Episode #88 of The Swampflix Podcast: Crawl (2019) & Cinema Crocodilia

Welcome to Episode #88 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eighty-eighth episode, Brandon & Britnee fight off killer alligators & crocodiles in a nonstop, swampy fight to the death, starting with a discussion of the 2019 creature feature Crawl. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Double Feature Disaster: Spontaneous Combustion (1990) & Society (1992)

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When I first set out to track down a copy of Society, I turned to my old pal, the Vulcan Video catalog search, which showed that there was a copy at the location nearest me. When I went to locate it, however, it was nowhere to be found on the shelf, and the kind woman working the counter that day noted that their copy had actually been sold several years back and that the catalog listing was an oversight (an unusual lapse for the fine folk of Vulcan). We did eventually track down a copy of the film in their stacks, one of those early double-sided DVDs with Society on one side and Spontaneous Combustion on the reverse. I was pretty pleased by this, because a double feature usually means an easy instant follow up article (just add water).

I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. There’s nothing easy about Spontaneous Combustion.

The film stars America’s non-darling Brad Dourif as Sam, the adult son of a husband-and- wife team who were given an experimental anti-radiation injection during a propagandistic Cold War exercise. Following his birth, both parents spontaneously combust after contact with their new infant, leaving him to be raised by the mysterious Lew Orlander (William Prince), a wealthy industrialist who acts as the face of the original experiment when his company takes over from the government.

Some reviews identify Sam as a would-be actor, apparently based on his first scene in the film, in which he recites some lines of Shakespeare on stage with a student, but I think he’s supposed to be a teacher, as is his love interest Lisa (Cynthia Bain). One can hardly blame the audience for being unclear as to who Sam is, what his motivations are, or for failing to follow the so-called plot of the film. From what I can understand, Sam was once married to Rachel (Dey Young), Orlander’s granddaughter, who was always pushing Sam to visit Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher), who is secretly in Orlander’s employ. Since their divorce, Sam has struck up a relationship with fellow anti-nuclear activist Lisa, but this relationship is also the result of Orlander’s manipulations, and the supposed homeopathic medication she has been sharing with him is actually from Dr. Marsh. These treatments are provided in order to encourage the growth of Sam’s supernatural power to start fires.

All of this seems pretty straightforward, but there’s also the mysterious reappearance of Sam’s childhood toy that sends him off searching for the truth of his origins, Sam’s budding powers and the ensuing accidental deaths thereof (including a couple of police officers and John Landis in a cameo as a radio . . .  technician, maybe?), a radio evangelist/medium who seems to be speaking to Sam directly for reasons that are utterly unclear, the sudden reappearance of a woman (Melinda Dillon) involved in the original experiment and her just-as- sudden murder, the murder of another woman who was investigating the soon-to- be-activated nuclear plant nearby, Lisa’s own pyrogenetic powers, and an inordinate number of conversations held on neon telephones.

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The composition and plotting of this movie are bafflingly inelegant, and even two viewings left me unable to accurately gauge just what in the hell was happening at any given time. This was a frustrating viewing experience, both times, and not in the sense that some deeply philosophical films are hard to parse. Instead, Spontaneous Combustion feels like a unauthorized, non-union sequel to Firestarter that was hastily edited together by someone trying to recreate the experience of watching that film with a 104° fever. It’s a movie that actively tries to discourage you from watching it even as the story (such as it is) unfolds, challenging the viewer to a test of wills.

Despite the incohesiveness of the overall plot, I was able to discern two similarities that would reasonably connect this film to Society and, to the inebriated mind of some marketing exec, warrant putting the two films on a single disc. First, the actor playing Sam’s father, Brian Bremer, also portrayed Petrie, Billy’s rival for student body president, in Society. More thematically, both Billy Whitney and Sam are the children of working class people raised by wealthy elites for their own nefarious purposes. It’s a bit of a stretch, but there it is.

Even if you find yourself with a copy of this double DVD in your pursuit of watching Society, don’t flip that disc. It’s not worth it.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Funhouse (1981) as an Ideal, Forgotten Midpoint Between Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacres (1974, 1986)

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We’ve been scratching our heads all month trying to figure out why Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse isn’t more of a household name. One of my theories was that Hooper had already changed the game years earlier with his weirdo slasher opus The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, inspiring so many similar oddball horror entries in its wake (Tourist Trap, for instance) that The Funhouse had a little too much company to stand out on its own as anything radical or idiosyncratic. By the time of its release the Tobe Hooper grime of The Funhouse was just a drop in really strange, hideously dirty bucket. Maybe that’s why Hooper’s next return to the slasher genre in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 strived for a much campier, more colorful aesthetic than the original. It was a decision that (intentionally) pissed off a lot of fans at the time of its release, but led to a much more infamous work that’s still regularly discussed today, despite The Funhouse being the better movie overall.

The Funhouse was released more or less at the temporal midpoint between Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, which were separated by twelve years and a few wildly varied experiments from the director. 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre details a backwoods Texas family of chainsaw-wielding cannibals with a weird collection of skeleton art & Ed Gein-inspired modes of improving their self image. 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 follows a very similar narrative structure, sometimes recreating exact scenes from the original, but punches them up with hideously shrill humor, jaw-dropping gore effects, and color-soaked camp spectacle. The Funhouse splits the difference, offering a more colorfully surreal setting for its cold-blooded violence than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre without aiming for the full-goof absurdism of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

Hooper’s career is wildly chaotic, haunted by ghosts, Martian invaders, sexy space vampires, and all kinds of other horror genre eccentricities that are worlds away from standard slasher fare. The Funhouse serves as a great, typifying middle ground for his difficult to pinpoint work that somehow captured the spirit of both of his violently disparate Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, while still pointing to the otherworldly quality of his non-slasher work. It doesn’t ever bring in the supernatural funhouse goofery of Ghoulies II, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also remains grounded in the real world and that film stands as a strange slasher genre outlier in its own right.

It makes total sense that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre film would have the biggest cultural impact in this trio. Not only was it the earliest & most financially successful title of the bunch, its humans-as-meat slaughterhouse horror is also more darkly humorous than it’s often given credit for. I do believe The Funhouse deserves a closer look than that film’s sequel, though. The gory kills and the cartoon energy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 have earned it an easy cult following in recent years (not to mention that it seemingly laid out the blueprint for Rob Zombie’s entire directorial career), but I think The Funhouse is more deserving of the attention. Instead of punching up and altering his original outlier slasher like in the sequel, Hooper found new, colorfully surreal ways to repurpose The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s energy in The Funhouse that should be regularly celebrated, but is instead largely forgotten. A month after watching it for the first time, I still can’t pinpoint exactly why.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its carnival-setting horrors with those of Ghoulies II (1988), and last week’s look at its unexpected companion in Tourist Trap (1978).

-Brandon Ledet

The Funhouse (1981), Tourist Trap (1979), and Tobe Hooper’s Influence on the Unconventional Slasher

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The DNA of the slasher can mostly be traced back to the giallo murder mysteries of the 1960s & 70s where the gloved, off-screen killers of titles like Deep Red and Blood & Black Lace ran through disturbingly high body counts (of mostly young, beautiful women) in a distinct style-over-substance fashion. Filter the giallo genre through non-Italian titles like Psycho & Peeping Tom and direct its mayhem at the rebellious spirit of the American teenager and that’s more or less how you wind up with a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers or what have you. Not all slashers fit that mold, however, and a lot of the genre’s stranger outliers seem to point back to an entirely different source of inspiration: Tobe Hooper. Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced a level of grime & idiosyncrasy to the early stirrings of slasher horrors that was almost unimaginable in 1974. Cautious not to repeat himself, he entirely shifted focus for his 1986 sequel to that iconic work, turning it into an absurd horror comedy (not unlike the curious shift in the MTV-themed cartoon Slumber Party Massacre 2). When Hooper first returned to the straightforward slasher in 1981’s The Funhouse, however, he brought back the same isolated weirdos vs. disrespectful teen brats dynamic of the first Chainsaw along with that film’s unmistakable grime, but shifted the details drastically with the specificity of a travelling carnival setting. By then, Hooper’s work had already influenced an entire crop of weirdo slasher outliers, though, and The Funhouse had a little too much company to stand out as a radical work the same way 1974’s Chainsaw did.

The best example I can think of that adapts Hooper’s slasher deviations into a weird genre outlier is a film Britnee recommended during our evil doll movies conversation on the podcast. Her description of the 1979 horror oddity Tourist Trap sounded eerily similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with just enough quirk to distinguish itself from being a mere knockoff. In both films a group of suburban teens are slaughtered by an isolated family of outsider weirdos in the no-man’s-land of rural America. The major deviation in Tourist Trap is that the main killer’s backwoods family is made entirely of mannequins. Our terrifying hick killer commands telepathic abilities that allows him to animate his mannequin family so that they can physically attack his victims while singing in angelic voices or laughing maniacally. The supernatural element of these kills is largely different from Hooper’s style in his own slasher films (although not at all out of line with his titles like Poltergeist, Lifeforce, and Invaders from Mars). There’s an unmistakable, disturbing quality to the tone in Tourist Trap that points directly to the blueprint of a Hooper slasher, however. By the time the killer is wearing a doll mask & trying to make mannequins out of his teen victims Dead Silence-style, it’s all too easy to trace his origins back to Leatherface, who liked to uphold curious familial bonds of his own. Tourist Trap also has a weird crossdressing element that recalls the common slasher point of reference Norman Bates and as a whole is certainly unique enough to stand out on its own as an original work, but it owes a lot of its outlier status in the slasher genre to the strange space Hooper carved out with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Released just two years after Tourist Trap, Hooper’s The Funhouse is in good company with the strange little supernatural horror. The Funhouse keeps its terror anchored in the real world in a way Tourist Trap’s telepathy doesn’t, but the grime & specificity of its carnival setting matches the eeriness of that film’s disturbing mannequin-covered roadside attraction. Also, although the dolls of The Funhouse don’t move on their own via magic, there are animatronic dolls in the film that add to a menacing atmosphere shared by Tourist Trap as soon as the opening credits. Adding a supernatural element to The Funhouse’s carnival-set genre thrills made for a laughably goofy experience in Ghoulies II, but Tourist Trap is too much of a nightmare to laugh off in that way. The way its killer (much like Gunther in The Funhouse) continually searches for love & validation despite his own brutality makes for too disturbing of a watch for the film to be brushed off as mere camp. Its laughing, singing, murdering mannequins have a sort of humor to them, but only in a cruel, twisted way that’s far more reminiscent of Hooper’s work than it is of Charles Band’s, despite that schlockmeister’s career-long obsession with killer dolls (and Tourist Trap director David Schmoeller later working on the Band-produced series The Puppet Master).

When we first discussed The Funhouse in our Movie of the Month round table we asked why it didn’t quite have the cultural staying power it deserved. The answer might be that because Hooper already opened the door for weirdo slashers like Tourist Trap years earlier, The Funhouse had too much company to stand out as its own strange work of nasty mayhem. Hooper had already changed the game in an earlier work & The Funhouse was mostly just a nightmarish continuation of that initial deviation. It found some really strange company in similar continuations, though, not least of all in this strange killer mannequins slasher.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison of its carnival-setting horrors with those of Ghoulies II (1988).

-Brandon Ledet

The Nightmare Carnival of The Funhouse (1981) Vs. the Goofy Cartoon Carnival of Ghoulies II (1988)

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When we were discussing our current Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy slasher The Funhouse, I asked Alli if she thought the film’s carnival funhouse setting could’ve maybe opened it up to some supernatural play with the laws of reality. In my mind, I guess I was conjuring the climax of the Adam Wingard film The Guest, where the titular killer seemingly becomes a supernatural force in the smoke & mirrors setting of a hand built funhouse in a high school gym. Alli bucked against the virtue of that idea, positing that The Funhouse was more terrifying as is, because “The real world grounds the movie in a way that makes it believable.” She explained, “I’m not trying to rule out the idea of demon-possessed funhouse completely, but anytime the supernatural is involved a movie really starts pushing it towards cheesy.” I can’t disagree. Even part of what makes the conclusion of The Guest so memorably enjoyable is its somewhat cheesy nod to the film’s sly, genre-based sense of humor. Tobe Hooper’s film is much more fully committed to its straightforward slasher grittiness, one that likely needs to stick to its real world limitations to remain convincing. What I couldn’t shake from my mind when Alli mentioned the potential cheese factor there, however, was that I had already seen a demon-possessed funhouse horror film and it indeed was a thoroughly cheesy affair.

Charles Band’s production company Full Moon Features isn’t exactly known for a high mark in quality. Full Moon is at best a well-oiled schlock machine, one that churns out such distinguished titles as Dollman Vs. Demonic Toys & Puppet Master 12: The Littlest Reich at a blinding rate of release. The Ghoulies franchise, in particular, is a shameless Gremlins knockoff best known for featuring a tiny evil demon (a “ghoulie,” if you will) lurking  in a toilet, waiting to strike. If you’re an adult, that image isn’t likely to affect you much outside maybe a chuckle, but I’m told experiencing it as a child will inspire bathroom anxieties for at least a week. Ghoulies expanded from its Gremlins-riffing origins only slightly, mixing it up by shipping its cute little devils to exotic locations. The series might have reached peak ridiculousness with its third installment, Ghoulies Go to College, but for my money the most enjoyable film in the franchise is the carnival-set second entry. Directed by Charles Band’s father Albert Band, Ghoulies II is in many ways the exact film Alli was describing in her response to my question. Cheesy to the point of ostensibly being a gory children’s film, Ghoulies II trades in the seedy real world horrors of The Funhouse for cheap supernatural genre thrills in which rambunctious, doll-size demons overrun a carnival’s funhouse attraction and dispense with dumb teens in increasingly goofy ways. They’re both slasher films set in carnival funhouses, but the supernatural element of Ghoulies II significantly cheapens & trivializes its setting (to the point of cartoonish hilarity) while the real life grime of The Funhouse affords it a genuine, near-believable terror.

Ghoulies II actually follows a fairly similar narrative approach to the concept of a carnival funhouse horror, except with a shifted perspective. While The Funhouse follows a group of unsuspecting teens as they discover the nastily violent personalities of the travelling carnies, Ghoulies II makes the carnies the sympathetic viewpoint as they struggle to put on a show for today’s jaded, uncaring youth and avoid getting shutdown by the greedy Reagan-era businessmen who haunt nearly every late-80s picture. In this way, the titular ghoulies who invade the film’s funhouse, quaintly titled Satan’s Den, to murder snot nosed teens & terrorize evil accountants are at once hero & villain. Sure, they get out of hand & threaten the lives of the innocent, but because they’re mistaken for animatronic funhouse attractions they also save the day by driving Satan’s Den ticket sales through the roof. When a ghoulie pukes hideous green goo onto two disrespectful teens making out in the funhouse, you’re supposed to cheer for their victory over the punk brats. Even the alcoholism of The Funhouse is softened in this film. Instead of making the carnies mean & scary, liquor makes the owner of Satan’s Den pathetically vulnerable. He & his nephew are far from the barker & the monstrous Gunther from The Funhouse. They’re kinder, more relatable, and a hell of a lot less real.

It’s fair to say applying a little supernatural Ghoulies cheese to the grimy slasher vibe of The Funhouse might’ve been a tonal disaster. I do believe Ghoulies II is an interesting counterpoint to Hooper’s film, however, especially in the way it plays a lot of the same carnival-specific horror elements for cheap humor instead of nightmarish dread. It’s a film I’ve watched way more times than I probably should have, one that’s remarkably accomplished for what it sets out to do. Like with most Full Moon features, Ghoulies II occupies a strange space between kids’ comedy & gory creature feature, but it stands above a lot of other films in the production company’s staggeringly extensive catalog. The stop motion effects, dumb teens bemoaning the loss of their “tunes” (boombox), little person character actor Phil Fondacaro doing his best Vincent Price, and carnival specific kills, including a nasty round of bumper cars, all combine to make for a memorably silly B-Picture. There’s even a go-for-broke kaiju finish & a loving homage to the The Pit & The Pendulum murders of the Corman-Poe Cycle. In the end, Alli is probably right that The Funhouse benefited from sticking to a real world scenario with no supernatural trickery in the details of its funhouse setting, but I’m glad Ghoulies II exists to explore the exact opposite extreme of the same teens-slain-at-a-carnival scenario. They’re two sides of a highly specific, easily cherished coin.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Funhouse (1981)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Alli, and Boomer  watch The Funhouse (1981).

Britnee: Carnivals are hell on earth. The image of crusty old rides, greasy funnel cakes, animal droppings, and dirt mixed together to create a nasty sludge is enough to send shivers down my spine, but the most terrifying part of carnivals is the crew. Unfortunately, carnival folk don’t have the most welcoming image in popular culture (killer clowns, evil magicians, etc.), and this is definitely apparent in horror films. Of all the carnival-themed horror film’s I’ve seen, Tobe Hooper’s extremely underrated horror flick, The Funhouse, is by far the scariest.

The Funhouse comes across as a run-of-the-mill B-movie because it follows the generic B-horror movie storyline; a group of teens get high and decide to get crazy & spend the night in their local carnival’s funhouse. It really doesn’t get cheesier than that, but somehow The Funhouse manages to be seriously scary. Of course, it has a handful of humorous moments, like when the carnival’s fortune teller, Madame Zena, gives a quick handjob to a deformed human-like monster in a Frankenstein costume or when the funhouse barker says in an absolutely ridiculous tone, “You will scream with terror, you will beg for release, but there will be no escaping, for there is no release, from the funhouse.” But honestly, the majority of the film is straight up disturbing. The gruesome murders that take place in the funhouse filled with horrifying animatronic clowns and evil dolls will haunt your dreams forever, or at least for a day or two.

Boomer, did you find The Funhouse to be a legitimately scary movie? Or do you think it falls more into the B-movie category?

Boomer: That’s an interesting thing to ask, because it begs the question of what exactly a B-Movie is, especially with regards to the Tobe Hooper oeuvre. Is Texas Chainsaw Massacre a B-Movie? Is Poltergeist? What’s the real difference between Funhouse and those two films that makes film scholarship so dismissive of it? Chainsaw is definitely a B-Movie by every objective measure: budget (a mere $300K), cast (all virtual unknowns, with the Edwin Neal having the largest pre-Chainsaw filmography, consisting entirely of dubbing voices for the American import of Gatchaman), and overall feeling of cheapness. Instead of B-Movie fodder that is remembered for its campiness, however, Chainsaw is generally regarded as a landmark horror movie for bringing terror out of the night and into the light of day, and its legacy holds up despite seven follow up films of various quality and dubious chronology (there are three sequels, then a reboot, a prequel to the reboot, then a sequel just to the original skipping all others, and an upcoming film about Leatherface’s teenage years). It’s easier to single out Poltergeist as a more traditional “prestige” horror film; having Steven Spielberg as producer lent the movie an air of credibility that neither Chainsaw nor Funhouse before it had had (and that Lifeforce,which followed in 1985, was certainly missing; even a script by Dan “I wrote Alien” O’Bannon wasn’t enough to cover the Cannon Films stench on that one, but I digress). I think the reason that Chainsaw is so widely praised is simply that it transcended the barriers of the conventional B-horror fillm to become something more fascinating and terrifying altogether. Chainsaw and Poltergeist are very Gothic at their core, with the latter heavily focusing on the brutishness of the wilderness outside of society and the uber-Gothic imagery of decaying homesteads with trapdoors and hidden rooms, and the latter focusing on pairing the very old-school Gothic concepts of hauntings and beings beyond human comprehension and pairing those ideas with the aesthetic of contemporary suburbanism.

Although I think that Funhouse is a B-Movie overall, just like the Hooper films that it is sandwiched between (minus the not-very-good Eaten Alive and the telefilm adaptation of Salem’s Lot), it certainly transcends the mold of similarly budgeted and marketed contemporaries. Often, the hallmarks of these films are that they were obviously churned out by a pulp writer with an idea that had not quite had time to mature, full of barely-realized characters and driven more by the need to reach certain scenes than weaving an organic story to get the viewer there. Funhouse can’t be described this way (in fact, if the Wikipedia page for the Dean Koontz [!] novelization based on Larry Block’s original screenplay is anything to go by, the original story idea may have verged on being overproduced); the progression of events is logical and cohesive, and although not every character could be considered three dimensional, they do all have different voices and motivations. More than that, Funhouse is also legitimately freaky at various points, and there’s an artfulness to the direction that elevates the film over other films of the same type and of the same era. Specific scenes that come to mind include the playfulness of the light coming through the fan vent in the scene where Liz meets her end at the hands of the monster, the recurring image of the Hammer Frankenstein monster that is first seen on a poster in Joey’s room before reappearing on the television downstairs and as the monster’s disguise, and the blowing wind that billows Amy’s hair in the final scenes, lending a surrealist element to the proceedings. It’s not Hooper’s finest or most memorable work, but it does show how Hooper’s eye can find something novel in even the most tired mises en scène. 

So why is the visually intriguing and memorable Funhouse, which was a moderately well-received success at the time of its release, so largely forgotten? What do you think, Brandon?

Brandon: I think that’s a fair question to ask of Hooper’s career at large, honestly. Before catching glimpses of Lifeforce & the completely insane-looking horror comedy sequel Texas Chainsaw Massacre II in the recent Golan-Globus doc Electric Boogaloo, I personally had no idea who Hooper even was. I’ve seen & enjoyed his original Chainsaw movie & the loving 50s sci-fi homage Invaders from Mars by happenstance, but he was never familiar to me as a household name, despite the fact I that I’m an obvious sucker for the genre film territory he usually treads in. The Funhouse‘s forgotten place in the cult movie canon seems to be indicative of Hooper’s often overlooked career at large. I don’t know if it was the Canon Films documentary’s doing or just slowly spreading reports of how batshit Lifeforce (a movie I’ve been dying to catch up with myself) appears to be, but his name recognition seems to be growing in certain film geek circles over the past year. I was stoked when Hooper’s name appeared in the opening credits of The Funhouse (along with special effects master Rick Baker, who absolutely kills on the creature design here) so I’d have an excuse to dive further into his work. Six months ago I would have had no idea who he was or that Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Poltergeist were even directed by the same person.

Hooper’s general lack of recognition as a household name aside, The Funhouse‘s particular forgotten state might be somewhat attributable to its mode of instant familiarity. Like Britnee & Boomer both said, the film has a visually striking, memorably discomforting way of terrorizing its audience with its creepy dolls & its murderous carnie psychopaths, but there’s something oddly warm & nostalgic at its center that cuts through its overriding nastiness. The homages to old line monster movies (in the form of the aforementioned posters, television broadcasts, and Halloween masks as well as an early-in-the-runtime spoof of the shower scene from Psycho) nest the film in a long history of horror cinema tradition that somewhat eases the shock of its early 80s nastiness (the likes of which we recently saw in former MotM Alligator). You easily can see this adherence to horror tradition in the film’s basic plot. The idea of teens sleeping in a carnival funhouse overnight and being confronted by real-life monsters within feels as old as time to me. It might be that I’ve grown up in a post-The Funhouse era where that basic plot seeps into familiar-to-me properties like Goosebumps novels & Ghoulies II, but I suspect that its fundamental narrative scenario goes back even further than those titles. The traveling carnival setting of The Funhouse feels anachronistic for even the early 1980s. This movie feels like a live-action adaptation of an urban legend dating back to a time when the arrival of traveling carnivals & funhouses were the highlight of the year for little kids, especially in small towns, even those understandably freaked out by the carnies who ran them. I could see how drive-in era horror audiences would initially take delight in watching that urban legend play out onscreen, but then gradually forget that the movie ever existed because its basic premise had already been a familiar part of the greater cultural landscape for so long.

Where do you think The Funhouse fits into the arena of urban legends & oldschool horror titles, Alli? Is it more at home with its slasher genre contemporaries, seeing how our teens in peril are hunted down by real life human creeps after indulging in *gasp* marijuana & premarital sex, or does it call back to an older, more nostalgic tone overall?

Alli: Let me start this off by saying that I feel a little unqualified to talk about the slasher genre, since I haven’t seen that many. When the term “slasher genre” comes to mind, I think about earlier ones, Psycho and Peeping Tomand also I guess some giallo fits in there somehow. But I don’t think of them in the “true slasher” sense, somehow.

So now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, The Funhouse seems to fit pretty well in the slasher genre right down to the idea of the final girl, though it subverts it a little. Of course, all slashers share influences which definitely creates a sense of nostalgia. Very early on, there’s a play on the Psycho shower scene and as you guys all mentioned there’s Frankenstein references throughout. Also, I think the idea of a carnival based horror goes way, way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which I think there are strong arguments to be made for it being a very early example of the genre). So what I’m trying to say is that I think since the slasher genre itself is pretty timeless, nostalgia is inevitable. Then The Funhouse has the added whammy of a carnival background since as long as there have been carnivals and freak shows there have been urban legends about the horrors therein.

I mentioned about the idea of the final girl above and I want to expand that a bit more. Slasher movies traditionally have a girl as the survivor. She is usually the chaste one, who avoids drugs and alcohol. Amy at the beginning is the good girl. She is a virgin. She’s against going to the carnival and breaking the rules. But somewhere along the line, I feel like she drops the good girl act. In the bathroom during a conversation with Liz, she mentions that maybe she’s not saving her virginity. A little later on, she’s smoking marijuana. I guess I just feel like maybe she’s not quite pure, virginal, final girl material, unless it’s being comparatively chaste and drug free that gets you out of horror movies alive.

Britnee, what do you think of Amy as our protagonist? Do you think she meets the criteria for the Final Girl? Are there any other interesting plays on traditional horror tropes you noticed?

Britnee: When comparing Amy to the others in the group, I think that she’s an angel. She does give in to the ganja and isn’t the poster girl for virginity, but she’s still the most level-headed of the bunch. Buzz, Liz, and Richie (especially Richie) were all horrible people. Buzz is this ignorant macho-man that comes off as a total creep when he’s alone with Amy, Liz is a straight up bad friend, and Richie is an obnoxious, greedy little bastard. Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised to see them each meet their gruesome deaths in the funhouse. Now that I’m thinking of it, the dumb teenager that gets violently killed is definitely a horror trope that is present in The Funhouse. Buzz, Liz, and Richie each meet have their one-on-one time with the killer, which is the most popular way for a bad teenager to die in slasher flicks.

Now as for Amy being the final girl, I do think that she meets the criteria. She’s got a good head on her shoulders (at least when compared to her friends), and when she comes face to face with the funhouse monster at the end of the film, she does everything in her power to defeat him. Amy is far from being a damsel in distress and she defeats the film’s male antagonist, so I would consider her to be final girl material. She really does have one of the most interesting final girl exits that I’ve ever seen. After she survives the hell of the funhouse, she walks silently into the carnival grounds and doesn’t utter a peep to the few people hanging around. Something about her exit from the funhouse just makes me think of her as badass heroine. It’s probably because she doesn’t crawl out of the building crying and screaming for help, as one would expect anyone to do when under those circumstances.

Boomer, I can’t figure out the importance of the creepy witchy woman that lingers in the background of the film. Her most notable scene was when she was in the bathroom with Liz and Amy, and she approaches them with her famous words, “God is watching you!” Do you think that the Bathroom Witch (Brandon gave her this name during the viewing) was underused in this film? Or do you think her presence was completely unnecessary?

Boomer: In my previous section, I mentioned the novel adaptation the film written by Dean Koontz; that book has its own separate Wikipedia page that outlines a more in-depth (and, honestly, needlessly complicated) plot that features a back story that involves a previous relationship between the carnival barker and Ellen, the religious alcoholic mother of Amy and Joey. I guess I spoiled myself on this question, because the issues of faith and evil seem to be more present in the book (and thus the original screenplay): Ellen and the barker were married and had an evil son, whom Ellen killed; she then had Amy and Joey, whom she religiously oppresses. The barker had Gunther with Madame Zena (yeah, think about that for a second), and believes that Gunther’s evil nature is Satan giving him an assist to exact vengeance on Ellen.

The religious overtones of the original story lead me to infer that this woman played a more significant role in the first draft and was largely cut. Part of Amy’s internal struggle in the novel is that her mother accuses of her of being evil, like a Margaret White who never really commits to a full-on closet-locking; being confronted by a Bathroom Witch who reminds Amy of her repressed doubt would have probably been a single moment in a larger appearance, although having all of that back story omitted from the final screen product does make this scene seem a bit inexplicable. Still, if this had been a story that was more grandiose in its treatment of generational evil, I think it would have traded the sleazy charm that it does possess for a bathetic melodrama; it’s better this way.

Brandon, if you could add a different back story for the film or otherwise weave in additional plot elements, what would you add to make the film better?

Brandon: If there’s anything missing or underutilized in the film I think it’s somewhere in the titular funhouse setting itself. The Funhouse does well enough in establishing a surreal, nightmarish tone without relying on any explicitly supernatural element. Even Gunther’s monstrous, Rick Baker-created appearance is explained to be a natural occurrence, one mirrored by the real life two-headed cows & mutated specimens in the carnival’s freak show. The audience sees the carnival from Final Girl Amy’s perspective, which establishes the otherworldly nightmare tone as she seems to be the only one among her gang of idiot teens who seems to notice how grotesque & off everything feels before the shit inevitably hits the fan in the funhouse. I appreciate that the movie keeps its terrors anchored in the real world. It’s a choice that helps maintain the film’s tangible danger & menace. However, I think a little more play with the laws of nature inside the funhouse might’ve benefited the film’s longterm legacy.

Horror films & funhouses were made for each other for obvious reasons: spooky atmosphere, ambiguity for “real” scary monsters to hide among the fake ones, ample opportunity for jump scares, etc. The Funhouse makes the most out of these obvious set-specific opportunities that it can, but I think it might’ve missed out on bending the rules of reality a bit within its funhouse setting. The bright colors, spooky lighting, and playful ambience of a funhouse already aims for a supernatural subversion of reality, one that could have justified some reality-bending trickery on-camera once the teens are being hunted down. I think The Funhouse works perfectly well as a straightforward slasher at a specific, bizarre setting and it does make good use of set-specific props in its final act, but I wouldn’t have minded a little supernatural surreality mixed in with its real world horrors.

Alli, do you think The Funhouse could have benefited from some supernatural horror once it reaches its titular setting, or did it benefit by keeping its horror explicitly “real”?

Alli: I was kind of relieved that it took it in a more real direction. It was really interesting to me that a lot of the scariest parts were the behind-the-scenes inner-workings of the carnival. Funhouses are generally not as exciting or as fun as the name implies. They’re generally cheap smoke and mirrors, but it’s that cut-throat cheapness that makes them actually terrifying. (Or maybe I spend too much time looking at rideaccidents.com) The inside is creepy for sure, but the final scene takes place underneath it all. The clanking of chains and whirling of fans are disorienting and disconcerting. The ghouls and ghosts that jump out while the thing is running are not as deadly or threatening as an angry fortune teller or carnival lackey. Even the monster wears a mask of another monster because the reality is more hideous.  I think the real world horror grounds this in a way that makes it fairly believable. Weirdos are scary: bathroom preachers, sideshow barkers, fetuses in jars. The Funhouse does a good job at preying on that.

I’m not trying to rule out the idea of a demon-possessed funhouse completely, but any time the supernatural is involved a movie really starts pushing it towards cheesy. What could have worked in the supernatural direction is more rumors in the set-up, like kids talking about real skeletons of past victims being used or ghosts of dead carnies cursed to wander forever from town to town waiting to spook unsuspecting teens. That sort of ambiguity added to the real life fright could have upped the ambience.

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Boomer: I’d love to go back to Alli’s question about whether Amy is the Final Girl or just a final girl. Amy is an interesting candidate for this title, given that she’s very unlike the women who served to canonize this archetype. She’s neither chaste nor sober, and, minus the early draft inclusion of Ellen’s relationship with the barker, she has no connection to the killer. Still, there does seem to be an ineffable Final Girlness to her that belies her nonstandard status.

Britnee: Joey is the absolute worst. He is one of the most disturbingly creepy little brothers in the history of film. There’s a mysterious scene where Joey almost gets killed by a truck driver with a shotgun, and it’s the only time I slightly felt worried for his well-being. Well, that and the fact that he lives with an alcoholic mother.

Brandon:  Like Britnee, I mostly found Joey to be an insufferable little shit. After he scares his sister in the shower with the opening scene’s giallo/Psycho homage it’s difficult to feel any empathy for the detestable little scamp. However, I will admit that my Joey-hatred did fade a little once I realized how much worse the adults of his world are. Before we even meet the Bathroom Witch or see the worst of the barker & Gunther, we get Madame Zena yelling at (admittedly disrespectful) stoner teens, “Don’t come back or I’ll break every bone in your fucking bodies!” Every on-screen adult pounds back hard liquor. A tent full of working class men make a grotesque display out of ogling strippers that’s somehow just as much of a nightmare as the last-act teen hunt. A random trucker pulls over on the highway to point a gun at Joey, a small child, just so he can laugh in his face. Joey never earns likeability, exactly, but it’s at least a lot easier to understand why he’s such a shit once you get the full picture of the hate-filled early 80s hellscape he was raised in.

Alli: To go back to Joey: at the end we never really know too much of what happened to him, just that he was in some carnie’s trailer knocked out with a fever. They chase him down, catch him and drag him off. What exactly did they do to him off-screen? He may have been the definition of obnoxious little brother, but whatever happened in the meantime to him he probably didn’t deserve. 

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
November: Boomer presents Paperhouse (1988)
December: Alli presents Last Night (1999)
January: The Top Films of 2016

-The Swampflix Crew

Invaders from Mars (1986)

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When I first watched Invaders from Mars, I was expecting (based on title alone) the kind of black & white 50s sci-fi cheapie you’d typically find playing on late night television. It turns out that the DVD copy I had purchased on a whim was actually a remake of such a movie. The original Invaders from Mars film was a rushed 1953 production meant to beat War of the Worlds to the punch of showing extraterrestrial invaders on screen in color for the first time ever. What I had in my hands had even stranger origins, however. Not only was the 1986 Invaders from Mars produced by Golan-Globus, one of the era’s finest peddlers of over-the-top schlock (with titles like Invasion USA & Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo lurking in their extensive catalog), but it was also directed by Tom Hooper, who is most widely known for bringing the world The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Poltergeist. The result of that powerful genre movie combo & the production’s 50s schlock origins is a fun little cartoon of a sci-fi horror teeming with wholesome camp & decidedly unwholesome practical effects.

Invaders from Mars comes from a nice little sweet spot in 80s cinema where movies ostensibly aimed at little kids were more than eager to scare its pintsized audience shitless. Although the film boasts the general vibe of a Goosebumps paperback about parents & teachers turned into aliens, it’s also crawling with hideous, handmade creature effects worthy of any adult’s sweatiest nightmare. Released just a year after Joe Dante’s wonderful film Explorers, Invaders mimics that film’s child-meets-alien dynamic, but adds a much more twisted, grotesque layer to the exercise. It’s not only smart enough to acknowledge its roots in 50s schlock, but also to update that aesthetic to a more modern, more terrifying approach to children’s horror media that unfortunately has faded out of fashion in the decades since.

When I was a kid my favorite films used to scare the crap out of me (Monster Squad, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, etc) and I have no doubt that if I had seen the 1980s Invaders from Mars at the time it’d have been among my most cherished VHS selections. As is, I appreciate it a great deal for its combination of childlike wonder & hideous alien beasts. This isn’t an Invasion of the Body Snatchers kind of film that’s going to earn any accolades as the heights of the alien invasion genre, but it is a surprisingly fun & wickedly dark little love letter to camp cinema from a crew of 70s & 80s weirdos who themselves know a thing or two about memorable camp cinema.

-Brandon Ledet