There are some films you watch as a child that stay with you. Victor Salva's Clownhouse is one such movie. Of course, back then I was unaware of the infamy surrounding the movie, the only reason it stayed with me was because I had a genuine fear of clowns. Clowns, sharks and moths, in case you were wondering. I didn't really know what a paedophile was back in 1989, but I'm pretty sure I would've been scared of them too.
It's hard to review the movie without discussing Victor Salva's imprisonment for abusing the film's young lead, Nathan Forrest Winters, because the opening act feels particularly exploitative when you are aware of the facts. There are lots of shots of young boys in their underwear, unnecessary shots that give the film an air of discomfort, and that's before the clowns arrive to wreak havoc.
Clownhouse has little plot to speak of. Three inmates escape from a psychiatric institution and take the guise of circus clowns in order to terrorise three siblings spending the night alone. One of which is Sam Rockwell, in his movie debut. One year earlier, Killer Klowns from Outer Space had been released, but it was Salva's Clownhouse that wiped the painted smile off my face.
Salva went on to make Jeepers Creepers and its sequel. I loved the opening hour of Jeepers but the film lost its way for me after the 'big reveal' was unleashed. Still, there's no denying Salva knows how to orchestrate a scary movie, and the signs were there in his opening gambit. There are creepy moments to be found, particularly when the clowns are lurking in the shadows, and the 80s score - which borders on corny - occasionally hits home, adding much needed weight to the latter chase sequences. Cheesy, however, is the best way to describe Clownhouse.
Performances are fun but relatively weak, the characters are annoying and act in stupid ways, and when the clowns aren't being creepy they fall foul of Home Alone style misadventure. Frying pans and wooden beams halt their progress in calamitous fashion, so much so, even Macaulay Culkin would be embarrassed. Casey (Winter) is forced to overcome his fear of clowns though, which gives the closing statement a little more substance than your average-ordinary horror fix.
When all is said and done, I still have a soft spot for Clownhouse. Victor Salva's direction is concise and controlled, and he does conjure up some memorable imagery along the way. The scene in which Sam Rockwell's Randy runs past a window, only for one of the clowns to mimic his movements from the other side, is both fleeting and expertly handled.
"No man can hide from his fears; as they are a part of him, they will always know where he is hiding." Poor Casey knows that only too well. Clownhouse was never likely to have the same effect on me as it did when I was twelve, but the movie has remained unsettling, even if it is for entirely different reasons these days.