Posted by: Kristen Hicks | September 28, 2011

Tis The Season for Horror: The Funhouse

Fall always puts me in the mood for horror films. Growing up, there was always a steady stream of horror movies on cable throughout October and I grew to associate the joy of watching movies that aim to scare with the cooler weather of the season. Maybe part of my penchant for the horror genre is tied to its connection in my mind to my favorite season, when the world around me becomes cooler and crisper after the harsh Texas summer. In any case, once the latter half of September rolls around, I start shifting my movie viewing habits towards the dark and violent.

In addition to a coming series of podcasts devoted to the lower quality end of the horror movie spectrum over at Cinecide, I’ve started picking out horror movies available on Netflix instant watch and elsewhere to view over the next few weeks. One of the first I’ve viewed to christen the season is The Funhouse.

Two main things drew me to this movie:

1) It’s directed by Tobe Hooper, who helmed the first 2 (and best) entries of the incomparable Texas Chainsaw Massacre series
2) It’s available on Netflix Instant Watch

It’s amazing how much of an impact the latter item has come to have on movie and tv viewing habits.

The Funhouse starts off with a scene that brings to mind both the first scene in Halloween and the shower scene in Psycho. While the protagonist (Elizabeth Berridge) disrobes and takes a shower, we see a POV shot from someone moving through the house through the eyes of a mask. Eventually we see the mysterious antagonist making stab motions towards the girl in the shower and learn that the knife he carries is a fake, and behind the mask is her little brother. Thus a little dose of sibling rivalry undercuts the tension created by a scene combining two of the most memorable moments in horror film history.

The film fairly quickly moves to the carnival itself, which is full of setpieces designed to contribute to a creepy atmosphere such as a two headed cow, a fetus in a jar, a magician’s show complete with a(nother) stabbing fakeout and a surprising number of creepy looking dolls, statues and toys.

Our main characters are all pretty standard teen horror movie stereotypes: 1) The protagonist – a beautiful, sweet, naive and virginal (although prone to showing her breasts to the audience) character whose main function is to express hesitance at the others’ bad ideas and outlast them all; 2) Her date – strong, but not too smart and almost entirely defined by his interest in the protagonist; 3) The troublemaker – provider of the pot and primary encouragement towards the typical teenage temptations that lead the group into trouble; and 4) The protagonist’s friend/troublemaker’s girlfriend – a character who exists almost entirely to encourage her more innocent and hesitant friend towards “bad” behavior and, of course, die early. There’s also the protagonist’s younger brother who wanders along the sidelines of the movie in a way that makes it seem he’ll show up and play a role in some pivotal scene, but instead he’s returned to his parents sleeping without encountering any real trouble.

After wandering through the carnival, smoking pot a couple of times and ogling the nearly naked carnival dancers clandestinely, the group decides on the brilliant plan of hiding in the carnival’s funhouse to stay the night there. While there, they witness the murder of the carnival’s fortune teller by an especially deformed carnie and find themselves locked in the funhouse with the murderer and his dad, who are intent on killing them to hide the woman’s murder.

The movie abounds with creepy images of toys and clownish figures placed and lit in a way to bring out their more disturbing aspects. The funhouse truly provides a perfect setting for surrounding the characters with constant shocks and horrors, even in between the deaths and encounters with the monster/carnie that pursues them.

Naturally, the troublemaker goes first. He’s pulled from the ground by a noose hooked around his neck from above and is quickly brought outside of the reach of the others. Later, the protagonist’s date lodges an ax into his head, taking his moving shadow for a threat. The other two are dispatched largely out of our view, their corpses displayed in suspenseful moments chosen for the greatest impact for terrorizing the protagonist. She makes her way through various horrific setpieces before watching the monster/carnie get slowly and dramatically squished between some cogs. His death apparently unlocks the exit that had formerly been impenetrable to her and her friends and the movie ends with her walking away while the carnival workers pack up to move to a new location, likely to avoid any blame or notice for the many deaths that occurred within their funhouse…and leaving open the possibility for similar events to occur again.

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