Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Fantastic Journey (1977): "The Funhouse"

Given my long-standing love of the horror genre, The Fantastic Journey's "Funhouse" stands as one of my favorite installments of the short-lived 1970s sci-fi series. Using fun house and other carnival atmospherics to good, macabre effect, this installment is unlike any other in the FJ canon, and nicely eschews the by-now-common "civilization of the week" formula.  In proving different, "Funhouse" is actually a breath of fresh air, a good old-fashioned "spooky" hour.

In "Funhouse," Varian, Scott, Fred, Willaway, Sil-El and Lianna -- now boasting a new fluffy hair-do -- cross into a new "time zone." 

Instead of finding another divided culture in the Bermuda Triangle, the group discovers a very ominous, abandoned carnival fairground. 

Although Willaway has concerns about the mysterious carnival, noting that it "doesn't belong there," Scott and others insist they check it out, and the group takes an impromptu tour.  Before long, the amusement park rides come to mysterious life, and the interlopers are greeted by a bearded man who claims to be the descendant of Marcus Apollonius, a famous magician of antiquity.  "I am an entertainer.  I belong to the ages," he notes.  He also reveals that his expansive carnival was "salvaged from a shipwreck."

Along with two cohorts -- the Barker (Richard Lawson) and Roxanne (Mary Frann) -- Apollonius (Mel Ferrer) hints to the visitors that if they defeat the surprises of his carnival fun house, he will share with them the secret of Evoland.  Again, Willaway is wary of the endeavor, but he goes along anyway.

Inside the creepy fun house, the travelers are quickly separated in a Hall of Mirrors, and the real plan becomes plain.  Apollonious is actually, Marcus himself -- the ancient magician -- and we wishes to possess the physical body of Willaway so as to challenge the Gods themselves, after departing the Bermuda Triangle from Evoland.  

Meanwhile, Roxanne desires Lianna's body for her own use because she's tired of being treated as ugly.  Both Apollonious and the woman have been cursed by the Gods with hideous countenances, ones carefully cloaked under masks of normality.

After Willaway's body is possessed, Varian and Scott attempt to restore their friend's life, while Fred crawls through a fun house vent shaft to rescue the imperiled Lianna. 

As Varian attempts to drive the villainous Apollonious from Willaway's body, Apollonius conjures images of Varian's lost love, Gwenith (from "An Act of Love.")  With herculean effort, Varian rescues Willaway, and the travelers leave the fun house and carnival behind.

Later, as they depart the time zone, the group wonders if Marcus Apollonius has been cursed by the Gods to play the same role again and again, always luring visitors to their doom...and always failing to achieve his goal of escape.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of "Funhouse" is that the story's antagonist, Marcus Apollonius, is a real historical figure.  He was a wandering philosopher in the first century, one who was believed to have taken his miracles and magic to distant kingdoms including India, Spain and Mesopotamia. 

Apollonius was also believed to have performed human sacrifices (!) and some sources suggest that, like Chris, he was assumed into Heaven.  

The Fantastic Journey's depiction of Apollonius is close to the historical article in only very general terms, but not specifics.  Though Apollonius was known to have challenged at least one Emperor, Nero, here he was an arrogant magician who challenged the Gods of Mount Olympus, apparently real beings.  And he didn't beam up to Heaven, he was "cursed to wander in the limbo of this land [the Bermuda Triangle] for all time." 

The Gods also cursed Apollonius and his woman friend, Roxanne, with ugliness.  In particular, they have unsightly hair growth on their faces.  Yet, they have perfect "flesh" masks under which to hide, so it's difficult to see why stealing more handsome/pretty bodies is such a burning necessity.   If you don't actually look ugly, outwardly, nobody would treat you as ugly.  Then again, all is vanity, right?

In some ways, "Funhouse" copies the central idea from "Atlantium:"  a life form who wants to steal the body of one of our heroic travelers in the Bermuda Triangle.   However, in this case the trappings are so different from what came before in "Atlantium" that the repetition of the concept isn't that noticeable.

"Funhouse" also derives a lot of mileage out of the funhouse setting, featuring weird slides, dangling skeletons, "shrunken" rooms, a hall of mirrors, a rotating tunnel, pervasive mist and other creepy effects.   The camera work is impressive too.  The shots of the group entering and walking on the empty fair grounds do a good job of suggesting a faintly sinister isolation.  Right from the first few compositions, you feel unnerved by the place. 

 It all adds up to a dynamic episode in terms of visuals.  It also features a nasty villain -- one who reminded me of Space: 1999's Magus -- and a nice final chill: the thought that Apollonius will attempt his body thievery on the next wanderers who happen by...

The finest moment in "Funhouse," however, involves Varian (Jared Martin) it often does on the series. Here, his efforts to heal Willaway are stymied when Apollonius creates a vision of his beloved Gwenith, lost to Betticus in "An Act of Love."

This style of  episode-to-episode continuity was very rare in 1970s science fiction television indeed, and it's great that the writer, Michael Michael included Gwenith in the action, and that Christine Hart returned to play her a second time.  You can see how the series writers were really attempting to develop the characters, and build a consistent history for them.

Although it didn't air near Halloween, I always consider "Funhouse"to be The Fantastic Journey's Halloween episode.  It features spiritual possession, ghoulish make-ups, a fun house, and even lightning and thunder flashes at one point.  

The story is not particularly deep once you dissect it -- there's no social commentary this time out -- but "Funhouse" is a diverting roller-coaster, and a nice interregnum between those repetitive "civilizations of the week."

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