Wednesday, February 26, 2014

B-Movie Review: "Clownhouse" (1989)

What's the only thing scarier than a bunch of kids being stalked by murderous clowns? Try a movie about a bunch of kids being stalked by murderous clowns that was directed by a convicted child predator!

The name Victor Salva may not ring a bell to most folks, but odds are, you've probably seen at least one of his movies before. Despite his no-name status as auteur, he did manage to helm at least one major Disney-backed feature -- 1995's "Powder," aka, that movie about the supernatural albino kid -- and 2001's "Jeepers Creepers," which, in turn resulted in two sequels.

That said, Salva's probably best known for his 1989 film "Clownhouse." Unfortunately for Salva and everybody else in the universe, that's only because during the shoot, Mr. Salva took it upon himself to molest the film's young lead actor, which ultimately led to his spending 15 months in the slammer. Now, as to WHY a film starring an abused child was given a wide-scale release after the fact, and especially what kind of black magic Salva used to salvage his career afterwards -- landing a gig with Walt freakin' Disney, no less -- are just two of those frustratingly unexplainable enigmas of existence. You know, sort of like how nobody has called him out on how the first "Jeepers Creepers" movie totally ripped-off a segment of "Unsolved Mysteries" and stuff.

The really problematic thing about "Clownhouse" is that, as a stand-alone film, it's actually a fairly decent B-movie offering. Of course, there's no real way to look at the film without viewing it through the lens of an individual that KNOWS the kid onscreen was subjected to heinous abuses, and the guy that did said abusing found a way to profit off the experience, to some extent. Subjective moralism aside, "Clownhouse" is a pretty well-constructed, suspenseful lite-slasher, and with its emphasis on imperiled middle schoolers, it definitely feels quite different -- an WAY more unnerving -- than the myriad "Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" sequels that were being churned out during the same timeframe.

The film wastes NO time at all making you feel really uneasy about things, as it begins with a shirtless kid traipsing about a house, bathed in a spooky glow, during a thunderstorm. While investigating the abode, a flyer featuring an illustration of a clown smacks into a window, and the kid promptly responds by urinating all over himself. Utilizing the old "it was only a dream" hook, the kid awakens, to find out, yeah, he indeed wound up peeing all over his bed. His older brother walks in (sporting no doubt Salva-recommended tighty-whities) and tries to discard the sheets, but in walks the trio's oldest brother (played by Sam Rockwell, believe it or not), who then proceeds to mock his youngest sibling mercilessly.

Pssh...why would a kid ever be frightened by such a sight?

Downstairs, mom chides her kids for a grotesque hanging man decoration they left in the front yard. In the next scene, the brothers walk home from school and scope out some police activity going on at the local mental institution -- not that such will be a prominent plot point in the movie or anything.

While mom is out of town, the trio decide to visit a traveling circus act, despite the youngest brother (named Casey) having a major clown phobia. He has his palm read by your stereotypical blind hag, who tells him that his life line may be cut short. The two other brothers -- Geoffrey, the middle child and Randy, the eldest -- argue for a while before they take Casey into the big top.

While Randy tries to make it with one of his gal pals, Casey spots a clown playing peek-a-boo with the girl behind him. The ringmaster introduces a trifecta of jesters -- Cheezo, Bippo and Dippo -- whom seek a volunteer from the audience. You will NEVER guess who they try to pull out of the crowd either. Go ahead, try and figure it out.

Casey, after being yanked on by one of the clowns, runs out of the tent screaming his head off. Geoffrey tries to ease him a bit, and Casey explicates his mortal apprehension of clowns by declaring "you never know what they really are." Casey then plays one of those baseball tossing carnival games, and his reward is a talking clown doll. Meanwhile, somebody is lurking in the shadows, and whoever he is, he sure does have a keen eye for balloon animals.

Backstage, the clowns drink and smoke cigarettes and complain about the business, when the lights suddenly go out. One takes a gander outside the tent, and he's grabbed while two other mysterious individuals rush in. After the blood dries, the three individuals -- whoever they may be -- decide to steal a few costumes and clown horns and smear pancake makeup all over their faces.

...but seriously though, it's not Matthew Lillard. Or is it?

In the next scene, the kids are all hanging out in the bathroom (another Salva suggestion, I can only imagine) and they decide to tell each other ghost stories. This cues a quick cut of three clowns psychotically ambling their way down the streets of suburbia -- in case you haven't put two and two together yet, these clowns are the same people that escaped from the mental institution earlier in the movie!

While the kids have a pillow fight, the clowns outside bat the front lawn hanging display around for awhile. One of the clowns makes eye contact with Casey, but he appears to shake it off as an illusion. The brothers search for some popcorn, and after being unable to find any, the youngest and oldest siblings decide to walk to the local general store to procure some. By the way, it's almost midnight at this point...

Casey and Randy have an impromptu race to the store, while a clown stalks the unknowing youngest brother. Afterwards, the owner of the store decides to walk out into a barn for some reason, and he quickly has his head twisted off by a clown who bears an uncanny resemblance to Matthew Lillard.

A radio announcement gives us a little bit of exposition on the clowns, while Geoffrey gets his first gander at one of the clowns himself. Meanwhile, Randy makes fun of Casey for not having pubes and peeing on his bed, and one of the clowns chases the youngest brother around for awhile.

The two kids return home, and Geoffrey tries to scare his elder brother by pretending to hang from a tree. Once inside, Geoffrey yells at Randy for eating popcorn too loudly, which deteriorates into a a shouting match about their dad playing favorites. The lights go out, and they all argue about who should be the one to march up into the attic and fix the fuse box. And yes, the clowns do appear to have made their way inside the house at this juncture.

Eventually, Randy heads up stairs, and observes some smeared white paint all over the place. Downstairs, Geoffrey reads comics to Casey, while the clowns observe them from a distance. Randy, ever the asshole, decides to dress up like a clown himself, and starts banging some pots and pans together to freak out his siblings. Unfortunately, Randy makes a bit too much racket, apparently, and one of the clowns responds by yanking him through a plate glass window.

And now, it's up to Geoffrey and Casey to thwart the clowns' murderous plans. They manage to off one of the clowns by sending him tumbling down a stairwell, and following some frying pans and lamps upside the noggin, they are able to chunk another clown out of a window.

Strangely enough, the boys uncover Randy's (presumably dead) body in a closet, but neither one of them seem all that concerned about their older brother being all murdered and stuff. This, of course, leads to the film's ultimate clown chase, complete with the old "the survivor tries to call the police because the villain is momentarily incapacitated but the police don't believe him and when he hangs up the villain has mysteriously vanished" bit. Casey hides underneath a table, but he accidentally alerts the last remaining clown by squeaking the doll he won at the carnival earlier that evening. And just when it looks like Casey is a goner, here comes Geoffrey to make the save with a fire ax. Cue a truly weird quote about how fear follows an individual throughout his or her lifetime, and I do believe we have ourselves some end credits to watch, folks.

Well, that was a decisively unpleasant thing to watch. As stated earlier, the film itself isn't really bad at all -- I would liken it, in atmosphere, to perhaps the most extreme episode of "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" that Nickelodeon ever dare televise. That said, for all of the film's positives -- it's pace, tension-building and stronger-than-average performances -- it is damn near impossible to take your mind off the horrible things that happened behind the cameras while this thing was in production. Ultimately, the torment Casey goes through eerily parallels the heinous abuses that actor Nathan Winters went through at the hands of the film's director, and that makes "Clownhouse," as a whole, unbelievably hard to sit through.

As pure cinema, "Clownhouse" is a respectable, moderately above average genre offering for its time, and as long as you remain oblivious to the backstage horrors behind the film itself, odds are, you'll probably enjoy it for what it is.

But with the horrific tales of Nathan Winters buttressing your filmgoing experience here? Yeah, be prepared for 90 of the most uncomfortable minutes you will likely ever have watching a motion picture, amigos. 

1 comment:

  1. After the blood dries, the three individuals -- whoever they may be -- decide to steal a few costumes and clown horns and smear pancake ...


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