Sunday, August 5, 2012

Locked In

"And so commence the many scenes of the four teens wandering around in the dark. I can never see a dang thing inside that funhouse, maybe I need to turn up the brightness on my TV. And speaking of things you can't see, the TNT high sheriffs did a little scissoring a while back, I forgot to point it out earlier. There was a scene in there where the kids smoke a little Arkansas polio weed, which is where the bright idea of spending the night in the funhouse comes in.

Sometimes I feel the high sheriffs miss out on little opportunities to educate, since these type of movies so often contain messages, namely: drugs, fornication and not minding your daddy will cause the evil forces of nature to come down on you big time."

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

With his usual Texan pithiness, Joe Bob expertly slammed this scene and filled in his viewers on what they were missing during the Funhouse / Poltergeist episode of Monstervision 13 years ago. I was 13 myself then, and still get kind of choked up thinking about Monstervision and how Joe Bob Briggs was the last of the TV horror hosts and also on the scene late enough to show 80s classics like The Funhouse and Return of the Living Dead, and also not-so-classics which played ten times better with commercial breaks and Joe Bob interludes, like Maximum Overdrive, Ghoulies and Deadly Friend. Joe Bob also had a gift for mentioning the subtext of each film in layman's terms, like a Garrison Keillor turned Fangoria stoner, and I adore his reduction of The Funhouse's Abrahamic moral undertones to the punishingly literal command of Thou Shalt Not.

God has already left the picture at this point in the film, and the darkness certainly emphasizes that feeling. In deference to Joe Bob's sardonic announcement, the scene probably goes on a little longer than it needs to and the inclusion seems largely a pragmatic decision: Hooper and Larry Block have to establish that the kids can't just up and leave, and Richie is going to do something stupid to endanger his and his friends' lives even further. Outside of that utilitarianism, this bumbling around in the dark does have some spot-on details to texture the doom which we feel creeping closer to the kids with every passing minute, now that the element of murder has made it's long-anticipated entrance.

What Hooper does most admirably in his staging of this slow fumbling around in the dark is reinforce the subtle idea of the funhouse as a world beyond our comprehension. We've never seen the layout of the funhouse's building, we don't have any sense of how one room connects to another and we didn't even see how the kids got out from their ride carts to sneak further into the building, because that would've revealed too much. Now that the foursome are gingerly tiptoeing through the darkness, all that lack of information has become literal. What's kind of obliquely funny is that they never even seemed to consider ahead of time the fact that by trespassing overnight, they were inevitably going to be locked in and made hostages to fortune.

The placement of a single monstrous head like a beacon surrounded by blackness is a nice touch of foreshadowing. On a purely technical aside, Richie's lighter doesn't look like it's doing shinola to light the way, but perhaps that's intentional - and besides, the lighter is going to play an important role soon and needs to register onscreen.

John Beal breaks the silence with some low key string plucking here.

As stylistically different as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Funhouse are, Hooper resumes several of the same nightmare-themes and in this scene evokes is what he's described as always "running right back directly into the spider's nest" a la Sally's endless marathon flight from Leatherface and his family (in the 2000 documentary, The American Nightmare.) His second theatrical horror film Eaten Alive was more of an ensemble piece and as such, didn't really feature this anxiety - but here it is again, as an appetizer for Amy's final girl flight and return to the "spider's nest." This room is the last place any of the kids want to be right now, and somehow even in this gigantic after-hours labyrinth they've managed to find their way directly there.

Buzz and the others hear some noise outside the door, although carefully listening repeat viewers of The Funhouse will hear that it's not any of the Barkers, just some roadies. Buzz thinks he can get through the door once they're gone. Richie returns to the doorway at the scene of the crime, claiming to be making sure that Madame Zena is dead.

Here's a really nice bit of subtle acting from Miles Chapin. Glancing from Zena's body to the other side of the room, even first-time viewers can guess he's thinking about that cash box. There's just the smallest smile that his lips form, and his mouth opens a little, gasping air for courage at what he's about to do.

This is where you have to psychoanalyze Richie just a little. He's in a situation which should scare anyone into thinking about nothing except survival, and yet on top of being the guy who's made his friends witnesses to murder, he's also deciding to be a sneaky little thief on top of that. Presuming safety from what Buzz just said, he believes he's moments away from freedom and can get away with it. But what was he planning on saying to Buzz and Amy and Liz, if indeed he was even planning to share what he stole? He would probably defend himself by saying that he was stealing from lowlife murdering carnies, not some poor old widow - the "it's not bad if you do it to bad people" philosophy of self-righteous weasels and psychos.

Yet Richie's not even a bully, just an asshole. And speaking as a quasi-reformed asshole, I think I can explain his thinking: it doesn't go any further than I can get away with something, therefore I will. It's the mentality of resentful nerd. In the context of Richie's situation, it's also a way of reasserting control over his situation: I didn't get away with spending the night in the funhouse, but I can still get away with something.

"She's dead."

BUZZ: "Shit."

AMY: "What's the matter?"

BUZZ: "It's locked."

AMY: "What?"

RICHIE: "Hey man, would you just - "

BUZZ: "'Hey man', it's a steel door and it's got a chain on it!"

Richie's guilt makes him a lot more anxious than he was a minute ago, and Buzz bitterly gives him such much needed mockery. Note that Hooper doesn't bother showing wherever on the outside of the funhouse this door is; that would remove us from sharing the characters' claustrophobia. They figure there must be more exits and go back into the darkness. John Beal's score reprises the sad melody of the film's quieter passages such as this, as Richie again takes out his virtually useless lighter.

After finding the locked door of the ride's front entrance (which, indeed, we might confirm by identifying the spider prop) Richie trips and we hear wood breaking loudly. As fake scares go, I like this one since it's Richie is being a dummy and unlike your typically contrived horror-film fake scare of a jumping cat (or dog) or an orchestra hit on the soundtrack, this "jump" moment realistic enough that the audience with which I last saw The Funhouse jumped and chuckled at themselves without feeling like the filmmakers were just being pricks.

Going up a very creaky flight of stairs, we hear Buzz whisper that the gang will have to "spend the night overnight," to which Liz nearly shouts "What?" as loud gears grind somewhere and Amy whispers to Buzz she wants to go home. This is irony with a foghorn, but the saving grace is that even at this point in the story when death has reared its ugly head (so to speak) Amy and Co. could still conceivably get through the night just by laying low, as they intended to in the first place. The film's pace of danger has been so entrancingly gradual, it almost feels like that's still a viable possibility.

OFFSCREEN: "So he is lying there in the dark and he is ex-hausted."

"He looks over the bed, and he says, 'Darlin', you're the greatest.
What did you say your name was again?"

"And he sees these two big eyes just blinking at him out of the dark,
and suddenly he hears - "


(All laugh)

This sequence ends with what feels like a small homage to Tod Browning's Freaks, but I'll let Joe Bob bookend this chapter with another astute observation on the point behind this quick glimpse of Joey, as he continues running about the fairgrounds:

"You remember in the freak show, how the baby in the formaldehyde had a cleft head? And there was a cow with a cleft palate, and another cow with two faces? It's all kinda thematically linked. If you really want to put it all together, remember the carnies in the parking lot telling the story about the guy having sex with the cow? I'm not gonna hit you over the head with this, just think about it, okay?"


  1. "The Funhouse" needs to be remade, its one of my favorite horror movies. They should keep the time period the same but make the Funhouse more elaborate and bigger. Rumors are the Eli Roth wants the remake the movie, I like him and feel that we would stay true to the original.

  2. Eli Roth has been quoted as saying he thinks only the first half - the setup - of The Funhouse is brilliant. I disagree, but even a misguided remake of any 70s/80s horror film by him would have more integrity than a Michael Bay remake.