Director: Victor Salva
Screenplay: Victor Salva
Cast: Nathan Forrest Winters ( as Casey); Brian McHugh (as Geoffrey); Sam Rockwell (as Randy); Michael Jerome West (as Lunatic Cheezo); Byron Weible (as Lunatic Bippo); David C. Reinecker (as Lunatic Dippo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #108
Trying to separate the creator from their work can become an ethical issue when their reputations are tarnished by the events outside cinema. Political beliefs, problematic behaviour or in the worst cases, actual crimes. As a fan of Roman Polanski's films, I have to constantly ask this question. With Victor Salva and Clownhouse, there's are even severe questions to be asked as the crime he was convicted for was mid-production of the film, sexual molestation of the child star Nathan Forrest Winters, which causes both incredible discomfort in watching the film but a lingering history afterwards, where the film's nigh on impossible to acquire on physical release and Salva under constant scrutiny whenever he makes another film, even re-releases of his older movies from the likes of Scream Factory leading people to boycott anything involving him. Salva's career afterwards is as conflicting morally for me to consider, juggling between complete obscurity but also moments of mainstream attention that led to more controversy, from helming a Disney produced film (Powder (1995)) to sustaining himself in the popular consciousness with the Jeepers Creepers series.
Clownhouse, even if there wasn't the troubling stigma built within the project, wouldn't be with an worth for me anyway. If the film was the same regardless of Salva's crime, it's still a turgid late eighties shocker, one which emphasises my growing disdain for stalk and scare scenes, those post the slasher boom which presume that a sudden jump scare is enough to sustain a film, not that they're only affective when set up well or that even some fun beyond them is required for a film to actually be entertaining or an actual horror film. A large part of the film is sadly following three unlikable male protagonists (Winters¸ Brian McHugh and Sam Rockwell), three brothers who spend most of the narrative teasing and insulting each other, without any sense of bond between them, as mental asylum patients dressed as clowns occasionally appear in the shadows constantly hinting at suspense that only takes place in the finale.
It's only when this is all set up at the circus that the film seems vaguely interesting. Inherently like Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), the carnival as a film setting is inherently fascinating as seeing the central character's fear of clowns being visibly tested, showing both how fascinating clowns are as a centuries old concept but also why they would be scary with their grease painted faces, their exaggeration of mannerism and the harlequin like costumes. Three quarters of Clownhouse before and after this however are the three leads arguing whilst various fake scares and near shocks by the killer clowns, all of which become tedious quickly. The trite moral of protagonist Casey having to overcome his fears is made disturbing knowing actor WIlliams was the victim of Salva's off-camera acts, making it an uncomfortable position for him to have to speak dialogue written by Salva about escaping his fears. On the other side of the spectrum, it's amazing that whilst Sam Rockwell is a great actor as an adult, it also amazing how atrocious he is here, so wooden that it's a case that when people started to notice him from Galaxy Quest (1999) onwards he improved in his acting skills immensely over ten years.
The music is dreadful, the worst case of generic synthesizer music you can hear. Also knowing what was taking place mid-production with Salva, the obsession with the three young leads being constantly shirtless, half dressed or nearly naked is a pertinent example of the camera gaze and how it objectifies individuals of any gender in such an extreme and problematic way. My viewing of Clownhouse was a morbid experience, somewhat thankful in knowing there's no reason ever to watch it again. Tragically however it also exists as an actual crime having been committed whilst it was being made, which makes the experience worse to consider.