Monday, April 25, 2022

The (Panda) Tribe Has Spoken

I'm a bit of a softie for any form of game show horror, particularly the reality-themed. Maybe it's my competitive nature. It's one thing to fight for your life, but it's soooooo much better when you have to ALSO fight others.

Quick Plot: Welcome to Furca's House of Fun, a Big Brother-ish live stream filled with 8 attractive millennial D-list celebrities (including one played by Culture Shock director Gigi Saul Guerrero). Their skills range from chess to MMA, with a whole lot of reality TV and social media filtering experience in between. Every few days, one contestant will be eliminated based on popular vote, with the last one winning a $5 million cash prize.

Sounds easy enough, but as you just might guess, Funhouse has a few deadly tricks up its sleeve. Our computer generated panda bear cartoon host might seem cute and cuddly at first, but before you can throw in a convoluted product placement, the real stakes are revealed. 

Yes, it's a murder game, because how can a modern horror movie starring hot people with dubious pasts NOT be a murder game? And you know what: it's kind of a delight.

Written and directed by Jason William Lee, Funhouse is, you know, FUN. It takes just enough time introducing its setup to get us fully ready for the fireworks, and once they start blasting, the movie creates a shockingly human center to hold it up. 

We're so used to our physically perfect, morally gross young horror casts to be empty fodder, and when you throw in a reality competition plot point, it's truly a given. What makes Funhouse such a smart little watch is how it slyly flips that expectation on its hashtagged head. Each individual is introduced with an emoji-filled montage highlighting their less than respectable fame, and early conflicts lead us to expect a whole lot of shouting, with the big reveal being that the REAL monster is their own inability to work together. We've seen it done time and time again.

And that's the beauty of Funhouse. Just as quickly as we roll our eyes over a Bachelorette's failed love stories, we find ourselves incredibly invested in her survival. Lee understands that giving his characters just enough room to react to their circumstances and interact with each other goes a very long way in opening them up to the audience. 

It certainly helps that the cast is so solid. Everyone manages to craft both sides of their character: the annoyingly hamming wannabe star AND the vulnerable human in way over his or her head realizing that death is just a few clicks away. The setting fits the aesthetic you've come to expect from this kind of programming: monochromatic confessional rooms, steaming hot tubs, and an endless well of top shelf liquor. And all it takes is the first elimination round to reveal the utter emptiness of their prison. 

High Points
It's a tricky job to play reality fame vampires who earn audience sympathy, but enough good things can't be said about the cast. Everyone finds the right beats, but it's Christopher Gerard as Headstone who really shines, giving us both the short temper tantrums that would make good TV and shockingly raw moments that show his humanity

Low Points
I suppose our main villain is supposed to be pretty insufferable, but a good deal of his 'let me explain what this all means' monologues feel a bit more on the nose than needed

Lessons Learned
There's a big difference between drugging yourself and being drugged

Even the internet can get bored with boobs

If you don't trust your agent, then it's really your responsibility to read the very fine print

I had an absolute blast with Funhouse. It's streaming on Hulu and well worth your eyeballs, particularly if they've consumed their share of reality competitions. 

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