by Rob Gonsalves
A movie like “Clownhouse” — and, fortunately, there aren't too many like them — really tests a reviewer's ability to separate content from context. Nonetheless, one must try, at least momentarily.Clownhouse is a better-than-average chiller wherein three boys are terrorized by escaped mental patients dressed as clowns. Viewers suffering from coulrophobia (fear of clowns), like the movie's young protagonist Casey (Nathan Forrest Winters), might want to give the film a wide berth. What the movie sets out to do, it more or less accomplishes, and the performances of the three juvenile leads — including then-19-year-old Sam Rockwell as the oldest brother, a taunting prick not unlike Bill Paxton in Weird Science — are solid and credible, which is good, since we spend most of our time with them. At its best, Clownhouse taps into our unreasonable distrust of those greasepainted mirth-pushers, gets its jolts more from shadow and suspense than from gore, and would stand as a minor overlooked classic about kids vs. evil were it not for the discomfiting fact that the very same conflict took place behind the scenes, and evil won.
"Creepy for reasons above and beyond the standard scares."
Very few people other than horror completists and Sam Rockwell fans would even know Clownhouse exists today if not for the sins of its maker, writer-director Victor Salva, whose feature debut this was. When Salva's later movie Powder, made for Disney, was about to open in 1995, Clownhouse star Nathan Forrest Winters stood up and protested Disney's bankrolling of Salva's career. Reason? Because Salva, before and during the shooting of Clownhouse, had molested the then-12-year-old Winters (and videotaped it). Sentenced to three years in prison, Salva served fifteen months, completing parole in 1992. The press had a field day with this information, finding many newly creepy resonances in Powder, and Disney quickly distanced itself from the hot potato. Luckily for Salva, he had (and presumably still has) a guardian angel in Francis Ford Coppola, whose company American Zoetrope produced Clownhouse as well as Salva's career-saving Jeepers Creepers films. Why Coppola didn't turn his back on the Fredo in his filmmaking family is anyone's guess; perhaps Coppola improbably sees Salva as a sort of Michael Corleone circa Godfather III, a sinner who deserves a chance to redeem himself.
And indeed, Salva seems to be trying to keep his end of the bargain; no further evidence of his pedophilia has risen to the surface, at least not outside his films (viewers who know Salva's backstory have reported many strange details and fixations in the Jeepers Creepers movies, neither of which I've seen). But Clownhouse, watched in light of what Salva is and did, becomes a truly horrifying glimpse into a diseased mind. It should be seen (though I'd recommend borrowing it through interlibrary loan, if you can, and not making yourself feel soiled by paying to see it) if only because it is a rare cinematic document of a not-well-understood sickness. And, boy, does Clownhouse play on a whole other level once you know a pedophile made it.
The three brothers in the film — young bed-wetting Casey (Winters), sensible middle child Geoffrey (Brian McHugh), and the aforementioned bully Randy (Rockwell) — spend two-thirds of the film isolated (their parents are out for the night) and threatened by three silent, menacing men. One of them is an eye-rolling baldy who fixates on balloon animals and later tries to make one out of a human being. The other two are hulking slobberers, much like society's general mental image of child molesters. (Salva himself, seen briefly in a crowd scene at the carny, looked a bit slimmer and more presentable than he does now — he seems to have morphed into one of the heavy-set evil clowns.)
In a 1999 interview, Salva said that when he was a kid devouring horror movies, he felt bad for the monster: "When someone in the movie pointed and screamed, 'Arrrrgh, he's so hideous! He's so ugly!' I thought, 'No, the monster is the most interesting thing about the movie. I wonder what he's thinking and feeling." Oddly, this never comes through in Clownhouse; we're meant to identify with young, fearful Casey, not the clown-faced murderers. Casey is more or less constantly bombarded with unwanted physical attention, from his eldest brother as well as the three psychos. Far from being the defense of pedophilia you might expect (though much has been made of the scenes when Casey or Geoffrey are shirtless or even bare-assed), Clownhouse plays like Salva's self-loathing mirror on himself. Clowns are weird, sometimes intimidating grown-ups entrusted with children; Salva may have been viewing himself as the evil clown preying on Casey, who, in real life, was left in Salva's care by trusting parents (who later, I’m sure, bitterly regretted it).
Salva refers to his sex crime as "a stupid mistake," but by "mistake" does he just mean he got caught at it? The conventional wisdom is that pedophiles are never "cured"; the obsession is part of their hard-wiring, and all that can really be done with them after they've served their time is to keep a close eye on their movements. Or, in Salva's case, their movies. But Clownhouse is also an indelible document of pain as well as sickness. There he is, poor Nathan Forrest Winters, cringing in fear in one scene after another, reliving symbolically on film what he was enduring in the dark after-hour shadows of the movie set or in Salva's home. Winters' terror is all too real, and becomes unbearably dismaying to watch. The other two boys in the film are acting; Winters isn't, quite. Am I recommending Clownhouse? In and of itself, divorced from the reality behind it, it's a serviceable thriller with some truly odd touches (the boys' mother and a fortune-teller they encounter at the carny both seem like chubby drag queens). Viewed in its real-life context, it becomes exponentially distasteful and squalid, moreso than any 42nd-street European zombie dreck that depicts the slaughter of actual animals.Should "Clownhouse" be viewed outside this context? What's more important, life or movies?
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originally posted: 05/19/06 20:06:11