Clownhouse (1988) -*½
I really don’t get clowns. I mean, hypothetically speaking, they’re supposed to be funny, right? And yet I don’t know a single person in whom they inspire any emotional reaction more favorable than unease. The makers of horror movies know this, too; evil clown movies are at least as common as evil child flicks. But whereas I can’t recall ever having seen a bad movie about evil kids, the great bulk of the clown-themed horror films that have come my way have sucked a whole lot of ass. Clownhouse, for example— now this is one shitty movie.
The first warning sign comes early, when it becomes clear that all three central characters are kids— by which I mean that the oldest of them is probably supposed to be about fourteen, while the youngest is perhaps ten or eleven. It’s the young one we meet first. Casey (Nathan Forrest Winters) gets out of bed in the middle of the night and sees that the raging wind outside has blown an advertising flyer for a traveling circus up against his bedroom window. The flyer’s graphics, inevitably, are dominated by the image of a happy, smiling clown— an image which becomes that of an evil, leering clown the moment Casey focuses his eyes on it. Then, in a startlingly tasteless moment of unexpected realism, Casey pisses all over himself. Ah, but wait! It was all just a dream... well, all except that part about Casey pissing himself...
Okay, so the next morning, we are introduced to Casey’s brothers, the mostly sympathetic middle child, Geoffrey (Brian McHugh), and the all-star ass-master eldest son, Randy (Sam Rockwell, who believe it or not, has a real career now— look for him in Galaxy Quest and The Green Mile). Geoffrey does his best to conceal Casey’s latest bedwetting episode from Randy, but to no avail; big brother notices the soggy pajama bottoms on the floor and gleefully runs off to tell mom (Villetta Skillman). By now, you’re probably thinking, “as much time as El Santo’s spending on Casey and his untamed bladder, it must somehow be important,” and yeah, I guess it kind of is. Really, the whole point of this episode is to establish that Casey is terrified of clowns for some reason, that Geoffrey is a decent guy, as older brothers go, and that Randy is an utter shitheel, three points which really will be important later on. Anyway, around the kitchen table at breakfast, Mom announces that she’s going out of town for a couple of days to visit her aunt. Because dad is out of the picture, that means the boys are going to be on their own for what I suppose is the weekend. Mom suggests that they ought to amuse themselves by going to the circus, which has just made its annual stop in town. Geoff and Randy both like that idea, Randy because he needs someplace to take his girlfriend for a date, and Geoff because he just likes the circus. Casey, on the other hand, would much rather go with mom to visit his grumpy, boy-hating great aunt. After all, there won’t be any clowns at her house!
If you’re waiting for some kind of explanation for Casey’s phobia, you may as well just give up now. It isn’t coming. Instead, the next scene skips ahead to establish that the boys live right down the street from a goddamned mental hospital. While they’re walking to school, Casey, Randy, and Geoff notice that the asylum parking lot is crawling with cop cars. As you’ve probably guessed, this is because there was an escape the night before. Three of the asylum’s most dangerous inmates broke loose, angered (and I swear I’m not making this up) by the “suspension of their circus privileges.” Yeah, so you know damn well where those guys are going tonight.
Sure enough, the three madmen are skulking around the circus, unnoticed by anyone. They— their leader (the standup comedian known as Tree) especially— seem to have an extra-strong attraction to the performance of the circus’ three clowns, Bippo, Dippo, and Cheezo. (And again, I swear I’m not making this up.) They watch with rapt attention as the clowns make balloon animals and try to bring randomly selected members of the audience into the act (and no bonus points for guessing that Cheezo singles out the clown-phobic Casey for this treatment, causing an attention-getting and highly embarrassing scene). After the show, the three maniacs drop in on the clowns’ dressing tent, kill the lot of them, and dress up in their clothes. Now because we’re going to be spending a lot of time with these imposter clowns, I’m going to go ahead and give them names, something which the script fails to do. One killer (Brian Weible) is immensely fat; I’ll call him “Slobbo” (‘cause, you know, all clowns have to be named “Something-o”— it’s, like, a law or something). The second killer does a really shitty job putting on his makeup; him I shall call “Crappo.” As for the leader, the combination of his stern features, his shaven head, and the makeup design he adopts for himself makes him look like he ought to be singing for some insufferable German industrial band; therefore, I hereby christen him “Homo.” Thus attired, Homo, Slobbo, and Crappo caper off into the night to wreak havoc.
And where do you suppose the murderous clowns go? Why, straight to the home of Casey and his brothers, of course. This leads first to the expected string of “Casey sees the clowns but nobody will believe him” encounters, then to the equally expected slasher siege. Randy, inevitably, gets the most mileage out of taunting Casey when the latter boy starts talking about the clowns really having come to get him at last, and just as inevitably, he’s the first of the brothers to be attacked directly. The one halfway surprising development in the last third of the movie is that Casey doesn’t end up being the one to dispatch Homo, the last clown standing at the end of the film.
The main trouble with all this (apart from the fact that it’s written and directed so as to be really, really stupid) is that we’ve got just three protagonists here, and they’re all kids. Because this is an American movie, that means only Randy— who is both an enormous prick and at least technically a teenager— could possibly be in any real danger. Folks, the whole goddamned point of this type of movie is that many, if not most, of the characters are going to wind up dead by the time it’s all over. And the more horrible it is to contemplate the demise of those characters who won’t make it, the better. This idea seems to have eluded the makers of Clownhouse, however. They even pull their punches when Randy finally crosses paths with Slobbo— he gets pretty fucked up, but Geoffrey later explicitly tells Casey and the audience that he thinks the mauled boy is still alive. Coming on top of the extremely contrived setup, the dialogue that consists almost entirely of inter-sibling bickering, the absolute lack of justification for Casey’s horror of clowns, and the generally inept handling of the final act, such squeamishness makes Clownhouse an unusually complete waste of time.