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The Nostalgic Attic: Clownhouse (1989)

10 August 2013

Clownhouse (1989)


"He knew they would find him. All of them. Their faces, like painted nightmares... Sure as anything real, they would find him. It was as if they were already a part of him. They would always know, where he was hiding..."


There is a whole generation of people my age who are terrified of clowns simply from watching films. We had a pretty good run of it in the late 80's, with Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988), Clownhouse (1989) and of course, the king of them all, It (1990). The latter especially was responsible for many sleepless nights and ruined underpants. But just what is it that makes a clown so downright creepy? Is it the freedom of the face paint that allows the performer invade the viewers comfort zone, and quite often, their personal space? Is it the natural revulsion we humans have to 'uncanny' closeness to our own features and movements? Or is it the fear that what is lurking under that smiling face paint is something other than a pleasant person?


Clownhouse centres around young Casey Collins (Nathan Forrest Winters), whose life is seemingly dominated by his intense fear of clowns. When his mother decides to skip town for the night to visit her sister a few weeks before Halloween, Caseys two older brothers, Geoffrey (Brian McHugh) and the bullish asshole Randy (a VERY young looking Sam Rockwell; Lawn Dogs, Box of Moon Light) decide that they are going to visit the travelling circus that has just pulled into town. Casey is initially hesitant, but decides to give it a shot, much to the anger of Randy, who just loves picking on him. They seem to be having a fun evening until Casey gets singled out to join the 'Jolly Bros' on stage to perform in the act, and he freaks out, running and screaming from the tent. Sympathetic Geoffrey calms him down and takes him to play a few carny games, where he even wins a clown doll for his pitching skills. Lucky kid, eh?



Meanwhile, three inmates from the local insane asylum have made a run for it, and head straight for the circus. They quickly invade the Jolly Bros tent and murder them, and assume their identities in the process. Incidentally, Casey decides he wants to visit the fortune teller before heading home, despite the warnings from Randy. The old hag tells him his lifeline has been cut short, which obviously freaks him out even more. On the way home, he catches a glimpse of three sinister looking figures lurking behind them. Was it clowns, or just his imagination? Are they being followed home? Is the nightmare over, or has it just begun? Casey is set for a long night of survival against his deepest fears, and only he can overcome them.

Clownhouse isn't the perfect horror film, but it does quite a few things right. The atmospheric opening sets the tone nicely, and the film has a well executed 'autumn' feel to it. The film is quite nicely shot, and feels well planned out in terms of direction, which can't always be said for a lot of low budget films. In terms of horror and scares, it delivers a couple of genuinely creepy moments, such as when Randy is in the attic messing with the fuse box as a clown creeps behind him in the flashing light, and some of the chase scenes around the house are pretty intense. It takes a while for us to settle into the meat of the film; the isolation of the three brothers in their big old house as the clowns stalk them. But once we get there, it is relentless enough. The film is also an interesting look at brotherhood, and the love/hate relationships that can co-exist between siblings. The kids fight a lot, but they do essentially love each other. One of the best moments is when Randy tells the younger brothers a horror story when they get back to the house, and it honestly feels like three brother goofing around and winding each other up. It makes a nice addition to the more obvious 'childhood fears' theme that runs through the film, and gives it a bit more depth than you would expect.


As I said, the film isn't perfect, however. Some of the acting is pretty blunt, especially from the youngest, Nathan Forest Winters. His character is fairly one-note though, so it's not like he has a lot of room to express range. He does fall flat in places, but he is young and does his best. The moment where he calls the cops in the climax sticks out in particular, though it is an awful piece of scripting. Sam Rockwell is pretty caustic and spends most of the film shouting and sneering, and is generally quite unlikable. He does redeem himself later, but I would have liked to see more scenes like the energetic one where he tells the horror story to his younger brothers, just to balance him out a little. 

Despite the 'R' or '15' rating on the film, it does actually feel quite tame. Most murders happen off screen and are only implied, which is surprising given its decade of production. If they had of dropped a few swear words it would have been PG, I imagine. I don't think it's a flaw as some of my favourite horrors are bloodless, but it's more a heads up, really. As the film is really low budget (around $200,000, apparently) the style and tameness to it can almost make it feel like it could have been a TV movie, in parts. It's not much to worry about, though, as it is still an effective little creeper. Just don't expect much in the way of special effects.


It's hard not to discuss this film without getting into the controversial history around it. As many might already know, the director, Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers 1 & 2) was convicted for sexually molesting the under aged lead, Winters, during the production. He only served 15 months and was released. It's a particularly disturbing fact to have in your head as you watch Clownhouse, as within the first 5 minutes the boys parade around in their pants, shirtless, and we even see Winters bare rear. Coupled with the central idea of 'older men preying on young boys', it makes it hard to separate fiction from reality. Should we as film goers support convicted paedophiles in their artistic endeavours?  The Jeepers Creepers series has been hugely successful, though I imagine most of the audience would be unaware of who is behind the camera. It's something to bear in mind, anyway.

Despite the dodgy history surrounding the film, it holds up well enough. If you are looking for something atmospheric to get you in a jumpy mood, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Clownhouse. Once your expectations are in check for gore and massive production value, you should have a good time with this. If you happen to be freakish about clowns... well, maybe best to stay away.


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7 Comments:

At 5 October 2013 at 06:26 , Blogger Doug Roos said...

I was a little disappointed by this one. I love killer clown movies although I don't know why, because most of them are awful, but there is definitely something inherently scary about clowns... at least to me. But this film wasn't very effective for me. I much prefer Killer Klowns from Outer Space as wacky as it is or Stephen King's IT. I thought Clownhouse was pretty tame and boring, but I did have high expectations.

 
At 9 October 2013 at 08:20 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Yeah, I dig both of those films over this. As you said, it is pretty tame, and it felt almost like it could have been a TV movie to me. I think the hype around it is more to do with the real-life case, I can imagine it makes the film more horrific for some.

 
At 29 November 2013 at 09:41 , Blogger Wes M said...

Good stuff JP, really interesting choice of film to review (and some well chosen screenshots). I had forgotten about the scandal surrounding this film... I haven't seen the film myself, so thanks for supplying the trailer which I liked enough to keep an eye out for the film. The whole clown thing is interesting and I think for a lot of people the clown represents something scary, grotesque, alien. I can't remember who said it or the exact wording, but someone once made the point that if you saw a clown in a circus you might crack a smile, but if you saw a clown on your front lawn, you might feel differently. There's definitely something powerful about the image of the clown - there's a bit of creepy clown business in Xtro, and there's a great, unexpected moment in Jean Rollin's 1974 film Démoniaques when the two female leads are led to safety by a female clown - it's a completely irrational moment but magical nonetheless.... I remember reading a thread on the Jeepers Creepers films and someone was advocating burning the negatives of Victor Salva's film because of his behaviour on Clownhouse. Which I thought was ridiculous considering all the cast and crew who worked hard on those films (which I think are decent time-wasters) but it demonstrates what a tricky, emotive issue this kind of thing can be...

 
At 2 December 2013 at 06:41 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I haven't seen as much of Rollin's work as I should have, but that scene you described certainly sounds unusual. On the list it goes!

I quite enjoy the first Jeepers Creepers, and I did so for many years not knowing a thing about Victor Salva.I was having a conversation about morally questionable artists/musicians with a friend recently (the likes of Burzum, etc) and what it boils down to is this; I like extreme art, music and film. Do I have to like the artists behind these things? No. It's my price I have to pay if I want to be into the extremities in life; not all of these people are going to be Steven Spielbergs, many of them are drug addicts, psychologically damaged, sociopaths, etc. I know that's a little off tangent from the horrible shit that happened behind the scenes of this fairly mainstream film, but somehow it is still relevant.

 
At 2 December 2013 at 07:30 , Blogger Wes M said...

Yep, it's absolutely irrelevant, and the point about Burzum is well made. I'm a huge fan of early 80's Industrial Music and some of that scene's preoccupations and obsessions were questionable to say the least - shock tactics like the use of concentration camp imagery, misogynistic lyrics and so on - but just because I listen to Throbbing Gristle or Whitehouse doesn't mean I have to be a anti-Semite rapist. There's a sort of moral hysteria going on when Salva's films are mentioned and I'm not sure I understand it. I mean I've gotten a few bloody noses on forums in the past when I defended Cannibal Holocaust as a piece of great art...

 
At 27 May 2014 at 19:41 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I can only say - Victor Salva demonstrates in every one of his films that he is ready to molest again at any time. Anyone whose art is tied into their sickness - should not be allowed to make art. As soon as he filmed himself fellating the child star of his first movie - he irrevocably showed how he mixes them. Hand him a shovel and show him where the ditch goes. Clownhouse - older men threatening young boys. Powder - pale "special" person misunderstood by the world who can't see how magical he is - textbook molester stuff - and lots of boys running around the locker room. Jeepers Creepers - big burly man monster goes after brother and sister - but is more interested in the brother - and when he catches him - puts his eyes out. Classic molester action. Jeepers Creepers II: big guy after more boys - who run around half naked again. A lot. I have only seen one of his movies - as soon as I learned about this douchebag - I wrote off ever watching another movie of his. I cannot support someone who indulged himself in a sick fantasy at the cost of a boy's innocence. I can't support anything he does in film. Now, shall we talk about Eric Red?

 
At 28 May 2014 at 01:38 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Craig, thanks for chipping in on this. It was something I felt that needed to be mentioned in the review, but I didn't want it to become the specific talking point around it - but I guess it's too hard to separate the reality from fiction, as you have outlined there. I've only ever seen Clownhouse and Jeepers Creepers, so I can't really comment on his other stuff. I'm not sure why, but this info wouldn't be common knowledge over here, so it wasn't until I began on forums, etc a few years back that I found it out. It was quite a shock, and I never would have linked up any imagery in Jeepers Creepers in the way you outlined above.

Eric Red, as in the writer of The Hitcher? I gotta say, I've no idea on anything that guy might have done... All I can see mentioned is a car crash, but details seem vague.

 

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