That's what I don't like about clowns. Their faces are fake.
Big, happy eyes. Big, painted smiles. It's not real. You never know what they really are.
Financed in part by Francis Ford Coppola (1972's "The Godfather") and premiering at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, where it competed for the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic Competition category, "Clownhouse" has a prestigious background far outweighing most low-budget horror fare from the late-'80s/early-'90s. Laden in methodical foreboding and surely rising tension that places it much closer in spirit to 1978's classic "Halloween
" than it does to the proceeding slasher imitators, the film's worth as a motion picture has unfortunately been overshadowed by its checkered behind-the-scenes history. Shortly after the film was completed, writer-director Victor Salva (who later would helm 2001's "Jeepers Creepers
") was arrested on five felony counts of sexual misconduct with a minor, the victim being Nathan Forrest Winters, the then-12-year-old star of "Clownhouse." Sentenced to three years in prison, Salva was ultimately released after serving fifteen months.
While this ugly crime should in no way be downplayed or marginalized, it has unfairly formed a stigma around "Clownhouse" that few people can get past when discussing the movie. Viewed solely on its own cinematic merits, the film is a skillfully crafted thriller, cunningly envisioned and brought to life. For sufferers of coulrophobia (the fear of clowns), watching it will either be a traumatic or therapeutic experience. And, for those who wonder what the big deal is with those face-painted circus performers, the picture might make them think twice before visiting the big top again.
Left home alone on a Friday night, eleven-year-old Casey Collins (Nathan Forrest Winters), supportive middle brother Geoffrey (Brian McHugh), and passive-aggressive eldest sibling Randy (Sam Rockwell) visit the traveling circus in town. Following a portentous session with a fortune teller and an embarrassing moment with one of the performing clowns that confirms Casey's uncontrollable phobia, they return home for an evening of storytelling and movie-watching. What they don't yet know is that three escaped lunatics from the local mental hospital have crashed the circus, killed the three clown talents, and stolen their costumes and make-up. Lurking outside the boys' house, the trio of psychopaths patiently await their chance to pounce, in turn making every hang-up Casey has about clowns a reality.
"Clownhouse" is rated R for language and some decidedly tame violence, and would be ideal for younger teenagers at a sleepover in search of a scary film to watch. Adults, of course, will also be able to appreciate it for its compressing mood, thematic truth, and penchant for mounting apprehension over straightforward explicitness. Writer-director Victor Salva cleverly plays with the viewer's expectations as the threat level rises and the clowns, each one with their individual personage, close in. A noose swaying from a tree in the front yard, for examplea decoration for the approaching October holidayis used several times when a character's fate is in question and the dummy hanging from it is established to quite possibly be no dummy at all.
Also memorable are a number of stylistic tricks that work splendidly, signaling the care and attention to detail of the project. When the power goes out, Randy ventures into the gloomy attic to check the fuse box. As the lights flicker, creating a strobe effect, one of the clowns can be seen darting behind a large object in the background. In another sequence, Randy walks by a sliding door, the clown on the other side of the glass mimicking his movements. The body count is low for this type of film, relying on the possibility of what could potentially occur instead. Still, the few murder set-pieces are far from throwaways, with one unfortunate victim being turned into a human balloon animal.
As an eleven-year-old with a fascination for the subject matter, "Clownhouse" was like a dream to watch. Seeing it years later as an older audience member, the film still works just as it should, but its handful of flaws also jump out. The acting ranges from solidNathan Forrest Winters (in his one and only feature) is sympathetic and real as Caseyto unpolishedBrian McHugh (also in his only screen credit) fails to sell his bigger moments as Geoffreyto annoyingSam Rockwell (2008's "Snow Angels
"), now a talented big Hollywood star, overplays his role as the obnoxious Randy. The bickering between brothers, while authentic to some siblings' relationships, also gets to be too much by the second half. Fortunately, director Salva does make an attempt to round out these characters and their underlying protectiveness of each other, and it comes as a pleasantly affecting moment when Casey gets scared walking down a desolate lane in one scene and Randy allows him to hold his hand.
When the three deranged clowns let their attack on the house be known in the final twenty minutes, the action barely takes a breather as it sprints to the finish. The chase scenes, with danger hiding around every corner, are tautly shot, and the personal arc that Casey goes through as he finally must face his fears up front should be identifiable for anyone who has ever been trepidatious of something in their own life. The closing onscreen text reads, "No man can hide from his fears; as they are a part of him, they will always know where he is hiding." Concluding a film of this nature on a moralistic note might have come off as cornball in lesser hands, but here it has a lingering impact, turning a fairly conventional horror flick into one with a valuable point to make. That the unhinged clowns show up at Casey's house isn't merely an unfortunate coincidence, but a provocative part of his very fate in the process of his own coming-of-age. For that, "Clownhouse" hold a certain relevance and universality, besides being a spookily good time.