"A Circus of the Mind..."
...The existential tagline read as I held the worn videocassette in my hands back in 1991. Though I had no clue what existentialism was at the age of 7 I was very aware that there was a scary clown on the cover and knew that I was going to be renting that particular film in a matter of seconds. Every Friday after school my mom would take me out to dinner at the now deceased Hogans Hero's and we would order spaghetti and cheesecake. Afterwards we would always head over to either Kroger or Blockbuster Video to rent a scary movie. I still remember pulling into the parking lot of Blockbuster, sitting in the passenger seat anxiously awaiting my moment of departure into the store and down the Horror section. My primary enjoyment was devouring the box art of each tape, honing in on the macabre imagery and reading the titles to narrow my decision. It was so much fun to just sift through all the different films and often times I didn't care what it was I was renting, it was just the act of searching that pleased me. When I came across Clownhouse I was on a big zombie kick (Return of the Living Dead was just digesting from the previous week) so I was a little indifferent about renting it. I had never seen anything other than Killer Klowns from Outer Space, which really just made me laugh more than anything, so I was feeling the excitement creep in little by little as I flipped the box around in my hands. The fact of the matter is that the movie just looked creepy, ya know? I eventually showed it to my mom, who shivered with excitement as well, and we headed to the front counter to pay for the movie while also snatching up a box of Sour Patch Kids and Movie Popcorn (extra butter!). Only one thought meandered throughout my mind: Tonight was going to be something special, something special indeed...
The synopsis of the film is pretty simple: Three brothers are left alone to look after one another for the night while mom is away. A short while into the film we find the brothers at the local carnival (the youngest brother, Casey, has an acute phobia of clowns by the way). Meanwhile, three dangerous mental patients escape the local asylum, kill some clowns, steal their identity (sounds silly, I know, but they're mental patients for goodness sakes), and slowly but surely make their way to the three brother's rather humongous house. Thus begins Victor Salva's psychological, bloodless, suspense-o-rama, CLOWNHOUSE.
Victor Salva's mainstream debut (he would later direct Powder, Jeepers Creepers I and Jeepers Creepers II) is one of the most important films you've never seen. Seriously. To those who have seen the film will agree that it shadows early Carpenter (ALWAYS a good thing), scares the living graveyard out of you without becoming intrusive and forced, captures the eerie/spooky sensation of being left alone in the house at an early age, and employs a fantastic score that digs underneath your skin like a rusty shovel. I watched this movie and literally thought that I was going to die. I was scared out of my mind! All I kept thinking was at some point I was going to glance at the living room window and see a moonlit face caked in grease paint. As a little boy, seeing a movie like Salva's Clownhouse was as good as it got for me. I remember being terrified, but more importantly, due to Sam Rockwell's performance, I also felt a sense of relief. There is a lot of humor in the film and Rockwell's commanding nature (he really is the biggest asshole of a brother ever) really helps to settle your nerves (or strangle them depending on how much of his personality you can tolerate). One of my favorite lines stems from the gypsy scene where we find Casey receiving a palm reading. During the scene the woman states, "This, Casey, is your loveline: still small..." and as she continues to speak the camera cuts to Rockwell who then replies with, "...like his pecker." I watched the movie recently and almost completely forgot about that line and it really struck my funny bone. There are other intense moments as well, like the scene where the three brothers finish telling ghost stories and start chanting "THE CLOWNS ARE COMING!! THE CLOWNS ARE COMING!!" Completely unaware that the clowns were down in the yard playing with a noose hanging in a tree (another bone chilling scene that just seems so damn unnatural).
There is a lot of mention in the film about being afraid of the dark; the unknown. Basically, just fear itself. How do you confront your fears? Do you hide? Do you run away? Can you summon the strength and courage to fight? All questions we ask ourselves when we encounter the schoolyard bully or as Stephen King put it in his novel, Danse Macabre: The Thing without a Name; the creature in the darkest recesses of the basements of the world; the Lurking Fear in the woods at night. Even in the new wave-ish tune, with lyrics like "don't be afraid of the dark, sweetheart", that we hear on the radio in the house and from the stylish vocalizations of big brother Randy as he and Casey skip through the woods, we can't escape the 'face your fears' theme that dominates the film even if we try. The song itself is rather catchy (I personally love it to be honest), but a lot of reviewers argue that it just doesn't fit with the rest of the eerie score. Depending on what age you were when you first saw the film I'm pretty sure the pop tune was the least of your concerns.
I could go on and on about Salva's Clownhouse but I feel this entry might become a little excessive. In short, it's definitely not a perfect movie, but then again who cares about perfect right? I certainly don't. There are several memorable scenes (one of my favorites is when Randy is tinkering with the fuse box and as the lights strobe we see one of the clowns run across the room directly behind him). Chilling, absolutely chilling. Of all the movies I own, Clownhouse is definitely the most viewed. A lot of my friends find this odd but I guess like anything else in our adult lives we like to remember the "better times" we had when we were younger. One of those better times was hanging out with my mother, eating a huge dinner with her, renting scary movies every Friday and getting up early on Saturday to watch cartoons before heading outside to play in the woods all day, eagerly awaiting nightfall so we could build a campfire and roast marshmallows. My friends, I just do not believe that there is anything better than that, do you?
"No man can hide from his fears; as they are a part of him, they will always know where he is hiding."