Skip to main content

I am an entertainer. I belong to the ages.


The Fantastic Journey
7. Funhouse

Funhouse is the first of two episodes of The Fantastic Journey that actively embrace the surreal. It’s likely not coincidental that they are also the best episodes of the series; the chance to tread unfamiliar ground and engage with altered states throws the generally pedestrian plotting into sharp relief.

Willaway: I’ve got a funny feeling… Let’s just leave it alone.

Roddy McDowall is in pole position again, where he’s most comfortable. But this time Varian is back to being the perceptive strength behind the travellers as Willaway finds his body possessed by Marcus Apollonius, the first century AD philosopher-sage. McDowall embraces the opportunity to indulge in some antic acting (as with Eisenmann in Atlantium, the actor’s voice is often augmented; perhaps the producers didn’t trust the audience to know the difference, or they might just have wanted to spook-up the proceedings). Varian, battling for the mind of Willaway, is positioned far closer to original persona, prior to the arrival of the 1960s rebel scientist.

Fred: Eerie? Is that the technical term for it?

Curiously, however, it’s Willaway who is given a spider-sense to tingle. He doesn’t want to detour to the (decidedly 20thcentury) carnival they encounter. This is appropriate enough, as he turns out to be the main target of bodysnatching (although Liana’s also on the menu).

He's an all-round entertainer.

Apollonius: I am an entertainer. I belong to the ages.

Apollonius (Mel Ferrer) and his chums, Roxanne (Mary Frann) and Barker (Richard Lawson) are first seen making foreboding pronouncements concerning the travellers (“Which one will you choose?”, “The waiting is over”). In short order, Willaway is identified as the object of the philosopher’s desire; because he is vulnerable. Roxanne’s refrain concerning the beauty of Liana suggests Sapphic undertones, although she has the same thing in mind as Apollonius (later she straps Liana down and waxes lyrical some more over her lusciousness). Ever the classicist, Willaway recognises Apollonius as a “great magician of antiquity”. Marcus initially pronounces himself a descendant only, with the carnival recovered from a shipwreck (an impressive salvage operation!)

Cheap, tatty, on the verge of cancellation… Yep, that's carnivals for you.

Barker: The secrets lie inside the door.

Scott and Fred are extra-eager to sample the delights of the funhouse, while Varian doesn’t seem much cop on sussing out the dangers (all he can offer is that he senses something). The insides of the house aren’t really all that; a few hanging skeletons, a big slide, a hall of mirrors. But director Art Fisher (best known for his comedy and light entertainment work) goes to town with his use of wide-angle lens and distorting/disorientating camera effects.  He’s complemented by very traditional, but no less effective for it, ethereally spooky music. Fred ends up in the black-and-white-checked Hall of Mysteries, while Scott vanishes into a mirror for a while (he’s just bait to induce the gang to separate). Varian and Liana have fun in a rotating tube.

Willaway: What do you want?
Apollonius: You. You’re perfect.
Willaway: That’s nice of you to say so. But what for?

Apollonius’ account of his rebellion is engrossing, and winningly myth-building in a way the series hasn’t allowed since the first two episodes. Apollonius challenged the gods for three days and three nights. He was only defeated when the furies of the underworld rose up and joined the Olympians. Then he was vanquished and damned to wander Evoland for the millennium. But now he has expanded his powers, with his discover of the secret of the land, and plans to go back and once again challenge the gods.

Apollonius: I was cursed to wander the limbo of this zone for all time.
Willaway: Then the legends are true? You challenged the gods?

The historical Apollonius had no such airs and graces that we know of; as a Pythagorean, pious and frugal, he opposed animal sacrifice and lived as a vegetarian. He considered God to have no interest in being worshipped, and believed He could be reached through the intellect. He was a contemporary of Jesus, and reputedly performed similar miracles (including raising the dead). One wonders at the decision by Michaelian to present him as a challenger to the ancient gods; perhaps he considers this an appropriate means of expressing the character’s original thinking. But having him punished and made a negative force rather sullies his reputation.

One thing to note here is that, straight after the false religion of a fake god in An Act of LoveFunhouse presents us with a universe where the Greek gods are real. It’s an appealingly unrestrictive approach, particularly if –as here – it results in the telling of a good story.


Look for Scott. Or stare at Liana's legs. Choices, choices.

In my pieces on Vortexand Atlantium, I noted parallels with Doctor Who’s The Keys of Marinus. Another William Hartnell story, The Celestial Toymaker, bears a passing resemblance to Funhouse. Both feature an uncanny setting where dangerous versions of childhood games are the order of the day. Both are presided by an individual of great longevity , one who has difficulty in leaving his domain (the Toymaker can only depart if the Doctor remains to oversee it). Most likely this is just coincidence; funfairs and carnivals are rich sources for the sinister (see also Something Wicked This Way Comes) in the same way as clowns are; the appeal of the dark side of childhood imagination.

Apollonius: Where could I travel like this?

So far so good. But logic falls down somewhat with regard to Marcus’ reason for taking possession of visitors. Beneath the visage of prolific US screen actor Ferrer lies a frightening furry pig face (furry pig creatures appears to be a favourite of the series’ designers). This is both a disturbing and an amusing sight, aesthetically repulsive but tempered by the make-up department’s decision to liberally glue tufts of hair wherever they see fit. The result is akin to a werewolf on a 12-step recovery programme. Later we see that Roxanne is similarly afflicted, as she was Marcus’ aid (presumably Barker is too?). Couldn’t they invest in razors? Self-grooming sometimes works wonders. The main objection is this; since they have perfectly good facemasks, surely any impediment to Marcus’ plan for a rematch is purely psychological? Or maybe they just get very, very itchy.

Trip-tastic. Ish.

The centrepiece is Varian’s battle for Willaway’s mind. As Apollonius throws disorientating visions at him, Christina Hart makes a brief return as Varian’s dead wifey (“Come to me... Come... Please, help me”) By this point D. C. Fontana is credited as story editor and, with Michael Michaelian returning as writer for the third time, perhaps the production staff were consciously paying more attention to continuity. Possibly they were just trying anything in the hope of securing a future for the show; the writing must have been on the wall by this point. The battle occurs amid epic amounts of dry ice. Apollonius’ promise of Evoland if he is allowed to stay in Willaway’s body falls on deaf ears.

Possession plots are usually a dramatic winner. The effect of Roddy boggling out isn’t as chilling as when Eisenmann does it in Atlantium, but it’s still arresting. Varian is the one who sees through Apollonius deception. He realises that something is wrong when Willaway suggests the others leave him and go on to the next zone, claiming that Marcus has promised to tell only the rebel scientist the secrets of Evoland (“He’s a funny duck”).

Fred: I told you this place was eerie. Why didn’t you listen to me?

The banter between Fred and Willaway at the conclusion of the episode is a cut above (Fred gives him a hug!), as is the framing of the moral of the story. In place of the usual smug platitudes, there’s an appealing line in philosophical speculation. Scott is used to ask the questions the audience may be thinking.

Scott: What’s going to happen to them? Apollonius and the girl?
Varian: They’ll just stay here, wait for others.
Scott: But I still don’t get it. If Apollonius has the power to take over the body of another person, why hasn’t he done it already? And gotten out of here?
Varian: Maybe that’s part of the curse. That he’ll go on trying, and trying, and he’ll never succeed.
Fred: So he repeats that same ritual, over and over again throughout eternity? Wow, over and over again. Only to have his hopes crushed every time.

If their theory is correct, it’s a very Sisyphean punishment (appropriate to one who challenged the gods). It’s additionally curious that the apparently powerful magician has no awareness of this circular trap.

Fred: Complaints, complaints. I’m beginning to wonder if Apollonius wouldn’t have been easier to travel with.
Willaway: He might have been better company, but I’m prettier. Ha-ha-ha.

Funhouse is the best episode of the series so far;  a fine villainous turn from Ferrer, am effective setting,  and strong roles for Varian and Willaway. The only downer is that Sil-El makes his presence known right at the end; he’s been hanging out with their baggage.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.