Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Clownhouse (1989)

Coulrophobia is the fear of Clowns. It’s been said that up to 15% of the population have or have had this phobia. I can honestly say that in my childhood I was one of these people. The reality is Clowns are friggin’ creepy! For example: Pennywise in IT, the doll in Poltergeist and Bobcat Goldthwait in Shakes the Clown….ok, maybe that last one is a stretch.

In 1989, franchise sequels ruled the horror genre such as Halloween 5, Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and Friday the 13th 8..etc etc. Needless to say there were not many good flicks coming out at that time. However there were a few that managed to slip through the cracks and Victor Salva’s Clownhouse is one of them. Released one year after the more comical approach of Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Salva’s film couldn’t be more different.

Instead of going with the grain, Clownhouse took a page of the book that Halloween popularized. It’s about the suspense, tension and the stalk factor. It’s not a film made with buckets of blood. It plays with your fears and toys with them in a PG-13-ish sorta way.

The plot involves three young boys, all brothers, who when left alone one night decide to visit the local carnival for some light hearted fun. Much to the dismay of young Casey who happens to have a major fear of clowns. Unfortunately for them three mental patients have just escaped from the near by insane asylum and their first stop happens to be the same park. After murdering three of the circus clowns, the mental patients use their makeup and costumes to change their appearance. Casey (played by Nathan Forrest Winters) visits a fortune teller and is told that his life is in great danger. Soon after, the boys flee home little do they know they are being followed.

This is where Clownhouse sets itself apart from it’s competition at the time. The atmosphere and pacing that Salva sets with the boys and the deranged psychopaths is awesome. From the lighting to the music that is used, it all works. Once the men break into the house, Casey, is left to face his fears to save not only his life but the life of everyone else involved.

So I’d be hard pressed to not mention the controversy revolving around the film. In 1988, director Salva pleaded guilty on charges of sex with a minor. That minor was Nathan Forrest Winters, the main actor of Clownhouse. He was 12 years old at the time. I saw Clownhouse when it was first released on VHS in 1990 and had no idea of the story behind it till many years later. When I watch the film now, knowing what went on behind the scenes, of course it’s disturbing especially with a few scenes early on in the film.

In 1995, Winters went public with the ordeal of what happened while on the set of Clownhouse. Salva was directing the Disney-produced film Powder, the story of a boy with paranormal powers. The backlash felt was immediate and the film had a very disappointing run at the theatres. Salva did not direct again until many years later. He turned to the horror genre in 2001 with the successful Jeepers Creepers along with it's sequel.

It’s unfortunate that, in my opinion, one of the better horror films to come out in the late 80’s has such a black mark against it. It was not until 2003 when Clownhouse finally saw the light of the day for the first time on DVD. Although it did not have a long run it now fetches up to as much as $90 for a new copy on Amazon. Two little fun facts about the film: it stars a very young Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens) and was helped funded by Francis Ford Coppola.

If you can find a copy, see this movie if have not already. Forget what I said about the history behind it, watch the movie for what it is. There’s no killer with a glove for a hand and no one with a hockey mask cutting teenagers into pieces. It’s an exercise in suspense. Watch it with the lights off especially if you suffer from Coulrophobia.

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