Friday, March 14, 2008

The Funhouse Is Alive At The New Beverly!

"Who will dare enter....? Who is BRAVE enough...?"

I had The Funhouse dream this week for the first time in years. The New Beverly screens it Saturday, March 29 at midnight. The Funhouse is Tobe Hooper's great underappreciated masterwork second only to Texas Chainsaw. Oh, and of course Texas Chainsaw 2 is a delight for it's own reasons but not actually scary. And I haven't seen his TV film Salem's Lot yet.

The dream: I'm walking down tight dark corridors. There's a monster coming to kill me. Somewhere. I am in a carnival funhouse and I cannot get out. This is the movie.

The story has obvious parallels to Tobe's breakout Chainsaw. In both films, a group of teenagers goes looking for fun and becoming trapped in the home of a family of psychotics. Only a lone heroine will survive.

The Funhouse is nothing if not deliberately unglamorous. The teenagers are just as believably unremarkable as those in Chainsaw. The "monster," (the less you know, the scarier the revelation) is - dare I say it - a physical performance well on scale with Gunnar Hanson's Leatherface, by way of mime Wayne Doba. His head is caked in Rick Baker makeup.

Key to enjoying is understanding that like Chainsaw, it's mostly about the buildup; the looming sense of doom as time passes. Hooper has an odd knack for it. The dingy, sweat-caked carnival and funhouse puppets and working parts are cheap junk, and possess the eerie quality only such misshapen objects do. The music is epic calliope merry-go-round operatic nightmare.

What makes The Funhouse work on an emotional pull, like Chainsaw is the idea of going for fun and winding up dead. If Hooper's Texas farmhouse was an evocation of the horror of family and rural living, this one is an evocation of those sleazy carnivals where kids disappear or get mangled on the rides. It's also a subtle mediation on the thrill of being scared itself, years before Scream. Come to the horror show expecting safe scares, stumble into the real monsters just below that surface. Something in the fantasy is alive.

This was Tobe Hooper's next-biggest budget to Poltergeist (his only big studio movies) and suffice to say he makes diabolically clever use of a Universal's Frankenstein mask. We also open with a simultaneous homage to Psycho and Halloween. A diss on the slasher movies Hooper's own Chainsaw helped lead to, though "slasher" is a far less accurate description of Funhouse than Chainsaw.

It's going to be great seeing this dimly lit, lights-a-flashin' corny carny nightmare fuel in the dark den of the theater...there's a deliberate parallel there. And in rare Hooper use of 2:35:1 widescreen...again, like Poltergeist. The movie is nearly unwatchable in cropped 4x3 format if only because it's one of the DARKEST movies ever once the kids are inside the funhouse. With illumination coming only from flashing lights and gaudy colors, this film was made for the theater.

The first time I encountered the movie I came into it on television, towards the end and barely had the nerve to flip back to it. I mistakenly thought the monsters were real because of scenes I'd seen out of order...spoiler alert, but you're better off knowing. Hooper's expertise is in human monsters. I never thought I'd see this in a theater. Nightmare time.

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