Sunday, March 3, 2013

Beauty and the Beast

From Amy's unanswered cries we cut to a similar situation: Liz at at the end of a dark corridor, the veins of the "alive" funhouse, also up against a fan.

This fan isn't quite as large and deadly looking as the one blocking Amy's parents from hearing her cries but we get the idea. The corridor is a perfectly ugly vision of industrial negative space: just small enough to be cramped and with pipes on the floor preventing sure footing. The monochromatic blue hues and black shadows sink are coolly bleak, especially compared to the color wheel of the funhouse showrooms. There's a casual shift from one nightmarish moment to another one unfolding, going between the two girls. Both have nightmarish lighting schemes, from the cacophonous thunder Amy is surrounded to the strobe effect on Liz under a different fan. Similar effects were seen in Alien inside those spaceship walls. Ridley Scott was actually advised by Dan O'Bannon to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre for inspiration before making Alien, there's a give-and-take between the two filmmakers at this point in their careers as makers of scary movies.

As the last scene showed Amy at the end of a hallway crying for help but no one hearing (a common nightmare) we are now placed more "inside" with Liz than we were when seeing Joey and parents outside the funhouse while Amy was seen trapped. It's as if we've answered her cries and have entered to help her, except it's the wrong girl. The situation is almost the same: claustrophobic and isolated predicament and in taking us from a bad to worse place, Hooper is subtly placing we viewers in closer proximity to Liz than Amy for what quickly feels like the end of the line for Liz, one way or another. Of all the deaths in the film, Liz's is by far the most operatic and protracted - we see every little step build, her fear slowly building into hysteria.

When Liz does rouse, the first person angle we're taking towards her registers as menacing - is this the POV killer's perspective we're seeing? Even if it isn't, we can surmise that as the victim of the trap door trick, the offscreen Barker and Monster son have her where they want her and confrontation is certain now that she's been separated from the group. An extremely ominous mood is evoked right from the first second of this shot with only a few telling ingredients.

Hinting towards the sexual menace the Monster has been seen to possess, Largo Woodroff's shirt is torn open exposing her chest ever so slightly.

Hooper is still teasing the possibility that his slow tracking in could be near the monster, if not the monster itself, for as long as possibly by this point: Liz hasn't completely looked in our direction.

The paper in the face is the punchline to Hooper's voyeuristic inching towards the soon-to-be victim and cut from the same cloth as the film's other "fake scares" - the jumping dog which frightens Joey or the skeleton which distracted Richie to his death. It's the slasher film trope of tossing something at someone seconds before the "real" scare. This is sort of the most graceful and beautiful version of that: happening in silence except for the rustle of paper and hum of the fan, no shrieking violins or synthesizer key hits.

The paper is also meant to tell us that leaving in the fan's direction is no option when hitting the blades, but as Hooper mentions on the commentary track for the Shout! Factory release, it was meant to disintegrate more quickly upon impact than the final take they could get for the film. Again, we get the idea.


John Beal's slowest strings stir to life and the terror begins. This moment is, I think, the all-around scariest in the whole film. The setup is in fidelity to the understated nature of the story and rich with dread of the unknown and unreasonable. Even at the beginning, when we hear the sounds of movement coming from down the hall along with Liz, the lack of immediate danger is what's so terrible. At this moment, we know that the Monster is coming, and nothing is so terrible as waiting for it to come closer.   

Wayne Doba, the mime in the Monster makeup, steps out around this corridor in one quick step - then, pauses. I love Doba's performance for the animalistic impulsivity of the movements, even in moments of hesitation like this one. There's an incredible tenderness to the horror of being approached by the object of your fear when the object is curious about you, rather than psychotically angry at you. This typically gets played out in Frankenstein movies. There are very few pitiful giants in the annals of teen slasher films and in this scene Doba really gets the most time to shine. Until the last few moments of the scene, Hooper chooses to keep his face in the shadows, making this an almost purely bodily performance of a "monster."


LIZ: "What do you want?!"

Doba's Monster clings to the walls here, as he did when being yelled at and subsequently sweet talked by his father. It's an effective signal to his sad, handicapped awkwardness, even as a killer. The similarly deformed yet more viciously villainous Leatherface had moments of cowardice in the face of his family members, yet he never faltered before female outsiders, excepting one tender touch upon Sally at the dinner table when wearing his "Old Woman" mask.

LIZ: "Please don't hurt me!"

LIZ: "Please."

LIZ: "I swear I'd never tell anyone if you'd just let me go, please!!"

The Monster glaces behind himself when Liz attempts to reason him out of killing her, reminding us that he possesses enough wherewithal to take orders from his father despite being a slobbering apparition. If the object of fear is afraid of something else, it can be manipulated, and thus Liz knows to press onward in the unlikely attempt of reaching this killer's sympathetic side.

LIZ: "Oh PLEASE let me go!"

The Monster lurches closer still, his body language now emulating Boris Karloff as he knelt down to approach the little girl by the lake in the original Frankenstein as Andrew Laszlo keeps his face in the shadows. We also begin to hear The Monster grunt and moan with interest, and an impossible need to communicate with his victim.

LIZ: "Please let me go."

LIZ: "Listen."

"I know you like girls."

Tobe Hooper fans, or merely fans of the Texas Chainsaw franchise should recognize this scene immediately. Five years after The Funhouse when Hooper returned to make Chainsaw Part 2 the horror genre landscape had gone through even more popular saturation than it had accrued in 1981 and in response, the Chainsaw sequel was an excessive comic response to the times and to the critics of the original (see also: Gremlins 2: The New Batch.) One of the subversive elements was allowing the star psycho, Leatherface, to fall in love with the "final girl." While Amy was always obviously always going to be the final girl and the comparatively promiscuous Liz would be made to suffer for her sexual vanity, this set-piece between her and The Monster is a terse little companion to Caroline Williams' hysterical sexual psych-out with Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2.

"I could be nice to you!"

Liz is choosing what seems like the only way out of death by essentially prostituting herself, something attempted by Marilyn Burns at the dinner table of the original Chainsaw. Of course, part of that scene's terror was her cannibal captor's laughing disinterest in her as anything but meat and Caroline Williams had to rather cajole Leatherface into admitting the sexual nature of his power tool phallus attack. The Monster is defined by his thwarted desire for sexual maturity and Liz knows this.

The knife in hand makes her come-on as much an act of aggression as a psychological ruse. For the sake of opposite illustration, when Dean Koontz's novel of The Funhouse reaches this moment, Liz is unarmed. When the monster grunts a few words at her about "want pretty" (in addition to being audible, the novel's version of the The Monster is crudely evil) she rationalizes under duress:

My God, Liz thought, almost giddy now. Is this what it comes down to? Sex? Is that the way out for me? Why not? Hell, yes! That's what it's always come down to before. That's always been my way out.

As with everyone else, the Liz of Koontz's Funhouse novel is a lot less well rounded despite the literary advantage of character description and a lot more an emblem of her symbolic faults: she's a slut. In the film, not so much - no girl who dates a guy like Richie is getting around. The real irony in Liz's death scene is the social power she held being turned against her, as Richie's trickery was for him. To us and Amy, Liz has simply been the proud sexual creature, the former virgin, and now that bragging right has become her sole bargaining chip.

"I - I - I - "

"You wouldn't have to pay me anything."

"I can make you feel good."

When Caroline Williams attempts to entice Leatherface with her bare legs, the vernacular is more frenzied than Liz's passivity: How good are you? You're not mad at me, are you? Taking Dennis Hopper's advice, her character "Stretch" is attempting to show the killer family no fear and by comparison, Liz's panic accentuates the pathetic dynamic between her and her would-be attacker. She's scared of what's happening while pretending to be even more scared and vulnerable to draw The Monster into letting his guard down.

"I can make you feel good."


Liz chokes back screams here, in a really tremendous moment of scared acting by Largo Woodroff. The Monster's taloned paw dwarfing her small face, gently caressing the tear-stained mask of utter fear is more classical monster behavior and presages another major scene in Hooper's Chainsaw 2 when his heroine is molested by Leatherface's wide-palmed meathooks.

There's two incredibly perverse visual cues happening by this point in the scene, one of which may have even been accidental. First and obviously deliberate, the Monster has a big ol' drippy line of drool and/or snot swinging in the breeze of the fan. This is disgusting, funny and horrible all at once - and these elements are all amplified upon noticing the phallic pipe protruding towards Liz near The Monster's waist level.

LIZ: "No one will ever know."


LIZ: "Oh please! Don't hurt me!"

"Please don't hurt me."



"Please don't hurt me..."


John Beal's music crescendos here into the strains of his chaos motif, oddly aligning sympathies with The Monster on the receiving end of pain. 


The Monster's face is revealed again in this moment of anguish, inviting identification from the audience.

Even the climax of this gran guignol playlet eschews an easy resolution. Wallowing in Liz's shoes as a physically repulsive abomination touches you with sexual interest is queasy to begin with. Still more unpleasant is being locked in an embrace with the freak you just attempted, unsuccessfully to mortally wound as you hear the sounds of his albino heart breaking. A part of a certain kind of viewer's brain worriedly postulates: could Liz have gotten out of this if she'd just done as she was promising, and let the poor clefthead get his rocks off.


The ensuing struggle, excluding the participant's faces but asserting the Monster's dominance from a higher angle, telegraphs Liz's doom from a comfortable distance.

You really don't want to be where she is right now. Especially in Dean Koontz's novel:

A minute later, as Liz felt the creature spreading her legs and entering her, she also felt its claws piercing her sides. As a cold, maroon darkness swept over her, she knew that sex was indeed the answer, as always; but this time it was the final answer.

The music fades out quickly just as the shot ends, in time for -


The silent "normalcy" of the Funhouse and its artifice to be reintroduced. As Liz is being figuratively devoured by the emissary of the funhouse, so too do Amy and Buzz figuratively descend into its mouth.

The score kicks back in seconds later, however, to certify Liz's fate with The Monster using his claws as a weapon.

Hooper even throws in a closeup in which Doba was obviously told to twist his wrist just a little bit and make sure the bloody talons read on camera. It feels like a halfhearted concession to what the lower brow genre audiences would want at the end of a scene like this, since he keeps the camera on the weapon rather than the victim.


Finally, with Liz's death a sure conclusion, we are given a coda restating the fundamentally helpless nature of the killer as he contorts himself trying to remove the dagger from his back and we get a few more glimpses at the freak show.



  1. "A minute later, as Liz felt the creature spreading her legs and entering her, she also felt its claws piercing her sides. As a cold, maroon darkness swept over her, she knew that sex was indeed the answer, as always; but this time it was the final answer."

    Ohh no, no no no no no. I'm not one to devalue something out of its deserved context, but that had to be said.

    "As with everyone else, the Liz of Koontz's Funhouse novel is a lot less well rounded despite the literary advantage of character description and a lot more an emblem of her symbolic faults: she's a slut. In the film, not so much - no girl who dates a guy like Richie is getting around. The real irony in Liz's death scene is the social power she held being turned against her, as Richie's trickery was for him."

    I never thought about it too much, but I quite like what having a boyfriend like Richie does to her role as "the slutty one." In that she isn't quite that. She and Richie, though, as you suggest, are two sides of the same venal coin, that actually has nothing to do with sexuality. (To any casual readers thinking to themselves I wrote an intellectually veiled "She deserves it" screed, not at all, I don't mean to take away anything from the terrible sexual straits seen in the scene.)

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  3. the beauty and the beats? the dumb blonde and the beast!