Sunday, July 8, 2012

Frankenstein Meets Zena

From Joey's utterance of "Damn!" when unable to hide in Buzz's car from the carnival-after-dark, we overlap by mere milliseconds onto the sound of movement offscreen rousing Richie and Liz from their off-hours reverie inside the funhouse. Rather mercilessly, The Funhouse doesn't let Amy & co. enjoy their stunt for even a moment before they're rudely interrupted by what will be, for them, the point of no return.

Shockingly, we now see Elizabeth Berridge in the buff again. This is the last of the sudden, unexpected subversions of her status as the Good Girl - at least compared to Liz, who in contrast is still clothed - and the sight of her partially bared chest here is even more jarring than the frontal, casual bathroom nudity with which the film opens. I don't find it hard to imagine that Buzz is a smoother operator than Richie but with his shirt still on, the more likely scenario is that Amy didn't need any coaxing.

Standing to investigate the sounds but not hearing anything further, Richie picks up a piece of the fake foliage on a whim, examining one of the rose's fake petals. A throwaway moment, yet a perfect foreshadowing to the flimsy artifice of the teens' would-be love nest. Who among us has not stopped to admire the detail and craftsman ship of a fake plant at least once in life? Mere minutes from the shit hitting the fan, spending the night in the funhouse seems like kind of a lousy idea even just from a horny teenager's standpoint: the shrubbery in which Amy has stripped is plastic, the floors are not soft dirt but musty hardwood planks. Perhaps she's getting ready for sex as soon as possible to ignore her surroundings.

LIZ: "Well?"

AMY: "Well what?"

"Some people just don't know a good thing when they trip over it" snarks Liz to herself, maintaining the upper hand in this girlfriendship's initiation rites. Amy's fake naivete has reached an apex, as she greets with a knowing smile and still plays dumb, sardonically replying "Oh" to Liz's girlfriend shop talk. Liz's cliched innuendo suggests that even if Amy were to lose her virginity tonight, she's a long way from losing her childlike attitude towards sex, let alone life and death. Richie hands Liz the fake flower with mock chivalry - which she accepts with something like genuine graciousness. As quiet character moments go, this is singularly as sweet as Liz and Richie will get.

ZENA: "Remember, I don't come cheap!"

The great moment of The Funhouse is about to be constructed with the return of the Frankenstein-masked funhouse hand and Madame Zena, hilariously back to using her phony gypsy accent as she announces her moonlighting as a hooker. This is some seedy carnival all right. Sylvia Miles is probably most famous as the uptown lady whom Jon Voigt tries to hook for in Midnight Cowboy, which couldn't have been too far from Hooper's mind in casting her.

We have been waiting through this entire horror film for the kids to enter the funhouse and subsequently some danger to emerge, and the tomblike silence surrounding this sordid exchange is subtle the calm before the storm. Frankenstein, we quickly realize, is not just a carny with a mask, too busy to talk, but a near-mute uttering only muffled grunts and barks inside.

Yet the kids are as carefree as ever, and for first time viewers, we sense that this is finally the moment of their voyeurism they're going to regret partaking in, whatever happens next. The fact they're watching from above is a great visual metaphor for the attitude they've taken to this world of the carnival they've visited on this fateful night and are now dangerously trespassing upon.

Hooper chooses this shot of Frankenstein taking money from the cashbox and gingerly offering it to Zena to bring us from the kids' view between the ceiling planks inside the room. This is also the first close up of Frankenstein, as he's only yet been relegated to the background. I've always loved how this mask is a very high quality sculpt of the Boris Karloff model (this is a Universal Picture so the rights have been cleared legit) which nonetheless looks like it's seen years of wear and tear. Adding to the rapidly mounting suspense of what's behind that mask, we may notice for the first time that it doesn't exactly fit this man's head well.

Slasher fans and casual horror movie fans in 1981 knew what to expect from silent men in masks, even if Halloween had only popularized the notion three short years ago.  Lil' Joey certainly did, in the opening scene with his clown mask and sister Amy in the shower. The discomforting banality is that he's not the inhuman Michael Myers or a lot of other masked or otherwise unseen killers that were suddenly haunting the drive-ins, he's awkwardly buying the sexual favors of Madame Zena, this worn out old harpy. How desperate could he be? Desperately ugly enough not to show his face - or at the very least, just a weird dude. Not a good sign.

She asks him if he wants to take off the mask, which he obviously doesn't, and in light of what we find out later I have to conclude that either Zena has never seen him without it, is a really damn jaded trooper, or that we're being kind of misled by the director and writer. I'll put my money on the latter and forgive them.

I've seen The Funhouse in a movie theater twice, and Sylvia Miles' games didn't fail either time to make the audience retch. However, I don't think this is as much in response to her body as the ugliness of her person and the bedraggled resignation with which she takes off her shawl. The uncomfortable realism of this ugly scene owes a lot to the carefully composed naturalism of the clutter in the room - it truly looks like the back office of a carnival funhouse. Tobe Hooper is a master at constructing these kind of lived-in hovels with his production designers and artisans; the dilapidated farmhouse of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the most famous example.

After Frankenstein does the civilized thing by turning out the lights before lying on his filthy mattress, gentle reader, Zena gives him a handie that lasts about five seconds. "Happens to the best of us," she consoles. At the 2010 screening of The Funhouse in Santa Monica after which Hooper was interviewed by Mick Garris, Hooper claimed to have told Sylvia Miles by the third take of this scene to "wipe (her) hands of it" after Frankenstein gets ahead of himself, to which she asked, "Did I just end my career?"Standing up as she brings the arrangement to a conclusion, Miles' flabby ass gets groans from whomever in the audience was strong enough to stomach everything so far.

Frankenstein, however, feels cheated. Zena says "too late." Lurching over to the exit, Frankenstein closes the door and for the first time inside the funhouse, John Beal's music surfaces to strike a menacing chord. Up above, the kids look at each other in worriment. Zena warns him to back off lest she tell his father - then antagonizes him by asking if he actually thought she'd let him do it to her, calling him a freak. Using the same powers of conflict resolution we saw after Amy's palm reading, she briefly drops the gypsy accent again and starts shouting at Frankenstein to leave her alone or she'll put a curse on him "and his whole lot."

Not the wisest course of action.

Ripping open her top for one pregnant second, Frankenstein attacks and inadvertently sparks a nearby fusebox to life, turning on the cackling dolls in a lifeless mockery of Zena's protracted death by strangulation. Beal's music, which for the first half of our film has made many grandiose and foreboding variations on the ten-note "Funhouse" theme, now has his orchestra strike those notes with the bombast of terror: the evil inside the funhouse which we as an audience knew lurked somewhere has revealed itself. For much of the second half of our story, this cacophony of canned laughter and carnivalesque symphonic screams will be our soundtrack.

Amusingly, I've read a lot of capsule descriptions of The Funhouse which describe the plot as being teenagers stalked by a man in a Frankenstein mask who finds no shortage of weapons thanks to the funhouse's props. Obviously, they only fast forwarded as far as this scene before quitting and making their own assumptions as to what comes later.

This is the jolly fellow who got a featured cameo in the music video Hooper directed for Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" the same year as this film.

Bruce F. Kawin, possibly the only film critic to give The Funhouse serious academic or journalistic consideration back in 1981, was the first and best to put this murder in artistic context:

"The monster in this an unlovable child on the model of the Frankenstein monster, and about halfway through the film he tries to buy the sexual favors of the palm reader, Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles). He is presented as pathetic, and more than that he has a premature orgasm - which is, of course, a taboo in pornography and in similar fantasy structures: the knives in Halloween and Psycho may imply sexual dysfunction on the part of the killers, but as symbols they are always hard, and that is one reason such images may appeal to rapists, who are often impotent but who are in any case using sex only as an outlet for violent hatred. When he goes on to kill Madame Zena, he indirectly shorts out the electrical system, and the funhouse (in which the four protagonists are hiding overnight, for fun) comes momentarily to life. The point is that the funhouse/horror film is here explicitly tied to perversity and sexual frustration rather than to sexual fulfillment."

Spurious allusions to rapists as horror fans aside, Kawin is exactly right. Taking another step in that direction, the use of Frankenstein as this sexually frustrated killer's identity is the correct archetype because as Jungian figures of sexual urges, Frankenstein is the monster most closely identified with a lack of sexual fulfillment: he is man-made (masturbatory), craves a "bride" and will kill for one. If the climax of Bride of Frankenstein has taught us anything, we also know he is doomed to "belong dead" regardless. Compare these characteristics to werewolves and vampires, who are presented as sexually voracious seducers and ravagers of women - so much so that the predominantly horny and socially maladjusted male horror audience has been fighting a war against women's annexation of vampires as figures of female fantasy from Interview With A Vampire to Twilight and True Blood - soap operas with both vampires and werewolves. Your Tobe Hoopers and your John Carpenters of yesteryear prefer their vampires as abominations in the tradition of Nosferatu, unsurprisingly.

LIZ: "What are we going to do now?"

BUZZ: "Let's just get the hell out of here."

Hooper refrains from cutting to reaction shots of the kids during Zena's murder, waiting until it's done with to show them noticing the lights flicker on and off around them as Amy fearfully clasps Buzz's hand. The tone of the film has well and truly changed for good for them and us, and they're simply stunned. Frankenstein's sexualized attack on Zena, punctuated by the hellish chorus of the funhouse puppets' insane laughter, has been the first in a series of violent orgasms that the kids - with Amy as our seer-figure - have brought upon themselves by tempting fate and laughing in the face of adult sex and violence - laughter thrown back and them by the dolls in, if you'll pardon the expression, a funhouse mirror reflection.

"What did we learn from the death of the fortune teller? Thou shalt not drink, prostitute thyself, or wear a garter belt over the age of 50, or thou shalt be killed by a pizza-faced guy in a Frankenstein mask."

- Joe Bob Briggs, Monstervision (airdate: April 3rd, 1999)