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Review: Clownhouse

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I recently stumbled across a copy of the rare film, Clownhouse (1989), and I immediately bought it. The film has been taken out of print due to a controversy with the film's director. I wont' mention that now, as it somewhat spoils the quality of this effective horror flick.

Clownhouse plays on the common fear of clowns that hundreds of thousands of people share. The film's main characters are three brothers, two relatively unknown, while the older brother is played by a 20 year old Sam Rockwell.
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I watched this fiilm with a friend of mine and we got a general sense of what we were getting into within the very first shot. It's a dark and ominous night. There is thunder and wind. We get a look at the main setting, a nice country home from the 80s. Then a loud crash of thunder and music startles the viewer as a corpse hanging from a noose swings into frame. The titlecard appears: "Clownhouse".

My first response was: "Well shit" and my friend and I began to laugh. It was going to be a fun movie.

While I thought it would be fun in the way that 80s horror films are, it turned out to be psychologically jarring, as it played on primal fears that everyone has. Not just clowns, but a fear of the dark, a fear of someone chasing you when you know there's no one there, strange shapes in the corner of your eye. It was a genuniely upsetting film on a psychological level.

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Essentially the plot is this: three brothers, one having a serious fear of clowns, go to the circus. There three clowns try to get the youngest, who is afraid, to go on stage and he runs out of the tent. Meanwhile, three mental patients escape from an asylum and kill the clown performers after the show. Dressed as clowns, the three lunatics follow the boys home and harass them throughout the night, slowly tormenting each boy's psychosis until it is apparent that there are clowns in the home and the youngest brother isn't just making things up.

I won't give away anything else, as there may be a chance that you could see the film. The one scene I would like to mention in particular is when the oldest and youngest brother go to the general store down the street to get some popcorn. The two are completely unaware that the clowns are in their presence at the time, so that's what leads to the genuine terror that follows. The oldest teases the youngest and gets fed up with him and leaves. The youngest sits there for a minute, upset with his brother. He looks around the dark path he is on and gets frightened so he starts running for his brother. The scene captures that essence of terror one feels when running up the stairs in the dark or turning the lightswitch off and running into bed. You feel like there's something chasing you, even though there isn't.

As soon as the boy starts running, the clowns leap from the shadows and begin to chase him. He gets more and more scared, simply because he is alone in the dark, and he is completely unaware that these maniacs are behind him.

The whole film is composed of chilling moments such as the scene just mentioned. Each scene plays on primal fears and the quote at the end of the film is incredibly poignant: "No man can hide from his fears; as they are a part of him, they will always know where he is hiding."
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Now, onto the scandal with the film. The reason for it being out of print and so hard to find is the fact that the film's director, Victor Salva (director of Jeepers Creepers and Powder), molested the actor who played the youngest brother in the film, Nathan Forrest Winters. He spent fifteen months in prison on a three year sentence and then got back into film production with other works. Winters has expressed how much the experience upset him, and he wishes to not have the film publicly distrubted any more than it has been. It was briefly released on DVD in 2003 by MGM and it was pulled from the shelves no more than a year later due to the legal matters involved with Winters and Salva. The film can still be obtained from third party sellers online, but it is very expensive.

I knew of the scandal before watching the film, and it does make certain moments uncomfortable. My way of viewing it is this, while the horrible events did take place in real life, the film is a metaphor for psychological fears. It does an excellent job in creating a truly terrifying atmosphere. Also, for some reason, Victor Salva gets a much worse reputation for this whole ordeal than directors like Woody Allen or Roman Polanski. People know of all the disgusting controversies that surround their works, but they still consider their films to be a work of art.
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Clownhouse is a genuine work of art. It is one of the most effective horror films I have ever seen and I highly recommend a viewing if one can get their hands on it.

Written by Zach Zeman aka The Hooded Werewolf

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