The Clown at Midnight (1998)
Directed by Jean Pellerin
Cast: Sarah Lassez, James Duval, Tatyana Ali, Margot Kidder, Christopher
1998 92 minutes
Rated: (for violence, gore, profanity, nudity, and sex).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 9, 1999.
In my first-hand experiences, a person could go through 100 direct-to-video movies in a row, and when all is said and done, maybe ten of them are even remotely worthwhile (whether because they are good or have so much unintentional humor that they're worth a look). Reminiscent of both 1990's superior "Clownhouse" and 1991's "Popcorn," director Jean Pellerin's "The Clown at Midnight" comes very close to fitting in to the former group. It is a slasher flick, plain and simple, but what is so unanticipated is that the film is a step above many of the recent horror movies that have been released theatrically, and coming from Artisan Entertainment (the company that also released the horrid "Strangeland" to theaters), this film deserves more notice.
"The Clown at Midnight" begins with a prologue: after a late-night performance of "Pagliacci" at an opera theater, the lead actress is brutally murdered in her dressing room by a person dressed in a clown costume following a quick tryst with her boyfriend. Switch forward about fifteen years, the deceased singer's teenage daughter (Sarah Lassez), who has recently been having frighteningly real dreams and flashbacks to the night of the murder, returns to the opera house, along with several other students, to fix up and renovate the place. After their teacher (Margot Kidder) mysteriously disappears, the students are left alone in the deserted building and, one by one, are stalked by an inexplicable clown figure whom lurks in the secret passageways under the stage.
Does the premise sound like something right out of the '80s tried-and-true stalk-and-slash genre? Perhaps, but what differentiates "The Clown at Midnight" from the norm are some fairly nail-biting and stylishly executed moments. Aside from the startling opening, the murder set-pieces always try to suck as much suspense out of each situation as possible, especially one set in the basement, in which the location of the killer is almost impossible to predict. And although usually very predictable, this particular sequence genuinely surprised me.
Ultimately, the characters are not quite as successfully articulated. Aside from Lassez, James Duval (as the handsome rebel/make-up effects expert), and Tatyana Ali (as Lassez's best friend, Monica), all of the roles are strictly amateurish and one-dimensional, particularly the proto-typical jock and witch with a capital 'B.' Also, as is usual with slasher movies, the characters are all forced to do really stupid things during the most dire circumstances, including treading off alone in dark areas of the opera house, or stopping for a few moments to look back while in the middle of being chased. As far as the performances go, they are almost unanonymously above-par for the direct-to-video horror subgenre. Of course, Duval and Lassez have both appeared in several independent films (including Gregg Araki's "The Doom Generation" and "Nowhere"), but the standout is Ali (TV's "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "Jawbreaker"), who is not only spunky and cute, but also truly likable, an amazing feat for such an underwritten part.
Enjoyable as the film is, "The Clown at Midnight" really is nothing special, and breaks no new ground. The screenplay, by Kenneth J. Hall, is highly problematic, as is the climax, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you stop to think about it. It's a dumb horror picture, nothing much more, and is the type of effort that the "Scream" movies make fun of (although there is a clever line of dialogue here in which Monica says, following a false alarm, "for a second, I felt like one of those bimbos in a cheesy horror flick"). There have been so many worse movies of its type, though, that to completely bash it would be unfair. Here's some last advice: if you are a horror fan, give "The Clown at Midnight" a chance; you may be pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, if you hate movies where people with low-IQs are chased around and killed by demented bozos, avoid it at all costs!
©1999 by Dustin Putman