Release Date: January 27th, 1989 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Victor Salva Actors: Nathan Forrest Winters, Brian McHugh, Sam Rockwell, Tree, Viletta Skillman
oung Casey (Nathan Forrest Winters) is awoken by some odd sounds in the middle of the night. Peering out the window of his spacious house, he spies what looks to be a man lynched from a massive tree outside, before being startled by a poster for Jolly Bros. Circus that slams against the window, which causes him to uncontrollably urinate. It turns out to be a dream, but foreshadows his innate fright of clowns and circus freaks, exacerbated by a bad experience a year ago.
When their mother (Viletta Skillman) leaves to visit an elderly aunt, Casey and his two older brothers, Geoffrey (Brian McHugh) and Randy (Sam Rockwell), are alone for the evening and plan on attending the circus in Hankville. With Halloween just two weeks away, it seems like the perfect, creepy little thrill. Their first stop is at a fortuneteller’s hut, where Casey is told the lifeline markings on his hand indicate a sudden, short existence. Freaked out but undeterred from leaving, the trio heads to the main event, where Randy meets up with his girlfriend Melissa (Sondra Utterback) and Casey is seemingly tormented by three clowns in incredibly ugly, disturbing makeup. After the youngest brother embarrassingly runs out of the tent, Geoffrey and a silly carnival game briefly console him before they all return home. But back at the circus, three escaped mental patients slaughter some performers and steal the costumes of clowns Cheezo, Bippo, and Dippo – and journey to Casey’s house for a night of unhinged terrorizing.
“Clownhouse” clearly tries to play on the fear of clowns, but most of the jarring close-ups, “Jaws”-like sound effects, and abrasive musical cues invoke laughs instead of screams. It helps that the colorful jesters sport purposefully hideous makeup and unfriendly expressions (though the lunatic versions are somehow less unnerving), but forcing the eeriness of face-painted maniacs only makes the characters goofier. Their murderous actions should have been enough to create fear; instead, the film goes overboard attempting to augment the deranged killer angle with ineffective editing techniques (the production value mimics “Halloween”).
Casey seems too old to be afraid of clowns and the dark, to wet the bed, to want to hold hands, and to complain about running for just a few minutes. The film would be much more natural and believable if the three children were girls (at that point, it wouldn’t even matter about their ages), especially since the brotherly conversing, camaraderie, and bullying isn’t particularly well designed. The dialogue is unintentionally hilarious more often than it builds character development and the protagonists behave quite annoyingly (the antagonists are also pathetically incapable of dispatching small children). At least, some of the sets are atmospheric (the attic is covered in enormous cobwebs!), the lighting occasionally frames the madmen in an impressively cinematic fashion, the score involves the twisted modification of twanging circus music, and the palmist is nicely ominous. For some unexplainable reason, the majority of attempted scares implicate a complete lack of the boys’ peripheral vision, the finale turns into a gimmicky slapstick-infused “Home Alone” sort of fray (despite the darker notion of spilled blood and looming death), and the end credits roll before a very necessary resolution is shown for one of the main characters.
– Mike Massie