Imagine Celebrity Big Brother but people die when they get voted out of the house, like the Doctor Who episode “Bad Wolf”, but less family friendly. That is the premise of the new horror film, Funhouse. Eight “celebrities” from across the globe sign up for a new online reality show that is to be broadcast 24/7. One by one they start dropping in theoretically horrifying ways leaving the remaining housemates struggling to maintain their sanity and earn enough votes to survive and win their freedom and a huge cash prize. Yet the world keeps watching and cheering despite the gruesome deaths onscreen that not everyone is convinced are real.
Kasper Nordin (Valter Skarsgård) is the primary “celebrity” that we follow into the house. His claim to fame is he was married to a pop star and is now divorced from that pop star. He has a classic motive for signing on to the reality show, he wants to be known as more than somebody else’s ex (and the money probably had some influence). It is interesting to see his journey trying to be something more and developing a new relationship or two. Since we essentially start the film with Kasper, it probably is not a spoiler to say he makes it to at least the top half of the field along with a potential love interest (theoretically futile as the show is designed to kill 7 out of the 8 contestants). All the actors were respectable and several plot points, in addition to being biting social commentary, are designed to create an emotional roller coaster of an ending that almost works, but only if you really buy into the character development and drama rather than the horror.
As a horror film, Funhouse veers too close to the dull side. The contestants are kicked off by public vote, so there really is not much suspense regarding who is marked for death each round. They are then given a challenge to save themselves and move on to the next round; if the bottom two are within one percentage point, the challenge is a head-to-head matchup. The challenges range in excitement from a timed memory card game to a battle using axes. I love chess, but it is not that exciting in a horror film. The actual death scenes, while somewhat gruesome, are rather unremarkable and reminiscent of other popular horror films. There are masked assistants that are initially creepy, but quickly blend into the background so long as the contestants stay in line.
Now, as a drama with social commentary, I liked this movie. The movie makes some good points about censorship, fake conspiracy theories, and our society’s obsession with fame and wealth. The points may not be original, but our society has not improved much, so repeating the points may not be trivial. In addition to the “celebrity” contestants inside the house, whose claims to fame are sketchy at best (though entirely believable in today’s society), the film cuts to people watching the broadcast. Many of the viewers are obsessed with the show, have their “favorites”, vote on a contestant’s challenger for a deathmatch, create their own videos about the show, all despite the contestants not really doing anything except talking, arguing, hooking up, and/or dying.
There are some unnecessary scenes, like the sequence in the forest that could be sign of the contestant’s mentality but comes off as an attempt at a cheap scare. The opening doubles as a bonus nearly unrelated blood-and-guts scene and as an introduction to the bad guy, a rich guy who can get people to kill other people and he has minions (not those minions, no bananas here) that clean up afterward; after the reality show starts, he is quickly shown to be behind the digital panda that serves as the host of the reality show (one of my favorite parts is when he eerily delivers a Shakespearian line when discussing his motives). If you count mannequins, there is nudity throughout the film, otherwise there is just a short scene or two that does tie into the plot. Minor spoilers, there is a twist ending that I thought added nothing to the plot and there is a post-credits scene which is just a funny extra scene that again touches on the wealth obsession. I admit I have gone back and forth between positives and negatives, but the bottom line is I enjoyed much of this film and would mildly recommend it to more mature audiences.