Written and Directed by: Victor Salva
Starring: Nathan Forrest Winters, Sam Rockwell, and Brian McHugh
Reviewed by: Wes R.
ďThatís what I donít like about clowns. Their faces are fake. Big happy eyes. Big painted smiles. Itís not real.
You never know what they really are.Ē
You never know what they really are.Ē
Clowns have never been something that Iíve been afraid of, but Iíve often understood why people fear them. Their painted faces, their over-the-top happiness and silly gestures: theyíre almost otherworldly. To a young child, such a bizarre-looking character could even be traumatic in the right situation. Even if an adult ran across a clown in the darkest of night, fearful of them or not, Iím sure they would rightly give pause. Because of horror filmmakersí knowledge of this fear of clowns, there have been a few attempts to capitalize on it cinematically. Probably the best use of a killer clown was in the Stephen King novel and mini-series, It. The subject matter was dealt with in a much more silly way in Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Even the direct-to-video market has been saturated by clown psychos and demons in such films as Fear of Clowns and Killjoy. One late 80s horror entry also managed to do serious, scary justice to the concept all the while becoming a controversial rarity. Iím of course speaking of Victor Salva's 1988 feature debut, Clownhouse.
Poor Casey. The young boy is absolutely terrified of clowns, and his two older brothers aren't making things any easier by constantly picking on him. The mere sight of a clown's face on a circus advertisement in a nightmare causes Casey to wet the bed in his sleep. One night, a group of inmates escape a nearby mental institution and happen upon the local traveling circus. It is there that the escaped maniacs kill three of the circus clowns and steal their costumes and makeup. Then, in full clown dress, the madmen begin a random murder spree that ends up at the house of Casey's family. Of course, only he and his two older brothers are the only ones home, as their parents have gone away for a few hours. Will they be able to last through the night? Will Casey finally conquer his clown phobia once and for all?
I realize that itís supposed to be the ďart not the artistĒ that determines our views on a film or artistic work, but it is extremely difficult for one to look at a film whose troubled history truly overshadows the film itself. In this case, the filmís history involves prison time for its director for the sexual molestation of its lead child actor. Victor Salva is a monster of the worst kind (the kind who preys on children) and his actions donít do a whole lot to fight off arguments from critics that horror filmmakers are nothing more than depraved, demented madmen who wish to inflict harm upon society. There are lingering shots in the beginning of the young male actors in their underwear, shirtless, and even changing clothes. Normally, I wouldn't think much of this, but in light of Salva being a convicted sex offender, I can't help but view the scenes in disgust that he was probably enjoying himself entirely too much while shooting said scenes. All that said, Clownhouse does show that Salva actually has talent when it comes to putting together an effective horror movie. He is obviously a fan and knows the craft inside and out from no doubt years of growing up watching them. He doesnít make a great deal of technical mistakes and the mistakes and weaknesses the film does have could've easily been cured with a slightly bigger budget and better casting.
The film has great production design. Salva definitely has a good eye for the kinds of sights that make for iconic, memorable horror film imagery, especially in its shots of the clown killers stalking and lurking about. Weíre also given a very spooky psychic who sets the film off on a sinister tone with a very negative reading for young Casey. The film succeeds the most in its 'creepy' factor. Its villains are truly demented and make a very understandable case for those who are not afraid of clowns exactly what makes them so unsettling. Once the clowns arrive at the house, they disappear into the darkness, stalking the boys. Separating this movie from others, Salva takes the time to actually build suspense and an intense 'creepy' factor that is missing from a lot of stalk and slash fare. The clowns could truly jump out from anywhere at any given time. One thing that Salva also seems to get is that clowns themselves donít have to look unusually weird or demonic to be scary. In their clown get-up, the mental patients look just like your average, everyday circus clowns. The creepiness, to me, comes from seeing otherwise normal clowns doing horrible, sadistic things (for instance, turning a manís head forcefully around backwards). Salva also gets plenty of mileage from the subtle lighting choices he makes. This is a great movie to watch in complete darkness.
The acting ranges from good to dismal. Actor Sam Rockwell (one of Casey's older brothers) has grown up to have a decent career outside of the horror genre. Among other films, heís been featured in are The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy and The Assassination of Jesse James. Itís a shame that Nathan Forrest Wintersí career was pretty much ended by what transpired behind the scenes of the film. He is quite good as the meek and nervous Casey and shows great promise with his work. The musical score by Michael Becker and Thomas Richardson works at times, but at others sounds kind of weak and generic. It is fairly reminiscent of the score for the Chiodo Brothersí Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Where that film was tongue in cheek, this film is more serious and the cheap late 80s synth cues often hurt the scenes they're in more than they help them.
One dynamic I felt really worked was the relationship between the brothers. The two oldest were definitely cruel to the younger, but this isnít much different than how brothers often treat each other in real life. At heart, though, you can tell that they really do care about one another. A particularly heartwarming scene was when Casey, near tears and thinking he was just chased by clowns, asks his oldest brother to hold his hand while they walk home from the grocery store. After some hesitation, the older brother sticks his arm out without saying a word. A sweet gesture, by an otherwise jerk of an older brother. The scene works. There isnít a very large body count, and the deaths arenít very gory or bloody at all, but the clowns are effectively menacing (even if they are killed off rather easily). The name of the game here isnít blood and gore. Instead, Salva goes for the slower, more deliberate scares route, which is often the hardest route for a filmmaker to attempt in horror. Itís far easier to build a scene around a great special effect with brains splattering all over the place than it is to get an audience engaged enough in a scary premise that you actually have them on the edge of their seats. Salva manages to pull off a few edge-of-your-seat moments in the film to great success.
Clownhouse takes a little while to get going, but once it does, it ends up being an effective little chiller. I think horror fans looking for old-fashioned scares and suspense will find much to like about the movie, if they can look past its controversial history. I can't ask fans to ignore what Salva did because it is truly unforgivable and despicable. I can, however, ask horror fans to at least attempt to view the film itself with an open mind, as they never knew who wrote and directed the film. To date, the film has only received one legit video release on VHS. A DVD release by current rights holder MGM was planned but canceled at the last possible minute, and it hasnít been re-announced since. Because of the late cancellation, some distributors already received their shipments, so if you look hard enough, you can find it for around $15 to $20 bucks online. The original VHS can be found used for even less than that. Clownhouse probably wonít make anyoneís top ten of all-time list and isn't nearly as accomplished a film as Salva's 2001 return to the genre, Jeepers Creepers, but it definitely provides a good eveningís worth of modestly suspenseful and creepy entertainment. Rent it!
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