It’s summer, and a summer where, in most countries, many people are still wary of going back out into crowded public places, regardless of vaccination status or the number of COVID cases. The pandemic obviously forced people to stay indoors more than ever, with some non-essential workers migrating to digital platforms and relying more on technology and media than ever before. It seems like it would be timely, then, for Jason William Lee’s horror film Funhouse to release just after a year stuck at home. In Funhouse, eight “C-list” celebrities accept an invitation to appear on a “Big Brother”-like reality TV show to compete for $5 million and a sizeable boost of visibility for their celeb status. The film primarily focuses on Kasper (played by Valter Skarsgård, the youngest brother of the Skarsgård acting family), who achieved fame when his wife Darla Drake (Kylee Bush), a famous singer, let him co-star on her reality show. Kasper and Darla divorced, however, and Kasper finds himself in need of a new gig to maintain fame. After he agrees to join the Funhouse show, he wakes up in a strange room, realising he’d been drugged and brought to a mysterious location where he meets his seven other antsy co-contestants. It’s no surprise that the “reality show” quickly turns into a round of grisly encounters aimed to garner online views and votes.
Funhouse’s strength is its ability to create characters the audience can sympathise with as the contestants face brutal situations and try to work together to survive. The characters are not the most developed, but the film gives them time to form relationships with one another and react to what’s happening enough that what they go through can mean something to the audience. The film, however, never quite elevates them beyond their stock archetypes to allow the torture to offer real impact or commentary.
I’ll be honest as a reviewer: I haven’t seen a lot of films that belong to Funhouse’s subgenre of horror — only Saw. Because of that lack of experience, it’s hard for me to put Funhouse in a broader context or see what it might add to the subgenre or simply rehash from past films. My review, then, is taking it in something of a genre vacuum and reading it instead through our cultural climate, which can be done because the film very directly engages technology, reality TV, social media use, spectatorship, and human trafficking. With that said, Funhouse doesn’t quite have a decodable cultural statement. It sets up scenes that could offer a salient message about our current relationship to media, then undercuts it in another scene. Instead of feeling like a postmodern piece that willingly works to evade a clear-cut meaning, Funhouse seems instead to not know what it really wants to say, and a good deal of that has to do with the way it tackles spectatorship.
Funhouse dedicates a decent amount of screen-time to cutting outside of the show and into the viewing contexts of its audience. We see little kids, teens, and adults all watching, sometimes alone, in pairs, or in larger groups. We see them laugh, cheer, grimace, and vote for their favourite contestants. Regardless of whether or not the audience believes Funhouse as a show is real (it seems some do and some don’t), the idea that people would tune in in droves and normalise the viewing of it seems unlikely and nihilistic. Sure, some people would want to see it, but most would not. The most misanthropic exclusion is how the film fails to show any meaningful resistance or online activism against the ceremonial killings. Where are the feminists, the activists, the humanitarians? Where are the think-pieces and the public grieving? Funhouse only shows us the most fatalistic images of voyeurist gazes taking in the violence. It doesn’t show us the good people who would come out to do honest cultural criticism around the show.
Although the pandemic was a time of being stuck indoors and feeling a collective claustrophobia and social media deluge, Funhouse doesn’t feel like the movie for the moment. Although it has an interesting concept with room for plenty of cultural work, the film never quite delivers satisfying scares or a compelling critique. Funhouse doesn’t stick the landing it sets up for itself, but it does serve as a reminder that anxiety over social media continues, and more films will continue to tackle the uneasiness of spectatorship.
Funhouse is available in US cinemas and on demand from May 28th
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter