23. The Funhouse

Schlocktoberfest #23: The Funhouse

Ah, the lure of the Carnival. Sleaze, sawdust and corn dogs. Where have they gone? Even in Nutley we had one visit every year, and while it only had rides and hawkers trying to get you to toss rings on bottles to get that awesome Motley Crue mirror, it felt like the slimy carnival from Something Wicked This Way Comes, where fortune tellers and freak shows lurked in the tents. The Funhouse by Tobe Hooper isn’t as magical as Ray Bradbury’s childhood tale, but it’s a fun slasher fest with a sideshow freak monster designed by Rick Baker, so there’s something to like.

The movie spends a lot of time setting up atmosphere; two teenage couples go to see the freaks and fun, and we follow them around the tents. There’s the usual puke-inducing rides and wallet-cleansing games, but this is an old-timey carnival with a burlesque act and a sideshow tent. The boys peep through a hole in the tent and see the dirty old men ogling topless gals dancin’ the cooch. The barkers and hawkers are appropriately stubbly and sleazy; Kevin Conway (the mailman from Funny Farm) plays the ringleader, looking like a depraved leprechaun.

When the kids go to the freak show, it is understated masterpiece of foreshadowing. It keeps everything in the bounds of reality. Like a real sideshow, all you see are some cows with birth defects- pretty ugly ones- like the infamous two-headed cow. Nothing makes the stomach twitch like something with two faces melded together. The cows look so good that I couldn’t tell if ol’ Tobe raided a dairy farm or if Rick Baker made them up. That’s a fine compliment for an ’80s film. Rick Baker’s done everything from the apes in Greystoke to the bizarre werewolf in An American Werewolf in London, so you expect great things from him.As the kids sneak around, they eventually get to the fortune teller; they mock the old gypsy woman, which is never a good idea. She doesn’t put a curse on them, she just curses at them, kicking them out of her trailer. She’s performed for the royalty of Europe, damn it. They decide to spy on her through the roof of her trailer, and to their delight, a sideshow geek in a Frankstein mask comes in, trying to pay the woman for sex. Stifling snorts and chuckles, they watch as she rips him off, taking his $100 for a little rumpy-pumpy… but as you well know, never sexually torment an incoherent freak in a mask. They watch in horror as he strangles her, and then get caught trying to escape by Freako’s father- who turns out to be the leader of the show.

We hear him berating the poor freak, who resembles Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in being a babbling mutant freak version of Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and learn that this ain’t the first time he’s killed. Usually it’s some mark in one of the towns they pass through, but this time he’s killed family. So to clean up his mess, Dad tells him he has to kill the witnesses. The kids are conveniently caught in the Fun House of the title, so it shouldn’t be too hard…The rest of the film plays out like a typical slasher, with the Monster- actually named Gunther- unmasked and hunting down his prey. When Daddy tears the mask off, we see li’l Gunther is an albino with some interesting facial features. I can barely describe them. At first glance he looks like one of the “two-headed” cows, where two faces have melded, but now that I look at stills, he barely looks human. As much as I admire Rick Baker, the design really falls flat. In a human freakshow with deformed fetuses in jars, my expectation was for a bizarre deformity, but “Gunther” almost looks alien. In fact, he reminded me of the Zandozan from The Last Starfighter. This is unfortunate, for he sticks out like a sore thumb. The X-Files episode set at a traveling sideshow may have cribbed from Basket Case but it was more fitting a critter than this one turns out to be.
After this letdown, the movie never really worked for me. Tobe uses some good twists inside the funhouse as the bad guys cut down the kids, with trap doors and nooses from above, and making them attack each other in the dark. There’s no hall of mirrors and most of the scares are the animatronic haunted house tricks popping out on them. One thing I did like was that Gunther isn’t superhuman. Sure, he’s got fangs like a Wookelar, but he never uses them; he just sort of screams and throws people around. Of course in a slasher, there’s always one survivor- this time the girl isn’t plucky, just lucky. The movie is bookended with the girl running into a crazy old lady, telling her that “God is watching.” I bet He’d think Mr. Hooper could do better, too.

5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Schlocktoberfest #5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Though I love Poltergeist, I shied away from Tobe Hooper after seeing Salem’s Lot (admittedly a TV movie) and Lifeforce (which does have its sleazy charms). The Friday the 13th movies turned me off slasher movies, so I avoided this horror classic for decades. I must say that I regret not seeing it sooner, for it fully deserves its mantle as the king of the early slasher genre, which it may have actually spawned.

Another great slasher, Black Christmas, came out the same year; that movie hid its killer throughout its entirety and went for the Shadow of a Doubt style of terror that lurked in our own homes and could be anyone. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre goes completely off the deep end and throws us face-first into a human abattoir after a creepy 40-minute build-up, and is incredibly effective at immersing us in a carnival of bloody terror.

A group of youths are on a road trip through Texas in their van; two girls and three boys, one in a wheelchair. On the radio we hear news stories of grave robbers who dig up partially decomposed bodies and tie them in bizarre poses on the boneyard monuments; the kids seem oblivious, and pick up a strange hitchhiker as they pass through the sparse backroads. He’s twitchy and seems both slow and cunning, like a vicious animal… telling them strange things and then finally cutting himself, and then one of them, when they want him to leave. Up to here it feels like a naturalistic road piece, and the first killing manages to be a shock without resorting to the cheap jump scares we’re subjected to these days.

The kids talk about slaughterhouses while they’re on the road; how the animals are clubbed with a sledgehammer, then cut apart. The remote house they come upon turns out to be just that, when the first victim gets it, the comparison to a chicken with its head cut off is obvious. The body twitches and flails on the floor as the hulking man-beast within clubs it to death. We don’t get the in-your-face bloody eye of let’s say, Bonnie and Clyde; the horror comes from seeing a human treated like a slab of meat, and the complete indignity of violent death. It only gets worse from there, and the film might as well be PETA propaganda from how it forces us to realize the terror of knowing you are about to be killed, cut up, and consumed.

Leatherface, as he became known, is the hulking, chainsaw-lugging behemoth who does the killing for the psycho family. The original name of the movie was “Headcheese,” and the creepy hitchhiker tells them early on that his brother “makes some great headcheese! You’ll love it!” Headcheese, like sausage, is one of those foods best enjoyed when you have never seen it made, so it’s another allusion to “mystery meat” that might just be made of people. The killings play up the slaughterhouse theme- after he first body is felled, it is pulled through a doorway and a stainless steel door slides shut; a girl is hung from a meat hook, and stuffed in a freezer chest. The infamous dinner scene shows very little, yet through the use of eyeball close-ups and dutch angles, Hooper makes it disorienting and disturbing.

Loosely based on the murders of Ed Gein– the original Wisconsin cannibal killer who dug up corpses to eat, murdered women in their homes and made masks of their faces, strung them up like deer carcasses to dress them, and kept chunks of their hacked-out genitals in the fridge- it seems all too insane and contrived to be anything but sick fantasy, but we know better now. After the Manson Family butcherings, the idea of such things was not so unbelievable. While we tend to think serial killings have sprung from modern city life, such as Jack the Ripper prowling crowded London, older tales such as the Sawney Bean family in the 1600’s tell us that it has gone on since time immemorial. Seeing it portrayed without irony (as in Rob Zombie’s overrated The Devil’s Rejects) and without voyeuristic lingering on wounds and torture gives it the bleak terror of an inescapable nightmare.

Hooper keeps the theme of people as meat to the bitter end- when our lone survivor (isn’t there always one?) escapes to the highway, even her savior drives a cattle truck. And we know her victory is fleeting, as Leatherface stands in the road, waving his chainsaw. The movie has a reputation for brutality, but the murky Pioneer Special Edition DVD I watched really showed very little actual gore. It’s all in the cuts, the action, and the gut-wrenching low-frequency score. This is one of the classics, and it deserves to be seen as such.



Okay it is not terribly original for a movie blogger to do horror movie reviews in October, but I’m doing it anyway. My Netflix queue, DVD rack, and download folder (for the out of print rarities) are clogged with horror films I’ve been told I must see, and favorites I haven’t watched in a good while. I’ll try to have a horror movie every day, but with the new car I may have less time for bloggery.

Horror movies are their own beast. It’s hard to be truly scared by a movie as an adult. Sometimes if you’re home alone with all the lights out at night, you can get so absorbed in a horror film that the scares still work, but it’s been difficult for me. And the theater experience is even harder nowadays with jackasses talking, texting, and getting calls during movies. Before I begin this horror movie marathon, let me name my favorite horror movies and why I enjoy them so much. Most branded my childhood brain and therefore sit on the pedestal of nostalgia. It is very difficult for new movies to compete with such memories, but some have managed.

1. Poltergeist is my all-time favorite scary movie. A normal family composed of little-known actors in your standard Haunted House movie, but with so many bizarre occurrences that you are drawn in to their terror. This is also what Richard Pryor used to call a “dumb white people” movie, because “black people would move the fuck out of the house!” And I suppose that’s true. If my walls bled and disembodied voices growled “GET OUT” I’d probably high-tail it out the window in my underwear. But we can suspend disbelief for a little while, and imagine being sucked into the static of the television, or having chairs rearrange themselves behind our backs, or that creepy tree out our window suddenly decide we look pretty tasty. Some of the effects are dated- the fake faces that get torn apart, mostly- but the rest are still terrifying. When Paula Prentiss turns around and her kitchen chairs are neatly stacked on the table, it’s one of the most subtle, creepiest scenes put to film. It merges creepy classics like The Uninvited and The Haunting (1963) with Tobe Hooper’s gory sensibilities for the perfect mix of the unknown and the unfathomable.

2. The Thing (Carpenter version). Probably the pinnacle of stop-motion and traditional effects, and taking place on the loneliest spot on Earth- McMurdo Station in Antarctica. A dozen men braving the coldest of winters, we are immediately thrust into an unlikely science fiction story where anyone can be not what they seem. The sense of paranoia and isolation is driven home by the amazing score, and the “things” are still some of the most bizarre creations on film. Kurt Russell went from being a Disney movie kid to an utter bad-ass with Carpenter, and as the unseen enemy winnows down the cast we have no idea what will happen next. We’re on the edge of our seats. It’s Hitchcock-level suspense in a horror context.

3. Alien. Sure, you could say it is science fiction, but it is just a monster movie moved to space, where no one can hear you scream. Still one of the best and most memorable taglines ever written. Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon put together a great cast and made them cozy and believable, and then subject them to visceral, instinctively repulsive situations with H.R. Giger’s primal monster designs. He took simple, primal forms like the spidery, handlike “face hugger,” which not only grabs your face but essentially fucks it and pumps a larva load into your chest cavity. When it bursts out of your chest, it now resembles a snake- another creature, like spiders, that people tend to fear and hate on a primal level. And the final design goes beyond Freud to resemble a sleek black creature both phallic and technological- while later movies make it clear that it is a natural beast, Giger’s own style has always been “bio mechanics,” making uneasy mergings of flesh, steel and silicon, not unlike Cronenberg’s horrific visions in Videodrome. The story is a simple slasher tale as the fodder is devoured and the virginal female remains, but damn if it doesn’t scare you on a visceral level.

4. Videodrome. I saw this last year and regret not getting into David Cronenberg earlier. Much like Alien, it plays on our fears of the great progresses in technology. Here a late-night TV channel is affecting us, and we are not sure what is reality and nightmare anymore. The stunning visuals are still creepy today, and while the “breathing videotape” is quite dated, James Woods and his poor “hand gun” are still cringe-inducingly horrific. It helps to remember when not every station was owned by a cable conglomerate, and you could see some strange shit just flipping the channels. The mood of the film is incredibly bleak and gripping, and the ending is unexpected, shocking, and a true classic. This may not have big scares, but creepiness and sense of dread throughout are impeccable, and must be experienced.

5. The Shining. This is one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, and Stephen King fans be damned, it is still one of the best horror movies ever made even if it strays far from the storyline. It takes several viewings to understand just how fucked up Jack and family are before they arrive at the Overlook Hotel, and what happens there is now among the greatest haunted house tales ever put to film. This film is an old friend to me now, and I watch it every year when the snow comes down. Like The Thing, it makes use of the isolation winter brings, and the cast is full of archetypal characters. Jack with the rage bubbling beneath the surface, fearful Shelley Duvall who is obviously an abused wife, though we never see it, and little Danny, the child of an enraged, unloving father who flees to an inner world and deals with powers he cannot comprehend. The film also has a lot of dark humor, that it takes several viewings to realize in its richness. Check out Scatman’s art collection, for example. All these years later, I’m still on the edge of my seat when they try to escape the hotel and its hedge maze. It’s a tale by a master storyteller twisted to a master director’s ends, and while it may not be King’s vision, it is still an unforgettable one.

6. Jacob’s Ladder. Without this movie there’d be no “Silent Hill.” Tim Robbins is a Vietnam Vet dealing with what he thinks are flashbacks or effects of a chemical they used on the battlefield, and the entire film is one gigantic mindfuck beginning from there. He soon can’t tell what is real and what is not, as his visions get increasingly terrifying and bizarre, reminiscent of The Thing and Cronenberg’s body modification fetishes. Once again the director draws us into an unfamiliar world more disquieting than scary, and Robbins’ paranoia is quickly infectious. Playing on our familiar nightmares where we remember things that may not be real, this movie stays with you long after it ends.

7. The Descent. This is one of my favorite recent horror flicks and while it has its flaws- namely the interchangeable characters- it also works on a dream-level and pulls a great switcheroo in the middle. A group of athletic gals meet to go spelunking as they do once a year; this time in remote Appalachia. Playing on familiar fears of claustrophobia and darkness, of course they run into trouble and need to find a new way out of the cave; also, no one knows where they are, because it is a new-found system and one gal “wanted to be the first.” So we also get that lurking sense of dread that comes with being lost in the woods, another archetypal fear from fairy tales and childhood. By the time we find out they are not alone in the caves, we are already engrossed in a great survival horror tale, and this take on the Sawney Bean tale amps things up to 11. It is also unclear if this is reality or a dream, and the bleak ending is one of my favorites.

So that’s 7 for now. Why not 10? Well, I have a month to watch 30 horror films and see if I can find 3 more I consider great. There are plenty of modern, good horror movies, but the great ones have been elusive. Calvaire and High Tension out of France have come close, but have more style than substance. They are definitely worth seeing. I’m told that Them (remade in America as The Strangers) is worthy of the title, and both versions are on tap. [Rec] is supposed to be zombies meets The Blair Witch Project, and has many fans. That will be considered. Hell, I may revisit Blair Witch, since I missed it in theaters and only saw it on a small screen. A lot of people love it, and the “lost in the woods” vibe, with weird happenings that may or may not be supernatural is a great premise.

This month I will also be watching a few Paul Newman films I’ve missed, and if I see anything in the theater or with Firecracker (who doesn’t like horror much) I’ll try to squeeze them in here. It will tax my blogging skills to the max. So watch this space for the inevitable meltdown!

80’s Trash of the Week: Lifeforce (Space Boobies)

A modern Hammer film with gobs of nudity, this is one of the most expensive B-movie productions ever made. It never rises above vulgarity, but it manages to be an entertaining diversion. It begins as 2001: A Boob Odyssey and ends up part Sexorcist, part zombie apocalypse, with a touch of Highlander.
Originally titled “The Space Vampires,” based on the book by Colin Wilson, it was given a high-concept title for U.S. release and re-cut to be more of a blockbuster sci-fi flick. It was trounced by Cocoon of all things, and its failure helped put the final stake in the heart of Golan-Globus films. (Sorry. Cold iron. Through the abdomen, the old way). It’s a shame, really- for while it is awful, it is a good sort of awful. Directed by Tobe Hooper with incredible effects by John Dykstra, with Mathilda May (The Tit and the Moon) walking around naked all the time, some scenery-chewing by Steve Railsback (Cockfighter, Barb Wire) and Patrick Stewart possessed by a lusty female vampire, it is endlessly entertaining, albeit confusing and rather like a teenage anime in its story.

Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon also wrote Alien

Another movie influenced by the coming of Haley’s Comet, Hooper altered the original screenplay to include it. The space shuttle is having a rendezvous with the comet and finds an enormous, 150-mile long vessel behind it. It is organic in nature, sort of like the ship from 2001 crossed with a crusty umbrella. The shuttle is conveniently blocked from communicating with Earth by the comet, so they go investigate the ship. Inside they find thousands of dessicated bat-like creatures, and three naked humans- or at least what appear to be humans. The crew unwisely brings them back to the shuttle, and– after an annoying flash forward– we lose contact with them. A rescue mission finds everything barbecued except the 3 humanoids, and Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback) who’s a bit unhinged by his experience.

Back on Earth, the humanoids are kept for study at a government lab. There the female awakens, hypnotizes her guard with her perfectly formed D-cups and some unworldly powers, and sucks the energy out of him, leaving a lifeless husk. She escapes, and soon her escorts follow suit. They can also jump to other people’s bodies if they are killed, or even if they’re not. Carlsen is brought to London, and we learn he has a psychic bond with the female, and they track her using him. He can sense when someone is possessed by her, and likes to beat it out of the women, and sometimes the men. Patrick Stewart, the director of a mental hospital, gets possessed by the girl and starts talking in her voice, and even wants to get it on with Carlsen. This, along with his role in Jeffrey, probably doesn’t help the gay rumors. It’s hilarious to watch.

Did I fall asleep in the tanning booth?

Shortly thereafter, they learn that the dead guard isn’t really dead, and has to suck the life out of people, in the form of pretty blue lightning, every few hours or he’ll explode into dust. By the time they realize this, a space zombie epidemic is overtaking London, as the space vampires beam our lifeforce up to their ship, to revitalize their doomed race. There are some quite spectacular effects for ’85, including some very realistic looking emaciated zombie puppets, Patrick Stewart puking up gallons of blood which reform into the Space Girl from the inside out, and some lovely bat creatures when we finally see their true form. And of course, Mathilda May’s buxom form strolling about nude is enough to forgive the severe shortcomings of the story. That and the performance of Peter Firth (“Spook”) as the cop turned vampire hunter; he acts so naturally that we forget the confusing and bizarre jumps the plot will take.

Headshot works on space
vampires too.

As a 14 year old, I could not comprehend how feel-good dreck like Cocoon with Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche and Steve Guttenberg could trounce such fare at the box office. The old-folk demographic must have watched it in droves. 1985 was probably the last year you could depend on gratuitous boobs at the movies, and Lifeforce tried to corner the market. Just look at them. When the Space Girl (she has no name) tells Carlsen that she modeled herself after his desires, we believe it. But the movie does have problems-it tries to be too many things at once. At first we have a quiet space mystery, then a supernatural thriller, then a horror movie, then a zombie movie, and finally an attempt at science fiction. The aliens are compared to the vampires of legend, but they really don’t resemble them at all; it’s hinted that they visited before, but we see no evidence of how these soul-stealing aliens could have inspired the vampire myth.

Baby, you got real ugly.

The author of the book thinks the adaptation is horrid, the comet was shoehorned in without the usually dependable screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s approval, and thus the story is a huge mess. When you find out what the source of Carlsen’s psychic bond, you’ll wonder if M. Night Shyamalan was a script doctor. The tone varies from creepy in a good way to silly to creepy in a bad way, when Carlsen tries his sadomasochistic interrogation methods. But despite all its flaws, the movie has a certain kind of charm beyond boobies- it really does feel like an updated Hammer film or silly pseudo-science fiction film like Island of Terror; as the scientists discover the nature of the invaders, and Peter Firth’s set jaw in the face of a zombie-infested London. Not bad fare for a late night.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Not with all the nudity.
Quotability Rating: Only ironically.
Cheese Factor: Stilton
High Points: Mathilda May
Low Point: Patrick Stewart mimicking Mathilda May
Gratuitous Boobies: My god, it’s full of boobs!