Sunday, May 5, 2013

Amy vs. The Monster




The Funhouse's climax grinds the terror to a halt in order to become an inhuman, clockwork mechanism itself, all starting with the desolate clatter of Amy's heels being lost to gravity (a constitutive divestment given sobering emphasis by the film, a moment of muted transformation - of both film and heroine - and a sick, hardhearted dolefulness that never fails to hit me like a cold splash of water, in response to how quickly on a dime the film reveals its severe utmost machinations.


Grinding everything to a halt, including all affect and cinematic pretense, this sequence of Amy's immediate entrance into the machinery room is methodical - devoted to transmuting the threat from the realm of slobbering Monster to the realm of Ideas; the intelligible, highest truths.  It goes about this not only by suddenly draining out all "activeness" and spontaneity from cinema (in frankness, it's not like The Funhouse hasn't already been constantly using slowness as a trope, during everything from the dog scare to Liz waking up in the vent), but in so suddenly deeming the terror inanimate, and particularly at an apogee of inanimateness.


Not even in the realm of the humanoid stand-ins that are the funhouse puppets, the terror now quite literally becomes simply a hanging grate (spinning in a mindless to-and-fro motion that is the definition of the uncanny and the indifferent), or jets of steam that shoot haphazardly.


The basement of the funhouse in The Funhouse is one of Hooper's great "terrible places" (per Carol J. Clover) which typically happens to be subterranean, as in 'Salem's Lot or Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 or Invaders From Mars. Befitting the visuals, the events grind to a halt. This handbrake to the film's pacing is complimented by the incessant push and pull of gears surrounding Amy on every plane of sight, and John Beal's soundtrack also abruptly drops out, replaced on the soundtrack by the monotonous rattling of chains and turning gears for several minutes. Stripped of its hide, the belly of the beast is a stark contrast to the peacock plumage upstairs, all rusted metal and steel. Only the impersonal brutality remains. For a horror film about imprisonment in a phony horror world, this is a more understated "Man behind the curtain." I've always thought of it as representing the hidden, ugly soul of the funhouse's newly dead owner The Barker - still chugging along "alive" without him.

The wide shot establishes itself as responsible for finding perfect pictorial moments of Amy placed in the environment, either flattened by foreground elements or herself in the foreground engulfed by this most disconsolate place imaginable.

A small emotional hobgoblin has burrowed up as Amy tries unsuccessfully to find her way out: if she's out of the funhouse, shouldn't she be out of danger? Yet this is the end of the line, the real end of the line for Amy from which Buzz only won her a temporary reprieve in the previous sequence.


And as she flees our intractable camera-gaze - but what is really our companionship - towards possible escapes, Hooper cuts to tight shots of Amy in that separated space.  She is caught in an inescapable pattern, brought to bear when the shot cycle starts anew.

The POV shots are dynamic spatial emphases on the cold implacability of the room's mechanisms, from any angle.

Of particular interest here to horror fans should be Hooper's excellent rendering of industrial space as an implacable nightmare. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre this feeling is implicitly suggested by the exposition of Leatherface's family being slaughterhouse workers - actually telegraphed first when Franklin describes the factory floor environ and the "big air guns," horrifying the organic tastes of his hippie travel companions. To reactions to disgust at the meat-worker's delicacy of headcheese, he simply remarks "Oh, you'd probably like it if you didn't know what was in it." So too the funhouse: you might like the idea of working at one if you weren't thinking about the limb ripping machinery under the floorboards requiring constant maintenance. Hooper wouldn't make death by industrialism the explicit subject of a horror film until 1995's The Mangler but in Chainsaw and Funhouse the fascination is clearly there.

An especially sinister detail of this discomforting environ, borderline surreal, is the series of dangling hooks on chains, moving through the room like grinding teeth. Hellraiser would more famously exploit the chain-link torture chamber aesthetic about five years later.

The second cycle that occurs has Amy awkwardly making her way underneath a system of belts, rump in the air.



I've been using words that suggest a conflicting experience: both words that intone cruelness on the film's part - "hardhearted," "machinations," "inhuman" - as well as words that suggest a high capacity for empathy - the camera as "company" to Amy.  This is intended, as this section's grip on its intentions is as implacable and cold as its setting.  But when I mentioned the film's awareness of the "transformations," this included Amy, whose transformation is one made through tough love: only by being thrown into the chaos can Amy be the principal subject of the film's centerpiece editorial - an exposé.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, John Beal's music creeps back under Amy's actions and builds up a chained melody to crescendo on an image of gears which evokes nothing less than youth staring down the business end of a meat grinder (the Texas Chainsaw connection again) or the business of show business.

The scene is cruel but simultaneously exhibits a great generosity: a reprieve to both Amy and the Monster, as it transplants the fear from the Monster to the inanimate fears (also known as "vast" fears), which is both fear of the unknown and very existent fears, of conditions, social and otherwise; and to Amy, the scene revolves around her realization of the space, and builds up to no greater a point of understanding than can be provided for her, this being the concluding shot of this internal mini-sequence: Amy staring down into the gears turning before her later in the scene.

Essentially the pinnacle of the film for me: Amy stares downward into the teeth of the turning gears and the camera sets into a slow crawl that pushes towards her.




One of Hooper's pet themes is the idea of the threat off screen, not necessarily there, and fear as an entity in and of itself more present than the actual monster that exists.  No one films a person creeping around in psychological terror like Hooper - just think Susan in the Marsten House, Stretch in the hallways of K-OKLA, or Colonel Carlsen in the dead of night, wherein the camera jump to positions - uninhabited - moments before these characters jerk their heads in that direction with an imagined fear.

JR's comparison of this room and mood to the Marsten House from 'Salem's Lot is apt: Hooper used the same production designer on both films, Morton Rabinowitz. In both cases he excels at constructing claustrophic, lived-in tombs of stone gray dread.




The film allows The Monster a kind of totemic beat of glory here, rising up into frame as he does while Amy stands stupefied with mouth agape. This and the flickering light through the fan during Liz's death suggest to me that Hooper is riffing again on the energy of Alien, because this brief face-to-face is most immediately comparable to Harry Dean Stanton's frozen awe when the alien rises before him. Even the chains are an identical visual cue in both scenes.


The evocation of petrification isn't entirely successful, however. Both times I've seen the film with a crowd there's been some awkward laughter because The Monster just stands there yowling, seemingly wanting Amy to make the first move. This isn't too crazy an interpretation; if we know anything about The Monster it's his fear/anger around women. Given the chance to pounce on her in the last scene, his intention seemed more just to frighten her, and then there's his lack of malice towards Liz. right now, Amy isn't just the only woman in his life, she's the only other person still alive in the funhouse. The feeling within his extended cry is less likely rage than feelings of exasperation and despair similar to Amy's: "Why did you have to be here tonight?" The Monster is murderous but thrust circumstantially into this role of ultimate killer, the whole point of his character is that he needed a little love in a sleazy world. A pertinent piece of information revealed on the Scream! Factory Blu-Ray / DVD release commentary track with Hooper was that The Monster is meant to be around 18, a teenager like Amy, which supports the romantic read of this scene for romantic variation on a Final Girl's confrontation. The Barker was scarier when fighting Buzz. Amy's brief skirmish is more balletic and in a grim way, comical.


Amazingly, The Funhouse reverts to indisputable slasher formula the moment that crowbar falls to Amy's hands. Hooper's drive-in damsel in distress Marilyn Burns never wielded any phallic symbols against Leatherface or Neville Brand.


What distinguishes Amy from typical Final Girls continues to be her reservedness. She's the film's seer-figure yet never an independent force: as soon as Buzz died and she was the last teen standing, her flee through the funhouse was a waking nightmare fugue. Her escape attempt through the basement has been a slow failure. Yet when she picks up this weapon, Hooper emphasizes her hesitancy to strike and the couple's dance goes on.

The Monster hasn't made a single move against her - a false scare, some hovering over her, and now even with Amy armed, his movements remain less predatory than even sympathetic old Frankenstein. He seems afraid of and vulnerable to the threat of being hit by a crowbar, despite an inhuman appearance that would is associated with beastly strength.




The Funhouse winks at us twice, once at the beginning of the film and again, here, at its climax. Joey's dummy more literally blinks its eye into the camera just before a Psycho homage inside a Halloween one, while the dropping skeleton is more a rhetorical revealing of thematic intentions about the line where pretend and real horror meet. The tonal non sequitur is still musically in sequence with the pacing of the scene, despite the interruption. It also goes by so quickly that you almost don't have time to think, "Why is that one skeleton, the same one that tricked the kids earlier, the one contraption in the funhouse upstairs that descends downstairs where she is?" Little touches of whimsy in the heat of danger is something Tobe Hooper does throughout his filmography but for sheer directness to the audience's accumulated mood, the only comparable shots like it are of Caroline Williams spotting a brightly lit EXIT sign over an exit from the Sawyer family's underground lair in Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, calling back a throwaway detail from almost half the film earlier. Both nod to the viewer at the time of the heroine's most extreme peril.


As Amy lashes out and lands a couple hits on the The Monster, his shrieking in pain is further emphasis on the antagonist's capacity for pain, without Hooper ever compromising the fearfulness of the situation. Swaying through this dirty metal setting under shadows, flanked by hooks on chains, The Monster leaves his impression as a memorable movie monster.


The Monster's first move against her is an act of self-defense which results in an an electrocution that practically looks to The Three Stooges as a touchstone. Like the dropping skeleton, the integrity of the scene's seriousness is protected by irony: "an echo of his killing of Madame Zena" (Bruce F. Kawin, The Funhouse and The Howling, Film Quarterly 1981)

From this blunder begins the chain of events leading The Monster to his death, a slow and protracted one to which Amy reacts with mouth agape, before screaming. Her act of aggression was a reactionary, temporary flinch. No arc of feminine empowerment through violent retribution or ingenuity. Fate's good and bad fortunes play Amy's drama to its conclusion.

In a subtle, creepy reference to The Monster's home, he's been reduced to a marionette on chains and his herky-jerky post-electrocution movements resemble nothing so strongly as the puppets upstairs.


Right about now, the audience is screaming for Amy to move - The Monster can't really be dead yet, get the hell away from there, stop standing in one place waiting to be attacked - but rather than a lot of dim-witted horror film girls, Amy's paralysis in the face of danger is part of her character so it doesn't feel like an insult to our intelligence.

The seconds before The Monster stirs again, in fact, are ones of horrified pity and fascination from Amy, from which our seer-figure we're invited to share.


The re-introduction of the gears to Amy's duel puts a definite final destination on The Monster's trajectory, and being carried to a grinder on hooks certainly belongs to that sphere of industrialized slaughterhouse phantoms from Texas Chainsaw that The Funhouse hints towards by ending in the factory-works behind the carnival.

The gear-machinery is also yet another (probably inadvertent) Frankenstein homage to the moment when Colin Clive and his Monster circle each other around the turning gears of a windmill at the climax of Frankenstein (1931).

"...(The Monster) revives and almost succeeds in pulling her toward him. This further echoes the recent death of his father and the business with the sword, for both of them try to destroy their destroyers on emblems of their own perverse power. But she gets away, and the monster is ground in half by the wheels of the mechanism, in one of the greatest and most vivid images in the recent history of the movies. The point is that the heroine, being "normal," cannot finally destroy this monster; he can only be destroyed by his own kind, by his own metaphysical category (as there are only supernatural ways of killing vampires and werewolves), by his own level of imagery.

What destroys him is the funhouse from which he is inseparable and which is an emblem of the horror film in general. Thus this image celerates the self-enclosed qualities of the genre, the ways it is a law unto itself (again, like myth), which are the keys to the ways it impinges on reality."

- (Bruce F. Kawin, The Funhouse and The Howling, Film Quarterly 1981)

"And the poor monster boy is stabbed, beat with a crowbar, electrocuted, hung on a meathook, and squashed between giant gears. That's gotta hurt. He didn't really get to have his Elephant Man moment, did he? Where you feel sorry for him. I mean, you kinda feel sorry for him when his dad tells him never to call him 'father' and all that, but then he just becomes Jason Vorhees for the rest of the flick. But that's the difference between Tobe Hooper and David Lynch. Tobe Hooper doesn't do the touching moment, because . . . well . . . because he's a snaggle-tooth white-haired screechy ugly Drool Monster who DESERVES to be cut in half at the waist."

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


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