The great Garth Marenghi once said, “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards.” He would have loved FUNHOUSE, writer-director Jason William Lee’s leering and mean-spirited horror satire. The film can’t reconcile its tonal twists, leading to mixed messages that direct the viewer’s outrage toward the film itself rather than the target(s) Lee was actually aiming for. Unevenly paced and insistent on spelling out its themes in leaden dialogue, FUNHOUSE isn’t the trenchant social commentary it wants to be, nor is it fun enough to enjoy with your brain turned off.
Bored now that there are no more worlds to conquer, the young and smugly “self-made” billionaire Nero Alexander (Jerome Velinsky) tries to entertain himself with bloodsport. The film opens on Nero scrolling through his phone listlessly as a young woman beats another young woman to death in front of him. He then forces her to crawl to him and literally offer up the dead woman’s heart on a silver platter. His satisfaction only lasts a second or two, though, so he decides to seek greater fulfillment with Funhouse. Combining Saw and Hostel with Big Brother, Nero devises a reality show that confines eight D-list celebrities to a compound and asks viewers to vote for their favorite celebrity every three days. The person with the lowest number of votes has to complete a challenge to try to stay in the house. If they lose (and they almost always lose), they are brutally murdered.
Bizarrely, the reality show is originally called Furcas’s House of Fun, to be shortened later in the film to Funhouse. Furcas is a cartoon panda wearing a crown who interacts with the cast in real-time with a disturbingly gravelly voice. The viewer soon learns that Furcas is actually Nero in a motion-capture suit who acts out all of Furcas’s movements. Nero never seems to sleep: Funhouse is streamed live to audiences 24/7 over the course of a couple of weeks, and Furcas/Nero reacts to the goings-on in the house at lightning speed regardless of the time of day. In one of many missed opportunities in the film, FUNHOUSE never addresses how terrifying (and pathetic) it is that Nero seems to stare unblinking at his monitor for weeks on end just so he can torture captive strangers.
Of course, the eight victims don’t know that the premise is quite so punishing when they first sign up for the show. They arrive at the house — decorated like the Korova Milk Bar Lite — expecting a typical reality show experience full of drinking, hot tub shenanigans, and self-promoting confessionals. It isn’t until the first person is voted off that they discover that Furcas meant it literally when he said only one person would survive. The fictional audience watches the murders as well, and though public consensus seems split on whether the grisly executions are real or not, viewership increases after each death. Lee is clearly trying to implicate the real-world audience here and condemn our communal bloodlust; we are watching a film about gruesome murders for entertainment, after all. But given how wildly the tone changes and how confused the messages are — one scene decries people’s appetites for fame and attention, while the next asks the viewer to have empathy for people with those same appetites —the film’s intended criticisms never land.
FUNHOUSE alternates between scenes set inside the reality show compound and outside on news reports following the murders. It also showcases fictional viewers voting for their favorite celebrities and cheering on the competitors in the death matches. It is in these outside scenes that viewers catch fleeting glimpses of the morbidly funny movie Lee was trying to make, but the split-second bright spots only serve to make the film emptier and more frustrating to watch. The best moments center around Kasper Nordin (Valter Skarsgård), who is famous for being the ex-husband of world-famous singer Darla Drake (Kylee Bush).
A group of friends crowds around a laptop watching Funhouse and deciding who to vote for. A girl chooses Kasper, using the following reasoning: “The dude’s Swedish!” A boy responds: “…And?!” It’s a sly nod to pop culture’s obsession with Valter Skarsgård’s family (his father is Stellan Skarsgård and his siblings include Alexander and Bill Skarsgård) that becomes funnier when you read all the real-world comments on the film that express surprise over how many Skarsgård brothers are actors. Even better than this meta-joke is the gloriously cheesy Swedish Heat, a short-lived cop show Kasper starred in as an attempt to move past his infamous relationship. Sadly, we only see a short clip of the show, and by the end of FUNHOUSE, I found myself wishing that I’d been able to watch Swedish Heat instead.
The other celebrities being held at the Funhouse are: Lonni Byrne (Khamisa Wilsher), star of a Bachelorette ripoff who was jilted at the altar twice; Ximena Torres (Gigi Saul Guerrero), a gossip blogger who mines her housemates’ struggles and insecurities for clicks and likes; James “Headstone” Malone (Christopher Gerard), an MMA fighter with a penchant for violence outside the octagon; Ula La More (Karoline Benefield), an Instagram model who can’t stop vamping for the cameras; Cat Zim (Amanda Howells), an actress/fighter/chess grandmaster (don’t worry, it doesn’t make any sense in context either); Dex Souza (Mathias Retamal), a reality show star turned rapper whose sole hit “El Shocker” gives him the opportunity to make the titular hand gesture at every opportunity; and Nevin Evensmith (Dayleigh Nelson), a YouTuber who racks up millions of views rating viral videos. Nero has assembled these people with “wasted lives” in a misguided attempt at becoming the next Jigsaw, when he really just comes across as a peevish, sadistic tech bro.
That bro philosophy manifests itself most frustratingly in the film’s treatment of Ula. Both Nero/Furcas and Ximena attack Ula mercilessly with misogynistic insults. They slut-shame her at every opportunity — Ximena disparagingly calls her a prostitute for using her body to get votes and Nero mocks her “duck face and fish gape” — but Nero applauds Ula when she tearfully explains that she shows off her body because it’s all anyone has ever liked about her. FUNHOUSE wants to lecture women for embracing their sexuality and posting selfies online, but it forgives them as long as there’s trauma or insecurity involved. As long as Ula feels bad about herself for being an Instagram model, the film argues, she’s not such a useless person after all. For a film with such little nuance or grasp of its many lukewarm takes, its misogyny is the most infuriating part. Until we get to the final shot, that is.
FUNHOUSE begins and ends with an insufferable smirk. Nero isn’t a menacing villain. He’s annoying and highly punchable. Again, the film comes close to making a valid (if unoriginal) observation about the richest men in the world: they’re not Bond villains, they’re dweebs with half-baked 4chan philosophies and superiority complexes. Their power is what makes them dangerous, but FUNHOUSE doesn’t want to interrogate power dynamics or talk about race or gender or class in any meaningful way. It doesn’t want to examine why these eight people were so desperate for money that they agreed to a sketchy-sounding reality show in the mere hope of a large payday. It barely pretends to care who they are outside of their celebrity personas. The film would rather rehash old arguments about the “Kardashianization” of our culture (an actual quote from Nero) without bringing anything new to the table. If you’re not going to be innovative in your topic or your approach — and if you steadfastly refuse to say anything of substance — it helps to be entertaining. Sadly, FUNHOUSE doesn’t live up to its title.
FUNHOUSE is now in theaters and on-demand.