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Movie Review: The Funhouse

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Chapter 5: Rescue In Monster Land (Part 2)

Finally deciding that Zombos must be held by the dark power in the tower on the right, our valiant rescuers wait patiently for nightfall before making their rescue attempt.

"That's funny," said Steve Brown.

“What's funny?” asked Iloz Zoc.

“I was thinking about the first time we met.”

“How odd; I was thinking about that, too. Why, it seems like only yesterday — I remember it quite clearly,” said Zoc, cupping his hands behind his head as they reminisced.

“Now what?” I said.

“Don’t leave me,” moaned Zombos. He had just returned from taking junior to see Curious George, at Zimba’s insistence of course. She can be so cruel at times.

“Here, just hold this compress to the back of your neck — and keep your head lower. Take deep breaths, too. I will return.” I handed him the cold compress.

The doorbell rang again. “Oh, bother!” I hopped down the staircase a few steps at a time.

When I opened the front door, I was quite startled. A UPS truck was parked in the driveway, and a deliveryman was standing on the front steps, two boxes piled at his feet and a smile on his face. He shoved his electronic signing gadget in my face with glee.

“How did you get through the gate?” I asked.

“Oh, your lawn guy, Petronious… ”

“That’s Pretorious,” interrupted a high-pitched voice coming from behind the tall shrub on the left.

“… Pretorious let me in.” The UPS man was practically beaming. “Please sign here.”

“I see,” I replied. “Did you have any trouble getting past the sand pits?”

“What? Those?” He glanced around. “Nah, made me a little homesick, though; I spent the last four years with UPS Egypt.”

“Really?” I cleared my throat. I signed for the delivery.

“I’m Steve Brown. I’ll be your regular delivery person from now on.”

“How appropriate.” I handed the signing gadget back to him. “I am… ”

“You must be IL; they told me about this place. Hey, can I get a photo?” He pulled a cell phone from his pocket and stuck his head close to mine.

This will freak ‘em out for sure back at the… ”

“Thank you,” I said, quickly picking up the boxes.

“Not sure why everyone’s so spooked about this place. I mean, that other guy they told me about is doing fine; he’s got the feeling back in his arm already — electric eels in the fountain — hey, who woulda guessed?”

“It helps keep the duck population down,” I said.

“Damn ducks poop over everything,” said a high-pitched voice from the tall shrub on the left.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” said Steve Brown. “Have a good one.” He waved good-bye as he turned the truck around and drove away.

I contemplated speaking to Pretorious, but decided against it. He could be rather capricious at times. Anyway, one should never interrupt him when he’s doing the arboreal work — the last time Zimba interrupted him he became so flustered it took two seasons to get the shrubs back to some semblance of decency. I made a mental note to deepen the sandpits, though, and hurried back to Zombos.

“Zombos, I have something that will cheer you up — your dolls have arrived.”

“They are not dolls. They are action figures,” he replied with a hint of petulance.

“Well… whatever.” I opened the boxes. “Here is your Vincent Price Dr. Phibes action figure, and these must be, ah yes, the Jonathan Frid Barnabus Collins Dark Shadows action figures, new and old vampire versions of course.”

“Splendid. These are wonderful,” he cried. “Quick, put them in the closet before Zimba sees them!”

While putting his DOLLS away in the closet, I came across the copy of The Black Forest I picked up while in Manhattan. It was lying on Zombos' night table. I lent it to him, as I knew he would appreciate the old-style, light-hearted classic monster fest by Livingston, Tinnell, and Vokes.

The stylish black and white artwork was reminiscent of Harvey Kurtzman’s comical figures combined with a dash of Gene Colon’s fluid and dynamic panels. This is another graphic novel edition that cries out for a Warrenized magazine format. If I were to list any quibbles, it would be with the length — the work needs just a few more pages, especially the monster battle royale toward the end between the Frankenstein monster, the werewolves, and the vampire Graf Orlock.

the black forestThe story takes place in 1916, during the Great War, and the German army, through an especially evil scientist, is trying to find a way to revive dead soldiers (yes, zombies!) to fight another day. Holed up in the Black Forest, in Graf Orlock’s castle no less, whom they have imprisoned in his own dungeon, the especially evil mad scientist feverishly toils away using Dr. Frankenstein’s crib notes of life and death for his experiments; and yes, the monster, too, to supply a steady stream of cadavers.

Enter our valiant, but foolhardy American hero, Jack (not sure why every valiant but foolhardy American hero is always named Jack, or has a monosyllabic name), and Archibald Caldwell, magician and occultist, who, like real-life magician Jasper Maskelyne during World War Two, uses his special skills to assist British Intelligence in the war effort.

Along the way, there are Alan Moorish-like bits that enrich the story, including Caldwell’s ability to regurgitate lock picks that he has swallowed, a skill that Houdini was purported to have used, and Caldwell’s dead wife is pickled upright under glass, in a panel very similar to the scene in the film The Black Cat, where Vitas Werdegast’s wife is preserved by his arch nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, the evil cult leader. Boy, these evil guys do get around.

The adventure is written in a pulp-style, and is fast and furious. I highly recommend it to those classic monster and zombie loving horror-heads among us, and to anyone who likes a ripping good yarn with worthwhile characters and a well-written story.

As I hurried back to Zombos, I picked up The Funhouse by Tobe Hooper. This film would certainly put the grayish color back in Zombos face. Hooper, who did the unsettling Dance of the Dead episode for Masters of Horror on Showtime, as well as the family classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), presents a not so pretty picture of carnival life, and a somewhat pathetic – albeit homicidal – monster with a decidedly unhandsome
visage, and penchant for mayhem.

The opening of the film is a nod to Halloween and Psycho, two other masterworks of the genre, and from there builds into a creepy story revolving around teen lust, sleazy carnival characters, and a man-made monster that has needs like everyone else, but simply cannot satisfy them in more socially acceptable ways.

A fascinating subtext running through the story is that it is a variation on the tragedy of
Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. In Tobe Hooper’s tale, the monster is one born of genetic mutation, cleverly foreshadowed by the Freak Animals Alive tent exhibit, where the fetal brother of the monster floats in a jar as an abominable attraction for the hoi polloi.

frankenstein Indeed, in the film’s opening sequence, the Frankenstein monster is shown, first as a poster showing the Glenn Strange characterization (my favorite!), and then as a Mego doll — oh sorry, action figure — carried by the young boy, Joey, whose sister soon curses him because of his bizarre prank that scares the wits out of her. Joey’s actions are also another subtext running through the film — he dons a mask to become a monster that frightens his sister, and the actual monster wears a Frankenstein mask to become less frightening to others.

It is interesting to note that, unlike the current spate of horror films that feature eye (popping) candy and little else, in this film the characters are presented with choices, yet consistently make the wrong ones. And as we all know, in a horror film when you make the wrong choices someone – or more likely today, everyone – winds up dead.

Amy, Buzz, Liz, Ritchie, and Joey consistently make the wrong choices, and suffer the dire consequences. In the tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation, wrong choices also led to death and disaster. But at least here we have the funhouse, iconic fodder for numerous urban legends and rustic tales told around camp fires and sleep-over parties.

The funhouse is surrounded by the carnival, a seedy, grimy affair filled with seedy and grimy denizens. There is a bag lady who looks very much like Grandmama from the Addams Family spouting “God is watching you,” a homeless man who wanders around like a zombie from Night of the Living Dead, a few bums, the past-her-prime fortuneteller and palm reader (well played by Sylvia Miles), the not so magnificent Marco the Magician, and the carny barkers (three of them, superbly played by Kevin Conway as if he were a natural).

Properly toned by John Beal’s score and Andrew Lazlo’s moody cinematography, the loud and brightly lit carnival facade hides a darker, more primitive underbelly of murderous anarchy, repressed emotions, and dark secrets, with its nexus the funhouse. Hooper’s use of two tracking crane shots, one at the beginning and one at the ending of the mayhem, emphasize this emanation of evil flowing first toward the funhouse, and then away from the funhouse.

Our hapless group of monster fodder soon regrets their decision to stay the night in the funhouse, and Joey soon regrets sneaking out from his bedroom (down the trusty trellis-by-the-window) to visit the carnival. We also learn that the father of the monster has regrets about letting it live, in a scene that contains a wealth of hinted-at backstory. Because of his decisions he must share responsibility for its murderous actions. 

The fun-seeking and frisky teens decide to spend a night in the funhouse after closing time, and after the requisite fun-that-must-soon-be punished scenes, they witness a murder, and promptly wind up stepping deeper and deeper into a big pile of no return. One of them makes another spur-of-the-moment bad decision, and because of it the wrong people learn about their presence in the locked funhouse.

Scenes of mayhem and carnage follow, as one by one, the teens meet their untimely and grisly death in 1980s horror fashion. A particularly harrowing image has our heroine calling to her parents through a large, wildly-spinning exhaust fan, but of course they cannot hear her because she is too far away — in the funhouse, where her parents specifically told her not to go.

And Mr. and Mrs. Harper are at the carnival to retrieve their errant son, Joey, who also disobeyed them. Disobeyers in horror films suffer dire consequences for their actions, and he is no exception. His parents meet the shady and perhaps too-interested carnival handyman that found Joey sneaking around the tents. His actions are never quite clear, and Joey is strangely out of it, so we never really know what happened here. But disobeyers in horror films always suffer, of that we can be sure.

The climactic confrontation in the mechanical belly of the funhouse is suitably horrific, yet uses little gore, and unlike the requisite sequelization antics of many fright films today provides a definitive and satisfying closure.

Unlike the simplistic snuff-horror by the numbers approach in today’s films, The Funhouse explores themes and provides a story depth that is worth experiencing, along with the thrills and chills.

"It's time to storm the castle," said Steve Brown.

"Right. Shake Glenor awake, will you."

Under cover of darkness, the three intrepid rescuers head for the castle to rescue Zombos from the clutches of the vile Shudderites.

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