From writer/director Jason William Lee comes Funhouse, the latest and greatest in streaming entertainment that promises to be the ultimate reality show to ever hit the internet.
Funhouse puts a bunch of D-list celebrities in a house, Big Brother style, while the internet watches. Reality stars, social media personalities, influencers, and the like, all competing for the grand prize of five million dollars while enjoying their time in the spotlight. At first, it seems like a regular D-list celebrity reality show. The participants (all varying flavors of douchebag) will get up to various antics, spend some time in the confessional, and periodically, the audience will vote on who gets to stay and who has to go. The twist is that getting kicked out of the house is more than just getting banished from the show. Losing candidates are subjected to various life-threatening scenarios, which usually end in violent, bloody death as the world watches.
The participants are told of none of this, of course. After they sign their contracts, they are drugged and taken to the house, where the rules are explained. The stakes, as it turns out, are much higher than anyone realized, and their shadowy host is a man of particular tastes and vicious ends. They are watched at every moment and armed guards prevent their escape. The only way out of the house is to play the game until just one person is left standing.
The story periodically cuts to the outside world, where we see fans of the show watching intently, laughing, sharing conversations with friends over their favorite contestants, and voting accordingly. We also see them having discussions regarding the validity of the show. What they’re seeing can’t be real, right? It’s all just a gimmick. As the days go on, efforts to “save” their favorite characters result in certain doom for the rest of the contestants. We also see the FBI trying to figure out if the show is real, and if it is, where the signal is broadcasting from, in an effort to save those that remain.
The film’s strength and its greatest weakness ultimately come from the same point—the character development. Well, it’s really more of quiet, contemplative moments that prove that these people are more than the standard attention junkies that they appear to be. Between the blood-soaked moments, we get a lot of conversations within the house of, “Who would do this to us?” “Why did we agree to be here?” “Do we deserve what is happening to us?”
Most of these moments come between Kasper (Valter Skarsgard) and Lonni (Khamisa Wilsher). The two connect early on in the film and spend a lot of time in self-examination, looking at the path that brought them here and how it was lined with both truth and lies, both of which portrayed them in specific ways to their prospective audiences. It’s good that these people are allowed to develop past their onscreen personas, but the way the film goes about it is ultimately clunky and overwrought.
The film does make efforts to break down some of the more poisonous aspects of fame. The fact that fame is itself a drug contributes greatly to these people agreeing to do this show in the first place. Some of their stars are rising, while others are threatening to fade out. They will do anything to keep themselves in the spotlight for just a little bit longer, in the hopes of launching themselves to something bigger and better.
Ultimately, Funhouse isn’t able to fully bridge the divide between the horror that the characters are subjected to and the resulting self-reflective drama that they experience. Its heavy-handedness muddles its message and the story feels weighed down as a result. There are some interesting moments in the final act, but the story just can’t bounce back from the excess baggage.
Movie Score: 2/5