Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bruce F. Kawin on The Funhouse

The following is an photo-illustration of excerpts from Bruce F. Kawin's excellent essay The Funhouse and The Howling, first published in the Fall 1981 Film Quarterly and reprinted in the anthology American Horrors: Essays on the Modern Horror Film which is available on Amazon. These quotations are intended as film criticism/analysis under Fair Use and I would urge interested persons to purchase the book for the complete article.

The Funhouse may well contribute to (a) return to the better energies and impulses of the (horror) genre, though again it is entirely possible that audiences will watch it for its tentshow dancing girls and two murdered women (it is hardly a redeeming issue that there are also three murdered men). It may do so because of its reflexivity - its relentless emphasis on the victims' having chosen to go the equivalent of a horror film - and because of its ruthless caricatures of phallic aggression, which is absolutely never validated as it is in Halloween.

To take an explicit example: the father / barker who owns the funhouse (played by Kevin Conway, last seen in The Lathe of Heaven) is killed by being thrust onto a sword held by a mannequin; it protrudes through the front of his belly, and he grasps it like an erection.

In a slightly reversed echo of Malory's Morte d'Arthur (Mordred's killing his father by hauling himself along the spear that has impaled him), the barker tries to kill but only wounds the male good guy, Buzz, by forcing him belly first onto that sword, in a homoerotic patriarchal nightmare that could not possibly please the audience.

To take another example: the monster in this film (played very well by the mime Wayne Doba, with special makeup executed by Craig Reardon and designed by the ubiquitous Rick Baker) is an unlovable child on the model of the Frankenstein monster, and about halfway through the film he tries to buy the sexual favors of the palm reader, Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles).

He is presented as pathetic, and more than that he has a premature orgasm - which is, of course, a taboo in pornography and in similar fantasy structures: the knives in Halloween and Psycho may imply sexual dysfunction on the part of the killers, but as symbols they are always hard, and that is one reason such images may appeal to rapists, who are often impotent but who are in any case using sex only as an outlet for violent hatred.

When he goes on to kill Madame Zena, he indirectly shorts out the electrical system, and the funhouse (in which the four protagonists are hiding overnight, for fun) comes momentarily to life. The point is that the funhouse/horror film is here explicity tied to perversity and sexual frustration rather than to sexual fulfillment.

The other female killing makes a similar point in a more horrible way. It is a genre convention to pass moral judgment on the victims by killing them off in what are presented as appropriate ways. (The fellow who gets the idea of staying in the funhouse, for instance, besides being selfish, dope-oriented, and greedy, is killed just after recounting a story of how he once tried to scare his brother but was locked in a closet for his troubles; thus it seems appropriate that he should die trapped in the funhouse.)

The character Liz is presented as promiscuous, and so one might expect that her punishment will be connected with her sexuality. When she is trapped by the monster, she attempts to seduce him - but it is obvious that she is terrified, that she is simply doing the cleverest thing she can think of under the circumstances (she has witnessed the scene with Madame Zena and has to distract him long enough to stab him; she does, but the wound does not kill him.)

Instead of the conventional spectacle of a woman's being punished for sexual activity, there is the horrifying image of her being murdered by an unimaginably ugly and impotent rapist.

As in the best horror films, there is an unsettling mixture of identification with the victim and a reluctant compassion for the monster. There is nothing remotely titillating about these and similar scenes, yet they cannot be called disgusting; what they have instead is a horrible beauty that has always been one of the central attractions of the genre and the core of its claim to art.

Where this all comes together is in three remarkable reflexive sequences: the opening, the conclusion, and a scene in the middle, where the father confronts his monstrous son. "As God is my witness," he says, "I don't hate the sound of your voice." Until this point the monster has been wearing a Frankenstein mask, a downright brilliant gesture, not just because the Frankenstein monster is the correct prototype (the child rejected by his creator and looking for love) but because with the mask on he appears part of the normal world, the world that includes horror images as elements in its playground.

Now the father criticizes him so harshly that the son tears off his mask and confronts him with what he is. The horror, the audience discovers, is real; as the ads say, "There is something alive in the funhouse," and the fun in a horror film is in confronting the possibility that the horrors are not made up.

The Funhouse contacts reality in its analysis of the impact of horror films on the fantasy lives of (its) audience...

A young boy - in subjective camera - looks at a Frankenstein poster, takes a knife from his bedroom wall, puts on a clown mask, and heads for the bathroom where his sister Amy (the lead and seer-figure, played by Elizabeth Berridge) is taking a shower.

(Hooper reveals her bare chest as well, the only nudity in the film and another subtle refutation of slasher convention that nudity will prefigure the death of any teenager - cinemachine)

The parody of Halloween is entirely explicit, and one cringes at the prospect of another Boogey Man or Prom Night. In shots that just as closely echo Psycho he pulls aside the shower curtain and jabs the butcher knife at Amy's belly - where it is revealed to be a rubber toy.

The boy is a straightforward image of the child not as horror-object but as horror-audience, and if Hooper's audience finds him as harmless as their own presumed self-image, they will learn, as the boy later does, that there is more at issue than fun, that these games are connected in a meaningful way with genuine rape and murder in an unattractively perverse context.

This is an image of the child that critiques the child images of The Exorcist, The Omen and Halloween rather than reinforces them, and scorns utterly those in Prom Night and its ilk. Amy then goes downstairs to wait for her date, where she finds her parents watching Bride of Frankenstein on television, a film that by the end will be revealed as the same sort of clue provided by The Wolf Man in The Howling.

For in the end the monster tries to make Amy his bride in death. He has cornered her in the basement of the funhouse; she holds him off with a steel pole. She is distracted by a (false) skeleton that drops behind her, but has the self-posesession to realize which is the real horror and strikes at him. He pulls the bar away and accidentally electrocutes himself on the power plant, an echo of his killing of Madame Zena; this starts in motion the mechanism that pulls the ride's carts, which catches him in its hooks and chains. He appears to be dead, and Amy stands before him - but he 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.

For great writing on The Funhouse and other Tobe Hooper films, check out The Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society.

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