Saturday, October 29, 2011

Let's Spend The Night

BUZZ: "Is that your dad?"

RICHIE: "You okay?"

LIZ: "Yeah."

AMY: "Wasn't he strange?"

BUZZ: "Hey --"

"Looks like old Frankenstein has to get his jollies also."

AMY: "I think it's time to go home."

BUZZ: "What do you mean it's time to go home? It's early."

LIZ: "Boy, is he a weird lookin' dude. I wonder if he sleeps in that outfit."

"Old Frankenstein" finally comes to the attention of our gang, with predictable results: Richie mocks his hobbled posture while Liz idly jests. What I love about this brief encounter between our protagonists and their eventual antagonist is the reenforcement of his disarming nature: "Frankenstein" (lets call him) was previously seen moving the Funhouse carts while The Barker delivered his spiel. The Barker became a focal point of menace from Amy's POV while the Frankenstein-masked man behind him was innocuous in the context of a carnival. The film then ignored him a second time as he ushered Joey into our first glimpse of the Funhouse itself. Now, with the most attention Hooper has given him yet, all we glean from Frankenstein is that, indeed, he's as into getting his "jollies" as our horny young pals n' gals.

Amy, ever the seer, thinks it might be time to go home. In the previous scene she and the others had their first encounter with adulthood they couldn't laugh off so easily (they're trying, but even Richie notices Liz was perturbed) and the experience has sounded some alarm in her mind that she might have pushed her luck far enough for one night.

"I just had the greatest idea."

AMY: "What?"

"Let's stay."

"Let's spend the night!"

AMY: "What?"

"In the funhouse!"

The Funhouse stands alone from other "slashers" and most horror films of any type in its delayed doom. When you settle in to watch a horror film called The Funhouse you're obviously expecting bad stuff to happen inside one, so the only question is how and how soon the onscreen teenagers are going to go inside and not come out. Richie's "greatest idea" and especially his enthusiasm for what we the audience know is a fatal error therefore becomes an almost parodic fourth-wall breaker. If the audience doesn't groan with satisfied relief that the tension of inevitable doom has been validated, they're probably groaning with disgust at stupid Richie.

LIZ: "You're crazy."

"Fred and Eddie did it two years ago in Fairfield County."

LIZ: "Right, and you believe them. Y'know Richie, you're so full of shit!"

"I'm telling you, they did it -- and so can we."

"That is, uh -- "

"If we wanted to."

BUZZ: "What do you mean, if we wanted to?"

LIZ: "I told you, he's full of shit."

RICHIE: "Who's full of shit?"

BUZZ: (LAUGHING) "You're full of shit."

RICHIE: "Okay, then. Let's do it."

BUZZ: "Yeah -- it's settled, we'll do it."

"Hello mom? I'm going to be spending the night at Amy's."

More than any of his contemporaries - even Wes Craven - I think Tobe Hooper was especially empathic to women protagonists as martyrs to the world's evil. You've got Sally, the original scream queen from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you've got the mostly-female survivors of Eaten Alive, you've got the post-slasher feminist Stretch from Texas Chainsaw 2, you've got the exploited laundry women of The Mangler and sexually curious gals of Night Terrors - and then there's Amy, who gets completed steamrolled by male one-upsmanship into a humorously hard cut.

"Yeah, so I won't be coming home tonight."

This brilliant little scene is all one continuous shot. No wonder the film went over schedule, this is a perfectionist's moment. First of all -- and one might not even notice this on the big screen -- but in addition to the Bag Lady rooting around in the trash behind Amy, lil' Joey is trying his hand at Skeeball behind her. Child actors are expensive, but Hooper wanted him there so it must mean something! Let's extrapolate that since Bag Lady is closer to Amy than Joey, Amy's acquiescence to Richie's harebrained scheme is putting her that much closer to ruin than her young brother.

"Hi, mama. Could you put daddy on, please?"

Hats off to JR for pointing out to me how much of a daddy's girl Amy is, long before I ever noticed. You can practically smell mom's booze breath through the phone receiver.

"Everything's fine, could you put him on?"

"Hi daddy, I'm going to be spending the night at Liz's house, okay?"

"Yeah. I won't, daddy."

How cinematic were phone booths? You could have your little moment in there while another actor does their thing outside, AND you're still in public. What a loss.

"Um, is mom all right? Yeah, okay, well um --"

"I'll call you in the morning, okay?"

"Hey, listen -- tell Joey the movie was great, all right?"

"Okay. Bye."

LIZ: "Any problem?"

AMY: "No."

AMY: "Hey --"

"Are you sure you wanna do this?"

LIZ: "You sure you want to?"

AMY: (Nervous laugh) "No."

(Fat Lady laughing)

Amy and Liz have now completed their own little test of female wills that began in the bathroom, which is another good reason to show the Bag Lady behind them. The bathroom is where Liz told Amy she may not have to spend the rest of her life a virgin, and what else are you going to do overnight in a carnival funhouse with your dates?

From Amy's look to Liz as she exits, you almost get the sense that her agreement to go along with the stunt is more about getting her female peer's approval than that of the menfolk. Liz might not have wanted to initially spend the night either, but unlike Amy, she'd never admit to apprehension in the face of a leering bum or a dare.

The fat lady, of course, cackles on. Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.

BARKER: "Who is brave enough..."

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

BUZZ: "It's all right."

BARKER: "Terrifying...


"Goblins -- "

" -- Ghosties and ghouls."

RICHIE: "Move on."



BUZZ: "Hang on, here we go, this is it!"

(Sounds of lightning and shrieks)

LIZ: "This better be good."

RICHIE: "It's gonna be great!"


Unlike our previous first-person glimpse inside the funhouse with Joey, here we have wide angles of the funhouse carts running along the tracks through various rooms. However, just as there's no sense of continuity from one room to the next in terms of props, there's also no connectivity between them in terms of a physical place - each room seems to exist as a self contained world within the uncharted chaotic universe of the funhouse.

There's another major feature of the funhouse itself besides the colored lights and random array of antique jerking and gyrating doll figures a creaky animatronic dance of the damned: the ever-present sound effects, mainly consisting of shrieks and groans, some occasionally recognizable from old cartoons but mostly layer upon layer of bizarre sound effects coming from the back channels of surround sound for the first time in your theater speakers. Their constancy emphasizes the fakery, which is phony to the bone yet an overbearingly strong aural and visual assault, certainly combined in this scene when the gang are riding in the carts.

BUZZ: (Laughs)

BUZZ: "What do we have here, what do we have here?"

BUZZ: "Whoa, gosh!"

AMY: (Laughing)

LIZ: (Screams)

Of course, it's not a completely random universe -- this room, with it's African voodoo chief, is clearly one we previously saw during Joey's trip. But damned if you can get a sense of how many rooms there are in total, or in what overall direction the cart tracks move through them.

Considering Joey wasn't concerned with being spotted by his sister at all -- presumably she wouldn't be able to rat on him any more than he on her -- it's convenient that he should now choose this moment to zero in on her and the gang. He probably decided at some point during the night that he really didn't want to risk walking home alone after what happened with the dog and shotgun-toting truck driver.

Unfortunately, Amy and co. are nowhere to be found. Frankenstein seems concerned, but shrugs it off as only the fat lady's laughter can be heard.

(Cackling witch stops)

(Old lady's rocking chair stops)

(Organ grinder and monkey stop)

(Laughing clown stops)

(Laughing executioner stops)

(Mannequin stops)

(Piano player stops)

As the noisy dolls quickly slow to quiet stops, there's a sort of even-tempoed death's echo sound in John Beal's music score accompanying them, which isn't on the soundtrack CD. This is a kind of fanfare for the subsequent scene's extended crane shot when his haunting theme melody takes a languorous center stage.

MAN: "-- A quarter, a quarter, a quarter -- "

"And you spend, eight dollars for something!"

MOM: "Oh, get it, get it! Aww."

Two groups of disappointed bystanders overheard: the child who's lost his balloon to the heavens above and the boyfriend who played a likely-rigged game enough times to pay for his "prize" several times over. These final words on the concluding carnival are appropriately cynical.

MAN: "And when the guy, is telling me, he says -- "

"'Oh, well you can have anything.'"

"'Anything here on the uh, the third shelf here.'
Then I'm being ripped off!"

"I know honey, but I'm saying, we got ripped off."

The lights go out with the last sounds of chatter and it is at this point the crane shot is evidently a very ambitious one: an emphasis on Joey's helpless isolation without older guardians to take him home. Beal's beautiful score reprises the melancholy part of the opening titles melody, and invokes the knowledge that while the evening's official festivities for Joey and the other patrons might be done, the night is still far from over.

By the time this elevation is reached, all I can think is - this was a real carnival Hooper got to play with! Between the scale and the scuzziness, the sense of place (which Hooper excels at in general) is very convincing. When the film returns inside the funhouse, the memory of this vast empty fairground space outside lingers on and escalates the relative claustrophobia inside the closed ride for Amy & co. After creating the world of the carnival for the first half of the film by taking us on the tour along with the kids, this shot is the perfect button on everything since we arrived.

I would dare venture that in line with the film's recurring references to God watching, this drifting away to the sky from the initial point of the funhouse signifies a benevolent God's departure. He has been watching Amy and her friends as we have, but their decision to spend the night in a den of sin doing God-knows-what until daybreak has prompted the almighty to say "Fuck it, I was sending you omens all night, now you're on your own." And even without knowing exactly what's going to happen to the kids when watching the film for the first time, you still know they really are fucked one way or another from this point onward.

Finally as Beal's musical suite ends, we return to the funhouse exterior darkness, now in silent darkness. We'll never really see it from more of a side angle than this, making it more mysterious. Especially at the top, where the jagged shape seems to cut into the black night like a rip into an unreal dimension or dream tearing into the night. Jagged like the flames of Hell.

1 comment:

  1. Movies that remind me of the funhouse:

    Carny ( 1980 ) came out in the same time period, has a strong southern aspect and near the end of the movie you can actually hear the fat lady's laugh ! I swear i watched this movie a few weeks ago and it sounds exactly like the fat lady's laugh from the funhouse.
    Also just like the funhouse it has a dirty sleazy vibe to it.

    The new kids (1985 ), somewhat the same time period, has an amusement park in the film were alot of the action takes place, has a gritty feel to it and it was filmed in Florida.

    Even though it's never stated were the funhouse takes place i still feel it has a strong southern connection since it was not only filmed in Florida but dallas and Memphis are mentioned.
    Plus cooper Huckabee is from Alabama.