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The 1989 Sundance jury were on awesome drugs
on 4 May 2011
Clownhouse is a 1989 horror movie directed by Victor Salva (who went on to make the Jeepers Creepers movies), but it is probably most notable as featuring the acting debut of Sam Rockwell. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival.
The story follows a young boy, Casey (Nathan Forrest Winters), who has an intense fear of clowns (coulrophobia, in case you didn't know). With his mother away for the weekend, he is left in the care of his two older brothers, Geoffrey (Brian McHugh) and Randy (Sam Rockwell). They want to go to the circus, and thinking that Casey's fear is just a bit childish, they drag him along. Casey, of course, has the crap scared out of him, but he gets through it unscathed. However, what the boys don't know is that after the show, three escaped inmates from the local mental institution kill the clowns, dress up in their costumes, and because their mental, follow the boys home to kill them (obviously).
What follows is, despite its R-Rating, essentially a horror movie for kids. If you are looking for gore, turn your blood-lusting eyes elsewhere; there is barely a drop spilt here. Clownhouse should be no more than PG-13. As for that Sundance Film Festival nomination, I don't know who was on that jury, but they must have been on some pretty awesome drugs when they saw this. Clownhouse isn't a bad movie, but it sure ain't award worthy.
While there is little on-screen gore, there is also little on-screen death. Clownhouse is considered to be a slasher movie, but very few of the swipes draw blood. The body count is low, though there is one particular fatality that is fantastically daft, and worth the price of admission alone! The intention here isn't to make you cringe, it is to provide some fun frights, and this it does quite effectively. There are some neat visual gags and on more than one occasion, I couldn't contain a guffaw of appreciation.
What works best about this movie is the interaction between the brothers. The dynamic is brilliantly captured, and even the patchy performances can't hamper its authenticity. You really believe that these guys grew up together. Each character is well defined, both in their personality, and their role in the brotherly hierarchy. They are well written, and had this material been performed by better talent, Clownhouse would have been a far superior movie. As it stands, the only one to deliver a solid performance is, unsurprisingly, Sam Rockwell.
But in a movie called Clownhouse, the main thing we wish to know is; how are the clowns? The clowns are good, but not great. They are mute throughout, so there is no real sense of character. They are just guys in clown costumes who terrorise the boys; nothing more. What makes them work isn't the acting, but the way the clowns are presented. The most effective moments come about by how the camera is framed to captures their actions, rather than through any actual performance. Basically, they look good, and on the day, the director told them where to stand, and this worked nicely. Beyond that, there is nothing memorable about them. Pennywise can float away contently knowing that he is still the boss clown!
Overall, Clownhouse is a perfectly good watch. As a horror movie, it is benign, and what jumps it does deliver are fun. It's the sort of thing that, had you discovered it on TV one night when you were fourteen, you would have had a ball with it. As it stands, I could only recommend it if you have a particular interest in the that limited genre that is killer clown movies.
However Clownhouse will forever live in the shadow of the true horror story that happened behind the scenes. In 1988 director Victor Salva, then twenty-nine, was convicted of sexually abusing the lead actor, Nathan Forrest Winters, then twelve. Salva confessed to the crime, and went on to serve fifteen months of a three year sentence. I was unaware of this when I saw the film. It would have made for a far more uncomfortable viewing experience if I had known.