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Review: Funhouse Is a Misfired, Misguided Would-Be Satire of Reality TV

Throughout, it’s difficult to sort the contrivances that writer-director Jason William Lee is parodying from those he’s indulging.

1.5
Funhouse
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The most maddening element of torture porn is its pretension of teaching viewers a lesson about the underbelly of life. This strain of horror film is truly made for our lizard brain, for the carny spectator in us who’s eager to see what grotesqueries a filmmaker has whipped up. As such, the subgenre’s insistence on easy and self-congratulatory satire often feels delusional, not to mention hypocritical, as these are lowest-common-denominator movies that position themselves as attacks against the sleazy cynicism of their audience. Does anyone give one whit about, say, Jigsaw’s sadistic and contradictory “message”?

Jason William Lee’s Funhouse is another film in which desperate people are trapped in a sprawling setting and forced to hurt each other by a brilliant mastermind intent on rubbing society’s face in its own excrement. The film’s hook is that it’s intended as a parody of reality TV, which is as low as low-hanging satirical fruit gets. The scenario isn’t entirely without promise, particularly if a filmmaker meets it on its own debauched terms, but Lee continually positions himself above the material. He seems to authentically believe that he’s saying something new about our addiction to sex and violence, celebrity gossip, tabloid shenanigans that are presented as legitimate news, and the like. In reality, he’s contributing to the noise.

Funhouse opens with a rich man, with the Bond-villain name of Nero Alexander (Jerome Velinsky), paying an attractive woman to beat another attractive woman to death in his office—a transaction that concludes with the presentation of a severed heart for Nero’s delectation. This scene, which exists solely to goose the audience with an opening jolt before the film’s plot has been established, immediately sours the film’s satiric potential. If the ultraviolent Big Brother-type show had been orchestrated by bored and banal executives, or even by a Jeffrey Epstein-like monster who hid his hungers in plain sight—underneath the visage of the kind of flashy success that we all adulate—then the premise might’ve been unnerving. But Nero is a bad guy acted to the hilt by Velinsky, who does everything but grow a mustache to twirl, which allows us to distance ourselves from the material and regard it, correctly, as a cartoon.

Later, several C-list reality TV stars, who signed a contract that few of them bothered to actually read, wake up in Nero’s lurid house of horrors, an expensive, high-tech fortress awash in futuristic neon hues and minimalist metallic rooms. Per the dictates of reality TV, each “contestant” is sexy with a superficially distinct identity, with gender distribution more or less equal across the cast and races calculatedly diverse. Lee gets these elements right, though it’s difficult to sort the contrivances he’s parodying from those he’s indulging.

After a few days of boozing and screwing on the funhouse’s dime, it becomes evident that Nero expects the contestants to kill one another. The show is projected online 24/7 without commercials, and every three days viewers vote on their favorite celeb, with the loser facing a ghoulish challenge. We’re told that this show can’t be stopped by the authorities because the house and IP address are untraceable, and so this snuff game show is allowed to become a phenomenon. In a nice touch, audiences in the film justify watching Nero’s atrocities by telling themselves that it’s fake—a detail that echoes how people scoff at reality TV while taking it deadly seriously. It’s also eerily random how Nero presents himself to the contestants on monitors that digitally render him as an innocuous cartoon panda. Wisely, Lee doesn’t explain such moments, which suggest the random gimmickry of reality game shows.

Other strands of Lee’s satire are perceptively callous. As contestants are gruesomely bumped off, there’s a Talk Soup-style show that makes glib jokes about the deaths and the hotness and personalities of the victims, with asinine sound effects and graphs. In such sequences, Lee gets within spitting distance of Paul Verhoeven’s brutal media satires, though he bungles one key element of real reality TV: the way people are encouraged to play to the camera, rendering themselves into stereotypes. If Lee had the daring to consciously dehumanize his sacrificial lambs, or to allow them to more consistently dehumanize themselves for the sake of life-saving votes, Funhouse may have had enough sick punch to transcend its general obviousness. Lee broaches this idea but doesn’t commit to it. Wanting it both ways, he mocks his characters before empathizing with them so that their deaths may theoretically sting. Ultimately, Funhouse fatally lacks reality TV’s vital vulgarity: its turbo-charged clashing of reductive personalities. At its center, the film is weirdly soft and eager to please.

Cast: Valter Skarsgård, Jerome Velinsky, Khamisa Wilsher, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Christopher Gerard, Karolina Benefield, Amanda Howells, Mathias Retamal, Dayleigh Nelson, Kylee Bush, Debs Howard, Bradley Duffy, Michael MacKinnon, Dave Peniuk, Ben Heidi Director: Jason William Lee Screenwriter: Jason William Lee Distributor: Magnet Releasing Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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