is continuous, it is on right now..."

This section of the film is shorter than probably any other that this blog will analyze, except perhaps the upcoming corollary scene, Joey Outside The Funhouse. Seeing Joey outside the funhouse a couple scenes from now is a languid stretch of atmospheric camera work,  whereas this little piece of the puzzle has a less mood based purpose and is more designed towards selling the reality of the carnival setting. With one major scene left before the teens decide to enter the funhouse, this is almost Hooper's last chance to evoke the sense of a living, breathing place in his personal phony fairgrounds.

Letting the audience and Joey have a quick look inside the funhouse before the story introduces the element of danger helps makes the carnival feel more like a real place, but it also achieves the more subtle end of casually usurping the titular funhouse as the scariest part of the movie. If anything, Hooper only lets the rickety Funhouse dolls take center stage twice, first during the opening titles and later during the climax at the end of the story.

So far as contrasting Joey and Amy, note that Joey isn't interested in the Freak Tent and we hear the barker's ongoing pitch fade as he walks past. This illuminates a major difference in the interests of teenagers and children at seedy carnivals: freak tents require a slightly older and stronger stomach, much like gory horror movies. Joey also won't be visiting Madame Zena this night. I can only speak for myself, but as a child I never had any interest in visiting fortune tellers. They still seem to me like an attraction for people on the cusp of adulthood - teens - rather than children.

The carnival has something for everybody, unless you're an adult. Then if you're not accompanying a child, you're probably one of the poor bastards who works there. This is American culture in a nutshell.

Nothing significant happens at the eatery, so it's inclusion is just another wonderful little detail of carnival realism. Fair food is infamous for being hell on your body, and that's part of the bacchanalia. You can't get most of what they sell anywhere else. At the last carnival I went to - which was a totally safe, Knott's Berry Farm family friendly affair - the prime attraction to me and my friends ultimately became trying the delicious culinary abominations like deep fried Snickers bars, once we realized that the games and rides didn't have the oomph they used to as children. It's not like you can just find a good old fashioned freak tent nowadays.

This is exploitation independent film actor and sometime director Herb Robbins, best known for The Worm Eaters (1977) and last spotted for barely two seconds outside The Freak Tent. This is the first real look we get at him. First time viewers won't really be sure why Hooper is setting him up here with a close up, if they notice him at all. These Robert Altman style glimpses of the cast as a living community are only more rewarding on repeat viewings.

"You dropped something."

"I know."

Amy and Buzz are finally going at it and Amy is so deep in the throes of passion she drops her popcorn. Obviously these two have better use for their bodies than filling them with chicken fried corn dogs and such.

"Hey Buzz?"


"How come you never asked me out before?"

"I don't know."

"I didn't think you'd go out with me."

"Oh, I would've."

"I'm glad you did."

I love the way Cooper Huckabee pulls that line out of his pocket after a discreet look of panic. I also love the way Elizabeth Berridge tries to downplay her pleasure at getting a satisfactorily smooth answer to her question.

Here's a moment of which JR is a fan and featured on his Tumblr. These are the two kids of the movie, although first time viewers probably don't know the secret behind "Frankenstein" yet. First time viewers also aren't likely to notice that Wayne Doba and Shawn Carson are paired together in the opening titles. Knowing what's behind the mask, there's a cosmic poignancy to seeing these two together, unaware of each other, embodying diametric sides of the carnival social contract and linked only by their underdeveloped minds.

Joey will only be seen enjoying the carousel and the funhouse, and although Amy & co.'s prior enjoyment of the carousel suggests a certain passing of the torch in escapist entertainment tradition, Joey's preference for mechanical rides suggests that those are better suited for mass consumption without adult supervision whereas to see the freak tent or the fortune teller or the upcoming girl tent you must be at least this high to ride. Amy and co. don't even consider entering the funhouse until Richie comes up with the stunt of stowing away overnight, rather than an ordinary go-around of the ride proper.

"Hey c'mon you guys, it's getting late."

"Want some cotton candy?"

"No thank you."

Great eye-roll of annoyance from Cooper Huckabee. This moment helps me understand a little more why Liz is dating Richie: while Buzz and Amy are sneaking some necking, they actually seem to want to eat this crap.

"Who is man enough..."

"...To enter that world of darkness?"

Reading the Funhouse as a metaphorical chamber of adult thrills, there's a clever parallel in Amy and Buzz finally reaching first base with Joey taking his long awaited ride after enduring all manner of angry dogs and gun-toting weirdos just to get here.

One excellent panning shot later, we're in! This is a hell of a surprising moment when Hooper cuts to a first person view of the doors opening, since at this point in the film (about 31 minutes in) you'd probably assume that you're not going to get to see inside the Funhouse of The Funhouse until Amy goes in, thus maximizing the suspense for whatever's inside.

A moment of darkness, a flash of lightning. At an August 2010 screening of The Funhouse featuring a post-film Q&A by Hooper and Mick Garris which JR and I were privy to attend, transcribed for your reading pleasure here, Garris noted that this is the film's first use of surround sound. According to Hooper, this happened at the suggestion of legendary editor Verna Fields (Jaws, American Graffiti, Medium Cool). It's a great jump in your chair when that thunderclap comes from behind after 30 previous minutes of unsuspectingly normal sound mix coming from the front.

This pinkish cave isn't astonishing on a visual level, but that's because the most jarring effect of our first trip inside the funhouse comes from a wall of sound effects: in the few mere seconds following the initial burst of thunder we hear a woman screaming, bats screeching, and a baby crying. Obviously this blog can only do so much in describing the sound mix, but let me state for the first and not last time that what JR called "tin can sound effects" are an integral part of the funhouse's terror of randomness - the sense that there is no unified theme to the terrors and horrors endlessly promised by the barker outside, but rather "the funhouse" is a clearinghouse of bargain bin novelties - the same dregs of cornball Americana found elsewhere at the carnival in the forms of Marko the Magnificent or Madame Zena. The exterior of the Funhouse reflects this theme too, with it's miscellaneous illustrations of pirates and Chinese dragons.

Having been to a funhouse at the aforementioned Knott's Berry Farm fair (how could I resist?) I can attest that the experience does indeed frequently involve being plunged into darkness for just a few seconds before the lights flash up on the next room's centerpiece prop.

We already knew the funhouse would contain strange mannequins and dolls from the opening titles, so this witch doctor isn't going to startle anyone too badly, even while sharing Joey's POV. JR rightly regards the ride as "the culmination of Joey's rebellion," and it certainly fits as the front door to his room had a poster advertising this carnival's laughing fat lady funhouse doll with the simple appellation "CARNIVAL." He also ascribes Hooper's choice of a continuous POV during this ride as deference to naturalism, rather than including potentially cheesy reaction shots of Joey being scared. This suggests a kind of disconnect felt during such moments of culmination, since after all, the Funhouse isn't really scarier than the barking dogs or gun-toting weirdos Joey had to endure just to get to the carnival.

What JR calls the "dampening" effect of the film towards obvious horror cliches is in full force here: unlike the opening titles that matched John Beal's eerie carnival strings to the eerie dolls, we are invited in this scene to get a little used to the dolls and be introduced to the cacophonous sound effects, subtly reminding us that the worst is yet to come.

Hey, is that a Pink Floyd The Wall worm face mask next to the witch doctor?

Our only other glimpse of the funhouse denizens is another witch doctor - note, however, the continued disregard for context inside the funhouse displayed by the outer space setting behind him. This is the nightmare of random junk-horror which will later encompass Amy & co. when the shit really hits the fan.


"Goblins, ghosties and ghoulies."

"Eighteen of the worst mistakes, that nature ever
visited on man or beast."

"They're all inside, and alive."

The first two-thirds of this Kevin Conway barker trio, the Funhouse barker and Freak Tent barker, continue their pitches just before seamlessly transitioning to the Girl Tent barker and Amy's penultimate carnival experience prior to the funhouse. Not that we've finally seen inside the funhouse, the barker promises become humdrum - the "goblins, ghosties and ghoulies" are unconvincing props with ancient sound effects. Kevin Conway #2, however, reminds us from previous scenes that there are creatures at the carnival who are "alive" and as the poster of The Funhouse promises, there is something "alive in the funhouse" amidst all the obvious fakery.

I almost feel guilty about cutting off what's a perfect rotation between Kevin Conway's Funhouse barker, Freak Tent barker and (next post) the Girl Tent barker, but Joey's visitation of the funhouse deserved it's own examination before Amy & co. attempt to get their jollies in the next scene.


  1. Excellent post!

    Now why didn't I ever make a connection between showing the eatery and Amy's careless dropping of the popcorn? In a movie as generally richly constructed as this one, everything's fair game, and this little moment certainly leans toward complete (and sly, astute) intentionality.

    "Do you want some cotton candy?" indeed, Liz.

  2. Phenomenal work here! I always knew THE FUNHOUSE was a richly layered film with subtext that only becomes apparent after repeated viewings! Have you read Rob Ager's subtextual analyses of many films at You would really enjoy his work on the horror films he critiques including the most in depth look at THE SHINING I have ever seen. I will continue to follow this blog -- thanks for the great work!

  3. Thanks for the kind words, "557b2abe-90ab-11e0-aaf0-000bcdca4d7a"

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  5. How ironic: the best part of the movie was the funhouse, but most part of the movie the characters were out of it.