By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Valter Skarsgård, Khamisa Wilsher and Christopher Gerard
Written and directed by Jason William Lee
Any horror filmmaker looking to make a statement about pop-cultural excesses while ladling on the explicit blood ’n’ guts has a delicate balancing act to perform, and FUNHOUSE falls off the wire early on.
Writer/director/editor Jason William Lee opens with his super-wealthy, sneering villain (Jerome Velinsky) overseeing one woman brutally murdering another for money (while listening to Beethoven, of course). Thus there’s no mystery as to who’s behind the plight of eight C-list celebrities who sign up for what they think is the latest variation on BIG BROTHER, and find themselves in a mother lode of trouble. Kasper Norden (Valter Skarsgård, of the acting Skarsgårds) is the first we meet, waking up in a high-tech mansion that’s the staging ground for “Furcas’ House of Fun.” Once the star of a reality series focused on his marriage to a famous pop singer, Kasper is now dealing with a career on the wane, as are his seven House-mates, ranging from Lonni (Khamisa Wilsher), who was left at the altar twice on a BACHELORETTE-type show, and Cat (Amanda Howells), former star of THE REAL WICCANS OF WESTCHESTER and a chess prodigy, to MMA fighter James “Headstone” Malone (Christopher Gerard) and rapper Dex (Mathias Retamal).
All have been lured by the promise of a $5-million payday to the one who survives audience voting to become the winner–but survival turns out to become a literal concern. That becomes clear when one of them is given a blindfolded piñata challenge, that object is replaced by another of the group, and she winds up unwittingly beating him to death with a spiked bat while the others watch. (None of them apparently wonder why she can’t tell she’s whacking something a lot heavier and fleshier than a papier-maché candy container.) They’re now trapped inside the House, and in a scenario where viewer votes will have fatal, torturous consequences via a variety of death devices. Their sadistic “host” appears to them regularly as a voice-altered animated panda who taunts and teases them, when not making pronouncements about the degradation of culture and the favor he’s doing society by killing off this group as the web world watches.
There’s some severe mixed messaging going on here; FUNHOUSE wants us to ponder how the Internet scene has made gross voyeurs of us all, while at the same time staging each gory demise with maximum relish. Lee frequently intercuts glimpses of various ordinary folks watching, and taking part in, the octet’s plight on their devices, but he doesn’t successfully conflate their inability to look away with ours. Nor does he have anything to say about celebrity obsession and desensitivity in the social-media age that hasn’t already been said many times before. When the preening puppetmaster says, “We are, after all, living in unprecedented times where ignorance, vulgarity and aggression are all traits to be admired,” he’ll likely be the only one thinking he’s delivering a profound message. And the fact that his solution only makes him part of the problem goes uncommented on by either the movie or the other characters.
The contestants are, for the most part, only sketchily drawn (“We should at least get to know each other before we die,” James says, but no such luck), and the movie appears further confused about whether we should sympathize with them or get twisted pleasure from their horrible fates. Acting-wise, the strongest impressions are made by Gerard, who manages to elicit some genuine pathos for his tough-talking bad-ass in the later going, and Gigi Saul Guerrero, who brings the appropriate fierceness to blogger/influencer Ximena (fans of her own movies, particularly CULTURE SHOCK, might wish she had written and directed this one too). It’s a little disappointing, though, that while James and the other guys are allowed moments of bonding, the women are at each other’s throats from almost the beginning.
By the end, as the bad guy rants about how graphic violence in movies gets more of a pass than nudity or profanity–in the midst of the film awash in over-the-top gore–FUNHOUSE has lost any idea of what it’s trying to say, or how it means to say it. It can’t even keep a sense of the timeframe it sets up for itself, establishing early on that audience voting will take place every three days, and then completely skipping over those periods in its anxiousness to get to the next bloodbath. “The Kardashianization of humanity” is among the manipulative fiend’s talking points, in the latest unfortunate example of the SAW-ization of horror.