In many ways, The Funhouse feels like a quintessential 1981 film – a perfect evocation of the cusp of the 80s as it played out in Hollywood cinema. Movies at this time were starting to morph from real to hyperreal mise-en-scenes, shifting away from the naturalism of New Hollywood to spaces that could double as sets in theme park rides. Released the same year, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a pinnacle of this moment, unfolding against a series of sets that were so visceral in their plasticity that they seemed to be blueprints for the inevitable Disneyfication of the film as an amusement park attraction – a process that arrived at its logical conclusion in the final act of Temple of Doom, which unfolds as a literal roller coaster.
The Funhouse captures this moment in an equally eloquent way, starting with a flashback to John Carpenter’s Halloween, the epitome of 70s horror naturalism, and ending with a group of teenagers trapped inside an actual fairground ride. Yet while the opening scene, which sees a young boy stalking his sister in a mask, may recall Halloween, it already brims with a new hyperreality. Rather than taking place in a regular suburban home, most of this scene unfolds in a bedroom that is decorated with creepy masks and torture equipment, echoing the string of lurid fluorescent dolls that accompany the opening credits. The horror of the slasher has been pre-empted by a new kind of artificiality, producing a strange deflation when the killer’s knife turns out to be a toy, purchased, like the morbid decorations, from a local fairground.
To build a new horror from this more plastic, artificial and hyperreal space, Hooper accordingly shifts us to this fairground, and to the film proper, which revolves around a group of more or less interchangeable teenagers looking for a wild night out. The first half of the film largely reverts to the naturalism of New Hollywood, immersing us in the eerie atmospherics of the carnival with such beauty, dexterity and tact that it occasionally feels like we could be watching a horror film from a much earlier era. Nevertheless, the wandering sense of the nightsprawl feels attuned to the ebbs and flows of the early 80s public sphere, turning The Funhouse into a great hang-out film, a film for late night TV or video ambience.
Yet just as the Halloween homage gradually takes on a more hyperreal edge, so this naturalism starts to devolve as the teenagers move ever deeper into the fair. Soon, the family friendly spectacle gives way to a freakshow vibe, full of deformed animals, deformed people and even a deformed foetus, all of which leads them to the funhouse, the main fairground attraction, where they find themselves trapped for the night. Even here, however, the hyperreal world hasn’t quite emerged yet – or, perhaps more accurately, the hyperreal world exists in a continuous state of emergence, as a zone of possibility that transcends the functionality of regular space and time. Over the second half of the film, the funhouse plays as a horrific negotiation between real and hyperreal space, as a curiously unformed zone that is full of creepy moments but also looks like a sound stage. This, in turn, effects a sudden shift in spatial cognition on the part of the characters, who instantly find themselves unable to engage in even the most rudimentary form of what Fredric Jameson would come to call cognitive mapping. Trapped in a funhouse, you’d think the simplest solution would be to follow the track to the exit or entrance, and then break your way out, but this never occurs to the teenagers – or seems beyond the realm of conception, as they circle round and round.
At the very nadir of their disorientation, the teenagers encounter the monster of the funhouse – a deformed man who possesses two sets of eyes, on either side of his face. Within the logic of the film, these double eyes seem to be the perceptual apparatus required to navigate the hyperreal horizon that the funhouse represents, since only the monster appears to be capable of finding his way in or out. Accordingly, these misshapen eyes lead to a series of other distorted and disembodied eyes that are scattered throughout the ride, all of which imbue it with a distributed gaze that makes it even more difficult to parse in regular spatiotemporal terms. For hyperreal space here is space with agency, space that looks back, space that acts upon you in the same way as the mechanics of a fairground ride. Just as the funhouse bleeds real and hyperreal space, it’s impossible to tell where this monster’s agency ends and the agency of the funhouse, as a sentient evolution of physical space, commences.
During this time, one of the teenager’s younger brothers wanders aimlessly around the perimeters of the funhouse, desperarely trying to maintain the peripatetic momentum of the first act as he searches for the missing teenagers. But with every cut back to this increasingly redundant subplot, his wandering slackens, as does his obsession with finding a way into the base of the funhouse, and thereby intercepting the mechanics of the hyperreal possibilities it is producing. Ironically, this base is where the sole survivor of the funhouse ends up too, and where she escapes from, but by the time she emerges back into the fairground, and the camera pulls back to the languorous pans of the opening half, her brother is long gone. New Hollywood naturalism fails to meet up with early 80s hyperreality, and so the film ends on a note of dispersal, the survivor slowly winding her way back through the deserted carnival with no clear sense of a conclusion, caught in the dissonance between the late 70s and early 80s.