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Clownhouse
(1989)
 

Director: Victor Salva                 
Cast:
Nathan Forrest Winters, Brian McHugh, Sam Rockwell


We've all been scared of something in our childhood. You might not have known why you were scared, but you knew that if you ever encountered what feared you, you would be finished. Clownhouse, ostensibly a horror movie with slasher overtones, actually does spend some time exploring why children are scared of things, and how that can make their lives difficult in many ways. Unfortunately, the merit of the movie will be overshadowed for most viewers by the notorious behind-the-scene story about the movie and the director. Viewers willing to give the movie a chance and overlook some uncomfortable elements will be rewarded with an interesting and suspenseful horror movie.

Casey, a boy around 10, is scared of clowns. Not just ordinary fear, but petrified at even seeing one. He can't really explain it himself, only knowing enough about his fear to say, "Their faces are fake...You never know what they are really like." His older brother Jeffrey, though not understanding Casey's rational, is sympathetic to him. However, oldest brother Randy has no sympathy. Though he is not entirely mean, he constantly makes fun at Casey's fears, and uses available opportunities to mock and threaten Casey. He's especially cruel when their parents are away, being forced to baby-sit his younger siblings when he could be spending time alone with his girlfriend.

That night, the boys all go to the circus, and of course there's a scene in the big top where Casey is so scared by three clowns that approach him that he runs away, adding to Randy's disgust. After the boys leave and the circus closes, three lunatics who have just escaped from the local insane asylum sneak to the clowns' changing tent and kill all three clowns. Seeing the makeup and costumes, their deranged minds get them to put on clown makeup and clown costumes, then head back into town. And you can guess who lives in the first house the psychos encounter.

Clownhouse was directed by Victor Salva, who is more known for directing Powder. Most readers will recognize him as being revealed around the time of the release of Powder as having been convicted for molesting a minor in a previous movie - and Clownhouse happens to be that movie. No doubt there are people out there who firmly believe that any movie by convicted criminal Salva should be suppressed. Using that logic, it would mean that movies by Roman Polanski (who to date has never served time for his molestation, by the way), or movies with Tom Neil, Gig Young, or starring or directed by any other criminals should not be seen. So it's important to separate the private life of the artist when watching the actual work he makes or is involved with. Neverless, even viewers who do not know about Salva or what he did behind the scenes here will be disturbed by a number of scenes showing the boys (especially the youngest) walking around without shirts, just wearing underwear, taking baths, sleeping naked under bedcovers, and a flash of rear nudity. This is exploitation at its lowest, and irreparably damages the movie. It's especially shameful, because aside from this material, Clownhouse is overall a successful movie, one of the rare horror movies that manages to get scares from the constant threat of violence instead of generating scares from showing violence. In fact, although there are several killings in the movie, we only really see one on camera. To his credit, Salva did know that just the sight of a clown creeping around in the darkness is scary enough, and concentrates on that. The clowns are voiceless, and we only see one of them without makeup, which adds to their unpredictable nature. They lurk outside the house, and eventually inside the house mere inches from the protagonists who, except for Casey, never see them. The scene at the fuse box, where a clown moves in the background while the brother tries to fix the lights provides an unforgettable image.

Eventually, though, there are too many scenes where a clown is two feet away but when the person turns to look at where the clown was he sees nothing. And the entire movie suffers from its musical score. For one, thing, it is amateurish synthesized music, which doesn't fit the mood of a dark, scary night. Plus, Salva forgets that the image of a freaky clown standing in the shadows is scary enough - you don't have to add any kind of music to try to intensify the creepiness of the situation. In both of these flaws, less would have been more.

The story is also somewhat thin - it's nothing really more than a clown attack on a house. The lack of a plot is most evident during a lengthy segment when Randy and Casey leave the house at one point to go to the store to buy some popcorn. Although it must be admitted that this sequence does deliver some chills and memorable images, it does absolutely nothing to advance the story. In fact, it would take an editor almost no effort to cut this segment out of the movie.

Aside from these flaws, and if you somehow manage to overlook Salva's pedophile outlook, Clownhouse manages to deliver enough interesting stuff to make it worth a look. From this movie, Salva shows that although he was an undisciplined novice to directing, he possibly had the talent to become a very good director had he been given enough time and work. But having done something so reprehensible, and now common knowledge, there's probably no chance that he'll make another movie. We can only speculate.

UPDATE: Salva did eventually manage to get back into directing after Powder, starting with the acclaimed drama Rites Of Passage, then returning to horror with Jeepers Creepers.

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See also: Amityville Dollhouse, The Black Room, The Doorway

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