Saturday, April 21, 2012

Joey Outside The Funhouse

After the grandeur of the tracking shot in the last chapter, suggesting a departure of all life and light from the carnival fairground and ending the sentence with that ominous period of the Funhouse; an establishing shot of that absurdly finally silent Fat Lady doll, Hooper does something very unlike himself in this shortest of sequences: he betrays your expectations of film grammar. This may sound like a spurious accusation toward the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I'd counter that all directorial misdirection was in the service of chair-jumpers. Leatherface sidestepping into the frame unaccompanied by the warnings of music or sound effects for his first appearance in Saw 1. Leatherface charging at the camera to the war cry of a revving chain saw in the radio station of Saw 2.

Lil' Joey poking his head up into frame and coming into focus is little more than a gentle kid using a gentle kid. You thought you were going to see what the kids are getting up to inside the isolation of the funhouse? Not just yet, first you should know that despite appearances to the contrary in the last sequence, he hasn't left the fairgrounds for home, since why would he - the way here was a nightmare, what's it going to be like even later at night on the way back?

The Funhouse rarely missteps, but what follows from this moment on simply doesn't feel necessary. One thinks of the well-acted yet ultimately superfluous and studio-mandated scenes of Stuart Whitman asking Southern character actors if they've seen Mel Ferrer's missing daughter in Hooper's sophomore horror film Eaten Alive / Death Trap. They're too competently staged to take away from the overall effect of the film, yet they don't help.


The remainder of this characteristically Hooperesque long take has one practical function and one subtle evocation of shared cultural memory. Joey's a lil' guy, so watching him take a quiet moment to run along half the length of the pavilion makes the Funhouse itself seem more gigantic. After slightly under half the running time of the film, Hooper is still building the structure as a character like the farmhouse of Chainsaw, the hotel of Eaten Alive / Death Trap, and at this early point in his Hollywood career, even the Marsten house of the 'Salem's Lot TV movie. This is a long term effort at mystification of the apparently non-supernatural (read: haunted) air of dread around the titular bad-place of a horror film; we haven't seen anything inside except a few tracking shot rides inside puppety ride of the Funhouse - what marks pay to see.

The other effect is a throwaway sound effect or lucky coincidence. The sound of a train passing through in the night air evokes something best put by Richard Nixon, or at least Philip Baker Hall as Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor: "When I was a boy, the sweetest sound I ever heard was the sound of the Santa Fe railway." The call of the open rails was for a century in America the promise of independence for young boys wanting to escape their upbringings in the middle of nowhere and go to the big cities of now-dead industrial mini-metropoleis. Or, join the circus, which would at least be considered respectable compared to dingy carnivals like this one. Joey's journey for thrills and chills this night is close enough. It's an effective sound.

The Fat Lady's arm jiggles just a little and we hear the sound of chains grinding - a new bit of detail for the dark side a character who's merely an inanimate object. Grinding chains are a ugly sound and one that will take center stage by the time of the film's final sequences.

So far as the thematic significance - well, this whole unnecessary digression seeks to tap into only one mood, the same as every one of Joey's scenes: if you were a little kid all alone, what's the scariest thing that could happen? If you're standing in front of a doll, of course, the scariest thing is that it could move. Even just a little bit. Any amount is too much.



The tagline of The Funhouse tells us "Something is alive in the Funhouse!" and despite a lot of teases to the contrary, it's not any of the creepy looking mechanical dolls. And yet, Hooper does love to tease the idea so.



BAG LADY: "God is watching you!"


The Bag Lady scare is, at this point in procrastination from the horrors inside the funhouse officially commencing, just a little more cruelty towards Joey for playing hooky. As one of the cheap scares leveled at him and us the audience, it ranks somewhere below the dog behind the fence and shotgun-toting truck driver. While re-emphasizing the human rather than supernatural dangers under the surface of a night at the carnival (no Ray Bradbury dark carnival, this) I don't believe making that point one more time before the human dangers inside the funhouse begin is worth using up the Bag Lady's effectiveness as a doomsayer.

By the way, I just realized Shawn Carson does indeed star in the 1983 Disney production of Something Wicked This Way Comes. How punishingly appropriate.

Thrill to John Beal trying to sell the excitement of a ten year old climbing a fence.


There's a hard cut on Joey's cuss to the first shot of our next sequence, the first non-ride scene inside the Funhouse, hard enough to sell this as a laugh line in which a child swears. This scene's tail end is of the perfunctory nature I was getting at earlier, but it ends gracefully and then we're finally into the part of the movie we paid for while Joey is stuck outside and excluded from the subsequent drama and danger.

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