Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tricked and Trapped

CARNIVAL MANAGER: "He's resting real good now."

Hooper cuts hard from the death of Richie to Joey sleeping peacefully, assuring us he's all right and reintroducing Mr. and Mrs. Harper as his caretakers. This provides a nice ironic contrast to the first death of Amy's group: the emancipation of Joey from his long living nightmare at the carnival just as Richie has had his fate sealed inside the tomb of the funhouse.

Almost immediately, however, it becomes apparent that there's nothing really being reassured besides the fact Joey's parents will be able to take him home now. When last we saw Joey being caught by the Carnival Manager, we couldn't really be sure if he was to be trusted. The big grin plastered on his face suggests he's a kindly man, but we've seen The Barker put on that kind of shtick.

The dead eyes of Mrs. Harper - presumably still a little inebriated from the late show - are disconcertingly devoid of concern for the situation. Mr. Harper's bewildered uneasiness as he glances around the carny's trailer is contagious. Earlier in the film we might have written off his nervousness as middle class paranoia, but in light of all we've come to know about the dirty secrets this carnival holds, you know his suspicions are justified.

"You oughta see what I had to go through to get your number."


To suggest a low-level delirium in this scene, there's also corny generic country music audible in the background - something that Hooper's used to suggest low-level delirium before, in Eaten Alive / Death Trap.

"I washed him up, real good."

Yes, the unthinkable is suggested here and you don't know whether to cringe or laugh or both. We live in an age today when parents have been encouraged by the sensationalistic media to think there's a pedophile on every corner, but the sudden shifts in the Carnival Manager's expressions between Joey and the parents - as well as the tender repeated dabbing at Joey's face - still rings a warning bell. Why didn't we see what happened between Joey getting caught, and the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Harper? On the other hand, what kind of child predator calls the parents afterward? Maybe all it means is that he's not AS bad as the murderous Barker.

"He's got a little fever..."

"...And he ain't talkin' too much."

MRS. HARPER: "Yeah, poor baby, we'll - "


MRS. HARPER: " - We'll get right straight home to bed."

Sloshed Mrs. Harper's monotone motherly banalities and total obliviousness to the Carnival Manager's potential signs of pedophilia gets a big laugh from the audience right here. This is some of the sickest comic relief in horror movie history.



The first few times watching The Funhouse I can't say I picked up on the subtle manner the Carnival Manager is regards Joey, but there's certainly some kind of connection he feels that Mrs. Harper doesn't notice and Mr. Harper politely ignores. My first interpretation was simply that he's fond of kids - he works at a carnival, after all - and perhaps little Joey reminds him of his own son, or a son he never had, or even himself as a young boy. Unfortunately, as an older cynical adult, I'm not only aware that the scene strongly hints at pedophilia, but that all my previous guesses at the source of this carny's affection for Joey are perfectly compatible with the dark side.

Imagine my surprise when in his retrospective interview about The Funhouse on, Hooper laid the subtext bare:

...There's the carnival manager who's the quite obvious pedophile. I mean, that scene is all implied with the exception of a couple of lines he says to the parents like, "You should have seen what I had to do to him to get your phone number" or "I washed him up real good." [laughs]

Well, that answers that. Poor Joey.

LIZ: "We've gotta get - "


LIZ: "We've gotta get him!!"

BUZZ: "We can't get him!!"

AMY: "Buzz, let's get out of here!!"

BUZZ: "God damn it, listen to me!! We can't help that now!"

LIZ: "Please!! Oh, God. [CRYING] I want him...he's out there..."

BUZZ: "It's gonna be all right, it's gonna be okay - "

BUZZ: "It's gonna be okay - "



BUZZ: [WHISPERING] "Get over here."

The implication here, of course, is that The Monster is riding one of the carts towards the kids - but the silhouette of his head clearly doesn't share that deformed shape. We can guess it's Richie, and my suspicion is that we're meant to guess correctly before the teens realize it, playing on the horror movie trope that the audience is usually one step ahead of the kids onscreen. ("No! Don't go in there!" / "No! It's Richie!")



Whereas this sequence has happened in silence up until this moment, the lightning flashes and doll laughter sound effects now kick in when Buzz realizes he's axed Richie - but John Beal's score doesn't strike until the shot when Richie's body lurches back. Effectively, the film The Funhouse springs to life when the funhouse itself comes 'alive.'



This is a beautiful, bravura moment - Richie's body in the foreground, as lifeless as one of the ride mannequins, being dollied through the halls of the funhouse by the cart as Liz follows behind, crying helplessly, mocked by the dead recorded laughter while the deadly situation is made artificially theatrical by thunder and lightning. Simply amazing.





Hooper certainly loves him some trap doors. Caroline Williams' death-drop into Texas Battleland is one of my favorite little moments from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 and descents into subterranean lairs of evil have been a recurring theme throughout his entire filmography: Eaten AliveSalem's Lot, Invaders From Mars and The Mangler all feature similar climaxes in sub-basement levels. In time, Amy will also stumble her way into the deepest part of the funhouse.

If you stop to think about it, it's absurd that The Barker would be able to control the funhouse in such a way as to trick the teens so expertly - knowing that Buzz would mistakenly attack Richie, and that one of the girls would follow the body directly over the trap door - but just as in the case of Richie's hanging, we don't see The Barker manipulating the controls behind the scenes because if we did, it'd look silly for the timing to be so perfect. As far as the kids and we-the-audience are concerned, The Barker and Tobe Hooper are the same unseen master manipulator of the funhouse / The Funhouse.


BUZZ: "Liz!!"

AMY: "Open - open it!!"

AMY: "LIZ!! Can you hear me?!"

MR. HARPER: "I'm sorry we caused you all this trouble."

CARNIVAL MANAGER: "No trouble. I was young once myself!"

Trivia time: the actor who plays the Carnival Manager, Herb Robbins, had many bit parts in 70s cop shows and b-movies made by schlockmeisters like Ted V. Mikels and Ray Dennis Steckler. More importantly to The Funhouse, his real name is Rabinowitz and his brother is Morton Rabinowitz - the film's production designer. Family ties run all throughout The Funhouse.

"What's the matter, Joey?"

AMY: [FLASHBACK] "I'm going to get even with you. I'm going to get you so bad - "

AMY: " - You're NEVER gonna forget it!!"

MR. HARPER: "What's the matter, son?"

Hooper's use of voiceover for flashback purposes is as much a rarity as his use of slow motion in the previous chapter. Here it serves an artistic purpose rather than a technical one, but it's an anomaly insofar as Hooper's usual preference for the creation of mood and atmosphere to emphasize ironies in his stories, rather than intellectual filmmaking tricks like optical effects or soundtrack cues.


Joey's haunted stare at the funhouse is the last word on his adventure, his silence being one part surrender as the loser in this game of chicken between him and his sister - not ratting on your older sibling to dad - and one part withdrawal into the stunned silence of shattered innocence, hence the quotation of Amy from the beginning of the film. Unlikely as it seems, he can only presume that Amy and her friends found an albino monster mask and were waiting until he wandered just close enough to pull back the curtains and scare the crap out of him, just like he did to Amy in the shower. In light of everything he's endured prior to that, his addled brain has probably conflated the whole hellish evening together to the point that Amy seems responsible for every jumping dog, psychotic truck driver and creepy Carnival Manager - that this awful night has been the sum comeuppance for his childish pranks. Which it has. He's been well and truly gotten so bad he'll never forget it - never - and Amy's revenge remains unbeknownst to her.

BUZZ: "LIZ!!!"

BUZZ: "LIZ!!!...LIZ!!!"

BUZZ: "LIZ!!!"

BUZZ: "LIZ!!!"




Incredibly, this scene wasn't even in the original script according to Hooper, and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo groused about having to figure it out on the spot - this is the kind of inspiration that denotes genius. It is in some ways the most quietly chilling moment of the entire film: an emotionally devastating, logistically plausible, and contextually perfect denouement to Joey and Amy's parallel journeys in and around the carnival of terror. Alcoholic parents look out for their children on both sides of the divide between fantasy and reality, but if you play too dangerously, you can't go home again.

MR. HARPER: "What's the matter, son?"

MRS. HARPER: "Guess the cat's got his tongue."

MRS. HARPER: "Well I know one little boy who won't run away again."

MRS. HARPER: "Come on, let's go."


Kindertrauma had a lovely literary comparison for this scene in their brief, but spot-on review: Amy is like Alice in the looking-glass here, screaming to her parents to no avail.



"...The film's pivotal midpoint occurs with the sequence in which Amy's parents arrive at the carnival grounds to reclaim the runaway little brother, Joey. In a surprisingly touching moment, the carnival manager (played by Z-movie regular and director of the apparent cult abomination The Worm Eaters, Herb Robins) tenderly regards the boy with a mixture of understanding, nostalgia, and fatherliness in a strikingly hushed shot-reverse shot - a tenderness in sharp, ironic juxtaposition to the detachment of the parents: Joey's mother's face registers only impatience and annoyance, while his father's only concern seems his being in this rathole in the first place, as he eyes the strange carny and his trailer home with barely concealed distaste and the squeamishness of class superiority. The scene then immediately continues on with a powerfully stark situational manifestation of the great divide that often lies - or is slowly, imperceptibly created - between parents and children, as we see Amy amazingly catch onto the presence of her parents through a spinning funhouse fan. Maybe a mere fifty yards away, she is yet inexorably out of range for her parents to hear her desperate screams for help. The futile sight of the parents in the distance behind the spinning blades is a powerful image, and the scene also plays out in an eloquent shot-reverse shot that beautifully communicates the emotional scenario at play."