Sunday, October 7, 2012

Frankenstein Unmasked


BARKER: " - This God damned better be good...Wrecking the place when I - "

"Ain't you got no respect?...No, of course you don't."


The reappearance of Kevin Conway as The Barker is akin to the reappearance of Jim Siedow as The Old Man / The Cook in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the revelation of a remotely suspected evil on the sidelines of the action. In Chainsaw, Jim Siedow merely runs the gas station nearby Leatherface's home, and while it's strongly hinted that he knows of the danger when he warns Sally and her friends against trespassing, it's not until Sally runs screaming back to the gas station much later in the film that we quickly realize The Old Man is Leatherface's father, or brother, or possibly both. The Barker's earlier presence in the film was a lot more ominous thanks to Amy's knack for clairvoyance (and the fact we know that somehow, somewhere inside the funhouse, evil awaits) but seeing him again now with the clearly very dangerous Frankenstein cowering feebly beside him, it's even more apparent that The Barker is tied to the danger at hand for Amy and her friends - and in a familial way similar to Leatherface and The Cook.

"God DAMNit."

"Damn it - the hell have you done now?"

"I stoop my shoulders taking care of my younger brothers" complains the psychotic Cook to his terrified captive Stretch (Caroline Williams) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986). Tobe Hooper created a real horror archetype with Drayton Sawyer / The Cook / The Old Man in the original Chainsaw, every bit as much as Leatherface was a new kind of horror movie monster. He's The Crazy Old Man, for lack of a catchier term (I'm open to ideas) and he's emerged in Hooper's filmography time and again, from Neville Brand's deranged hotel proprietor Judd in Eaten Alive / Death Trap (1977) to the return of Jim Siedow in Chainsaw Part 2, all the way to Robert Englund's old-age makeup grotesquerie in The Mangler (1995).

Somewhere in the middle of that pantheon we have The Barker, and all four examples share a sense of put-uponness towards their sorry lot in life: constantly cleaning up the bloody messes created when they or their retarded kin can't help themselves. They also strain to do this dirty work in conjunction with running their own businesses, and presenting a respectable face to the unwitting public - this and their Texan accents (per Hooper's heritage) make them members of an all-American gothic mind hinted at by Norman Bates in Psycho but stripped of Anthony Perkins' fey, articulate charm and replaced with - to quote Stephen Thrower's review of Death Trap - "pseudo-civilized smarm." They are not often psychotic killers themselves, but primarily aid-and-abetters to the killers at hand, doing so out of a sense of duty to family and also the need to go on making a living.

The Barker is also speaking in blunt Southern syntax entirely unlike his haunting drawl (with just a subtle hint of threat) outside the Funhouse itself. Unlike Madame Zena or Marko the Magnificent, whose stage personas and personal lives bleed into each other, The Barker's assertive command of himself behind-the-scenes as someone very different from whom we've seen before is quite unnerving.

"She looks dead, all right."

More distressing than the revelation that The Barker is Frankenstein's guardian: the resigned lack of shock he has towards a dead body. This does not bode well for Amy and company.

"Sweet Jesus!"

"You didn't tell me it was Zena the God damn fortune teller!"

"Oh you really did it this time, didn't ya?"


"Ya killed one of the family! Damn you!"

"Now I told you, didn't I tell you, that I don't care what you do
with that dirty business with them locals. But I don't want you
doin' nothing with our kind!"

With very few words, the stage is set along further echoes of Texas Chainsaw and the eat-or-be-eaten ethos of Leatherface's family, with its dichotomy of us-and-them against their fellow man. These carnies are a psychotic clan of two, dangerous even to their own "kind."

"Y'understand me? Damn you!"

"Should have wrung your ugly neck the day you
was born and been done with ya."

FRANKENSTEIN: "F-f-father!"

"I told you never to call me that...don't call me that."

"I can't stand the sound of your filthy voice."

The full picture of the relationship between these two has now emerged, and it's not pretty. The Barker is not only Frankenstein's guardian but his father, and are obviously bound by blood to protect each other from justice. More disturbingly, Frankenstein has finally uttered an audible word - "father" - his one audible world in the entire film, as will turn out. The word "father" not only establishes the relationship between these two, but tells us that whatever's behind that mute and murderous mask, there's some kind of intelligence.

With Joey's fanboy panoramas of Universal Monsters and the clip from Bride of Frankenstein that concluded the film's prologue, we know that the movie monsters of olde and their mythos are an integral part of understanding the dialogue with genre that The Funhouse is constantly engaged in. So let's pause to consider the myriad of subtext that Frankenstein represents, and how this subtext relates back to "Frankenstein" as we've come to know him. To begin with, he shares an awful lot in common with Boris Karloff's Monster - he acts primarily as a brutish slave to a master. Outside the funhouse we saw him mindlessly shoving patrons onto the cart rides, and having now made a "mess" he must call to his overlord to come up with a solution, lacking more than a rudimentary sense of problem-solving skills himself.

Bride of Frankenstein (which we saw Amy's parents watching) is a wonderful film, probably the best of all the classic Universal monster films, but for a highly entertaining runner-up I'd recommend Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V. Lee.) In Son, Basil Rathbone plays the titular progeny whose fascination with his father's infamous legacy slowly but surely draws him closer to re-animating The Monster. Meanwhile, hunchbacked sidekick Igor (Bela Lugosi) slowly but surely eggs him on, with plans of using The Monster as his instrument of revenge on the local townsfolk. This power dynamic of monstrous son, guilt-stricken (but complicit) father and nefarious mediator between them is a forerunner to the twisted family dynamics between Leatherface and his brothers in Texas Chainsaw Massacre parts 1 and 2. In this case, The Barker's son "Frankenstein" is the monster made flesh under a symbolic plastic mask.

Like Karloff, Wayne Doba's performance is credited only as "The Monster," for very apt reasons as we'll soon discover. Being allowed to use Karloff's likeness for the Frankenstein mask is a perfect happenstance of The Funhouse being produced by Universal Pictures - certainly the film would still be great if The Barker's son were only wearing a generic monster mask - but it wouldn't serve the open mediation on what the Horror film genre had been - and what it was becoming - that Hooper engaged. Similarly, John Carpenter had a few masks to choose from when deciding on the look of Michael Myers in Halloween - one option was a clown mask, which still could've conveyed creepiness - but the masterstroke was the mask they specially created; that of a pale human visage drained of all reason and emotion. These kind of thematic-aesthetic decisions are what makes the difference between greatness and mere excellence.

"Quiet now, I got to think."

"I said QUIET! I got to think." 

"It - it'll be all right now, just - just - just be quiet.
Gotta get us out of this one. Let's see..."

"It'll be all right, just - just give me time to think, will ya?"

"Maybe - "

"We'll say it was an accident."

"Nah - nobody will buy that, with your ugly fingers around
her neck. Maybe the - what are we gonna - wait a minute."

"Wait a minute, I got it."

"We'll blame it on the locals."

[LAUGHS] "That's what we're gonna do."

"We'll just go and we'll - we'll dump her someplace.
And then we'll blame it on the God damn locals."

"Sure! [CHUCKLES] That's the way."

The Barker's plan doesn't exactly sound like rocket science, but there's something about his confidence that makes the cover-up plan sound unnervingly plausible - like he's sure it'll work because he's done it before.

"You - what you got there?"

"Give it here."

"Give us that...A hundred dollars? The hell
did you get a hundred dollars?"

"You paid her a HUNDRED dollars?"

"Jesus! I could've got you one of them tent girls for fifteen."

"Eh. You never did understand the value of a dollar, did you? Shit."

"A hundred bucks...for Madame Zena. Shit."

This exchange gets a nice big laugh from audiences, because yeah, a hundred bucks for Sylvia Miles, a dozen years AFTER Midnight Cowboy? On the other hand, does anyone really believe that The Barker could've gotten one of those tent girls for his freakish mute son for only $15? Exactly who doesn't understand the value of a dollar, here? Incidentally, going back to the Crazy Old Man archetype - that "value of a dollar" line is pure Drayton Sawyer, circa Texas Chainsaw Part 2.

Right about here, John Beal's music lets us know the shit's about to hit the fan.

"All right, where is it?"

"What'd you do with the rest of my MONEY?"

"Where is it?? What'd you do with the rest of it??"

I love how Zena's dead body is one thing but an empty cashbox, now that's a real cause for panic.

"Where's the rest of it?? What'd you do with it,
you idiot?? Where is it??"

"Where IS it?? Where is it?? God damn it!!
What'd you do with it??"

I feel such douche chills for Richie, here. It's hard to put disgustful contempt mixed with sadness into a single expression, but Cooper Huckabee totally does just that in this shot.

"Has she got it?? Did ya give it to her, is that what you done??"

"Tell me what you done with it!! God damn you!!"

"All right. Maybe I'm just gonna have to help you remember."

The stuff inside the "manager's room" is interesting, as almost an entirely separate scene, visualized entirely in itself, and that just so happens to have shots of teenagers looking down from above spliced in between.  As you can see, it has its own master shot from a neutral position at the far end of the room, and doesn't cross itself or flip around until that pivotal moment where the Barker kicks his son across, into the other side of the room slash camera.  Hooper's rigor with space and direction and movement at work again.

Before that moment, this scene works around its rather "kitchen sinky" master shot that is punctuated with the occasional cut-in and also some trademark Hooper expressionistic low-angle shots.

"I'll make you talk!"

"Go on!! Hurt yourself good, boy! Come on!!"

John Beal's music is really going wild here in a way we've only heard once before, when Frankenstein was strangling Madame Zena - a subtle indicator that a similar shock is about to erupt.

"Go crazy, c'mon!!"


"That's it!! Go crazy!!"

"You hit YOURSELF or I'M gonna hit you, boy!!"

"Go on, hit yourself!!"

"Go on, hit yourself!! Hit yourself, atta boy!!"

"Hit it, boy!! You better go crazy -"

"- Or I'm gonna kill ya!! Hit it boy, hit it!!"

"Hit yourself, boy!! You better hit yourself - "

"- Or I'M gonna hit ya!!"

I actually really like John Beal's work in this scene, especially the moment right before the Creature rips off his mask where the strings get really low and squeaky in anticipation of the reveal.

"Tell me where that money is!!"

"Tell me where my money is!!"

"Where is it??"

We only see The Monster's face very briefly, but this is where Beal places the horn shrieks of horror.

"Where's my money??"


An inhuman shriek, a flurry of synthesized shivers on the soundtrack, and ladies and gentlemen A LEGEND IS BORN.

Or not. I mean, "The Monster" was designed by Rick Baker, but even though his groundbreaking work on An American Werewolf In London had just made him a household name among genre fans the same year as The Funhouse, The Monster failed to reach even one iota of the fame that Baker's werewolves did. You can absolutely see the lineage, though - just remember those Nazi werewolf-demons that kill David Naughton's family in the dream sequence from American Werewolf and compare them to old cleft-face here. The cleft, by the way, is a key visual motif in The Funhouse. I won't go on about how the cleft symbolizes the duality of man or anything like that, but we have seen the cleft twice already in The Freak Tent on the face of the formaldehyde jar baby and the deformed cow who entranced Amy.

I used to have the issue of Fangoria with the pin-up poster of this moment - it was basically the shot you see above. I think it was from 1985 and the cover story was about A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, which at least indicates some kind of staying power.

We'll be seeing more of The Monster unmasked from this point on in the film, so I'm not going to say everything that needs to be said about him in one go - but one really telling detail is how when the film is over, the character is credited as The Monster - which harkens back to how Frankenstein's monster was credited as simply "The Monster." As such, this poor soul is ultimately denoted as a creature less than human. Sure, he's the sexually frustrated indentured servant of a tyrannical carny father, but he's also a dumb brute who's a danger to himself and others. Throughout history, the deformed were regarded as literal monsters during the less enlightened periods of human society (read: 99% of them) and Larry Block's designation of ol' Frankenstein is no different. He's not beyond pity, but like Leatherface, it's a moot point - this is not a guy who you're going to talk out of killing you, especially with his cruel parental figure pulling the strings. Let's also not forget that even Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks, lauded for sympathetic portrayals of freaks (played by genuine deformed persons) doesn't hesitate to play the freaks as objects of terror at the film's climax. Hollywood can never truly help itself. Hooper doesn't play this moment as anything but a moment of horror. This is the point of no return when we learn that some "monsters" are real and something is alive in the funhouse. Henceforth, he'll be referred to as The Monster and Frankenstein no longer.

"You tell me who got it!!"


"Do YOU got it?? Tell me - who took it??"

"Who took it?? Did she take it??"

I think it's fascinating the way Richie seems to have jumped to a spot completely removed, in the foreground, from the other three.  A good shot.

"Is she the one that took it??"

"You tell me where it - "

"Who's there?"

"Who's up there?"

"Who's up there?"

[TO THE MONSTER] "Looks like we got company."

"Hey you up there! Come on down now, I want to
talk to ya. Come on - Ain't nothin' to be afraid of,
I just wanna have a few words with ya."

A personal anecdote: the very first time I ever saw The Funhouse was on a weekend afternoon during a broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel, back in their glory days when most programming was old horror films. Of course, the aspect ratio was cropped and panned and scanned and I was only flipping to the channel off and on, being the fraidy-cat I was. So, between the mucked aspect ration and the channel flipping in and out of this scene, my unformed, uninformed brain interpreted this scene as Kevin Conway speaking to the freak up above him - I had no idea about the kids hiding out.

Coupled with the bare knowledge about the film, I sort of took the moment to be Kevin Conway trying to coax a  just-discovered freak from the darkness of the funhouse. As much as I love The Funhouse, I've always been kind of disappointed that The Monster didn't just show up out of nowhere in the funhouse inexplicably, because nothing is ever scarier than the unexplained.

"Come on, I - I just want to give ya yer lighter back."

"What are y'all doing up there?

"You know you're trespassing on private property."

Kevin Conway is so fantastic here. You've just seen him blithely decide how to cover up a murder, and then abuse his freak son over missing money, now he's trying to sweet-talk Amy and company down from the rafters - and you almost kind of want to believe he'll be reasonable with them. He's got kind of a kindly uncle tone when he wants to use it, different than anything we've heard from him so far. This is exactly the tone we hear from Neville Brand in Eaten Alive / Death Trap and Jim Siedow in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films when they're trying to coax their victims into a state of false forgiveness. The line about trespassing on private property is Thrower's observation about "pseudo-civilized smarm" personified.

"Come're going to have to come down
sooner or later, ain't no other way out of here...
Come ON now!!"

"Ohh, ain't no reason to be afraid of him. He's harmless."

[TO HIMSELF] "Once he's been fed..."
[TO KIDS] "All right!"

"All right, have it your way."

"Once he's been fed" is a pretty crude jibe at the mental faculties of the monstrously deformed, but what they hey, it's funny and we're at least a little bit afraid of The Monster - he's not The Elephant Man - which, by the way, came out just the year prior to The Funhouse. Where that film made the freakishly deformed a cause célèbre, Hooper and Larry Block fearlessly proclaim that once again, freaks ARE animals and not human beings.

"Finders keepers! Losers, weepers."

[TO THE MONSTER] "Take off them damn gloves, we got work to do."


BUZZ: "It was you. You took the damn money, didn't ya?"

RICHIE: "So what if I did...I thought we were getting out!"

BUZZ: "You stupid shit. You're going to get us
all killed, you know that? Let me see it!!"

BUZZ: "Stupid shit - "

RICHIE: "I thought we were getting out!
You HAD the God damn door open!"

BUZZ: "Dumb, man - dumb."

RICHIE: "Well I was going to split it..."

AMY: "Did you see those EYES?"

LIZ: "Maybe if we just gave the money back - "

The kids' dialogue here may seem perfunctory, but there's one really unique theme being established as more routine ones are being reinforced. The unique theme is one which stands alone among slasher films: that the driving force behind the murders was and is going to be crime. The teens have implicated themselves as witnesses to a murder, which is reason enough for the murderer in question to want them dead - and on top of that, stupid Richie took the fucking money! Compared to Halloween, Friday the 13th, Black Christmas, Prom Night, Terror Train or any other slasher film prior to The Funhouse, the killer's motivations have almost always been steeped in inexplicable madness or some long-festering mania for personal revenge. The setup for why The Barker and The Monster must now kill the teens is ultimately to protect themselves, a motivation which would remain even if The Barker's son didn't have a scary monster face. This grounds all the crazy visuals and colors and atmosphere down in a baseline of believability that helps makes The Funhouse so unique among its subgenre.

The second theme, already established but now expressed verbally, is The Eyes of Amy Harper. Amidst all the panic over money and murder, our clairvoyant seer-figure asks, stunned, if we saw those EYES.

BUZZ: "It's too late for that now."

LIZ: "So what'll we do?"

BUZZ: "We wait. Until they make the first move."


RICHIE: "I think they just made it."

RICHIE: "Look, they're just trying to spook us."

BUZZ: "Shit they are - I just heard something move."

RICHIE: "Where?"

BUZZ: "There - "



I feel the film has kicked into a weird "non-horror-y" territory at this point, where we just saw the men speaking a bit tactically (the women docile and inactive in the background) and the whole thing starts to feel like a war film.  Now see how the battlegrounds of men and money and territory reaches across seeming fathoms to effect - that is, scare into opprobrium - a young boy who should still be in the safety of childhood.