Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Funhouse - God is watching you!

Each year I find myself falling more and more for that little freaky movie by Tobe Hooper; The Funhouse. Wrapped in duality and subtext I always find myself coming back for more abuse from this misunderstood miscreant of a movie and seeing more with each viewing. God is watching indeed. My latest viewing was spurred on by the purchase of the Trick r’ Treat Studios release of an officially sponsored Gunter mask. I couldn’t pass it up and it gave me a good excuse to let this film roll once again.

Duality and sneaky slasher commentary are snuck into the proceedings; we have the children world of fantasy colliding with the grime of the adult funhouse world, we have the parallels between the dysfunctional suburban family and the carnival crew, the stark reality of the outside world coalescing slowly into the madness of the world in the funhouse, and of course the duality between the movie monster and the final girl, the dual journey her brother and her take into the world of the carnival, and the idea of the audience as “God” callously reaping judgment on the players in the movie. There is also a lot of duality to be found in the dummy animatronics found in the funhouse itself; who do they represent and what do they mean? Sometimes they seem to come to life on their own until its apparent at the end that it’s not clear who is controlling the funhouse. Sometimes the dolls represent the players, sometimes the audience. I bet you didn’t think there was that much going on in this simple monster movie tale with slasher leanings, but I assure you midnight reader, there certainly is if you’re patient enough to weed through them through multiple viewings of the film.

This is kind of a coming of age movie. We follow two separate narratives of children leaving their suburban homes to experience the adult world of the carnival, a journey that gets darker and stranger as more elements of the adult world are introduced to them. Little Joey encounters a drunken man with a shotgun and a pedophile, leaving him shocked and stone walled by the time he checks out of the film. His sister’s torment is more prolonged, but it follows the same kind of beat through the adult carnie world; from the naked girl tent “they wiggle and they dance” to the allure of the funhouse. To divest a little I always thought that line “they wiggle and they dance” had some dual meaning as well, meaning the victims of the tale, the ill fated teens, will wiggle and dance for the audience as they are tormented in the funhouse, but isn’t that what we are paying to see? This line ties into the whole “God is watching you” rant from the hobo lady in the woman’s bathroom. The bathroom has historically been a place in cinema that directors would take their players to leave them exposed. I mean, where else are you more exposed and vulnerable than the bathroom? It is also a place of self evaluation. In this instance Tobe Hooper is drawing attention to the teen girls and the fact that the audience is judging them heavy application of the old slasher tropes, especially the one that says that if you lose your innocence you are the proverbial meat for the slasher grinder. As they discuss spending the night in the fun house Hooper is saying “look audience, here is the part where you are thinking these girls are going to die because they broke a horror movie golden rule”. The “watching God” is us.
The audience is also represented through the dolls that populate the fun house. When the first on screen murder is being committed the animatronics come alive, laughing and gyrating with glee, much like the audience would be laughing out of horror or disgust and smiling at receiving what they paid to watch; onscreen murder. If we are the “watching God” then Tobe is painting us in a rather dark light. He’s inferring God to be callous and uncaring, only entertained by blood lust and violence, like a child boiling ants with a magnifying glass in the sun. The God in this movie also creates monsters. As the protagonist teens pass the freak show barker he continuously emphasizes the fact that all these mongoloid creatures in the tent were created by God, “not man”.
Gunter is a creature of God, and takes his own journey to adulthood in this film. Even the monster needs some loving, and through the Madame Zena hand job scene we get the distinct impression that he hasn’t spent a lot of time with the ladies. He seems shy and uncertain around the older and sexually experience fortune teller become prostitute, kind of like any typical virginal teenage boy might act in the situation. In this way he carries a child-like innocence about him, kind of like Amy. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Gunter gets his first hand job immediately after Amy loses her virginity to Buzz. Both were meant to represent the fear and anxiety of exploring sexuality as a teen.
Sex is weird. I think that a common theme found throughout the film is the awkwardness of attraction and sex. Amy acts very awkward around Buzz at first; then when she goes to pet the two headed cow later in the freak tent we get another taste of this kind of awkward, almost shy attraction. Many moments in the film make me believe that Amy is kind of attracted to danger and strange things. She seems mesmerized by “Tad” in the freak tent and has a moment with the funhouse barker where she seems extremely focused on his speech about the darkness and challenge of the funhouse. And there are all the parallels floating around about Amy being Gunter’s girlfriend with the Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein references that I can’t help but think Amy has a taste for the weirder things in life. Maybe she hasn’t embraced this love of the strange but it certainly is there. Her friend throws a few lines out there about her not really appreciating Buzz and at first I read that situation like Amy was just shy around him, but now I think it’s something more. I think deep down Amy sympathizes with Gunter, the two headed freak, more than Buzz, because she feels like her attraction to strange things is weird and freakish all in itself and that gives the two some common ground. Maybe her budding sexuality makes her feel like a freak, but in any case she seems to really go for Buzz only to fit a social expectation. I think her attraction to the strange and unusual scares her and makes her a bit awkward. It makes Gunter kind of like her forbidden soul mate. It’s someone she would never get with physically but finds a deep almost spiritual connection with.
There’s a scene in the film where Joey is weaving in and out of tents after the carnival has closed and the carnie workers are wrapping up the tents and making ready for the next day’s activities. One worker is telling a story to a group of friends about some guy mistaking a calf for his date. This seems to speak to the ongoing subtext of forbidden love, or love that should not be, like the connection between Amy and Gunter, or Amy and the two headed cow she goes to pet before retracting her hand in horror. It seems cruel and unusual for a God’s creations to act in such a matter, but the God in this movie is a cruel one who seems only interested in personal amusement. God is the fat lady at the entrance of the funhouse (who also represents the director of the movie), laughing like a maniac at the misfortunes of others.
I think the lack of music and the abundance of gears and chains during the final confrontation between Amy and Gunter is supposed to represent the mechanical workings of the story playing out to the only possible conclusion. It’s Hooper pointing to another trope of the slasher genre; the final fight between the virginal nubile young woman and the masculine monster threatening to snuff her out. Like the funhouse ride itself this ending is somewhat inevitable and expected; the light at the end of the tunnel that holds the promise of safety from the drowning darkness. Gunter dies in the very gears of the funhouse, like the story is grinding him away into two separate halves, which again plays into the idea of duality in the movie, except this is a rather physical representation of the theme it still fits with what came before. Poor Gunter; for the story to be complete the monster must be vanquished, although its questionable whether Gunter was really the monster or a victim of years of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of his father. I feel like the answer lies in a shade of gray between the two. Even when he’s tasked to kill the funhouse invaders he’s anything but anxious to carry out his father’s orders. It’s not until after he’s stabbed in the back that he goes into a frenzy that is exasperated by finding his impaled father’s body. If he had gotten some loving right from the start there might not be much of a horror movie to talk about.