CLOWNHOUSE (1989) Reviews and overview

  

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Clownhouse is a 1989 American horror film written and directed by Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers 3; Dark House; Jeepers Creepers II; Jeepers Creepers; The Nature of the Beast). Produced by Michael Danty, Robin Mortarotti and Victor Salva.

The Commercial Pictures production stars Nathan Forrest Winters, Brian McHugh, Sam Rockwell (making his film debut), Tree [Michael Jerome West], Byron Weible and David C. Reinecker.

Clownhouse was the film debut of actor Sam Rockwell.

Plot:

Just before Halloween, three young brothers alone in a big house are menaced by three escaped mental patients who have murdered some travelling circus clowns and taken their identities.

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Controversy:

Salva was charged with the abuse of Nathan Forrest Winters, the lead actor who played Casey, during the making of this film. Later, several videos and pictures of the film’s co-star Brian McHugh were discovered in Salva’s house indicating he was also a victim. However, McHugh’s parents wouldn’t let him get involved in the case. Salva served fifteen months of a three-year prison term and was released on parole.

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Reviews:

“Putting all the controversy behind it, the film itself seems pretty poorly plotted and lacking in scares… which is rather ironic since it stars scary clowns. There is too much set-up and too much downtime in the short eighty-one-minute film before the horror starts.  The clowns are intimidating but not that intimidating. It seems like if you have psychotic clowns, you could do more to make them terrifying.” Basement Rejects

“The premise is light and at roughly an hour and fifteen minutes (minus credits) it feels pretty stretched out, like a short film that has been padded. The acting is all amateur hour. While some of the stalking/chasing scenes are really tense and well done, they are eventually brought down a peg in believability, like the fact that an out of his mind mental patient cannot catch up to a pudgy pre-teen.” DVD Talk

” …most of the murders taking place off-screen the film is more about creepy atmosphere and building tension with the odd scare as a pay-off. It also focuses on the close relationship between the three brothers, including an early performance by Sam Rockwell as the eldest. The action scenes are a bit clumsy but clowns are creepy in my book and this film definitely has some chilling moments.” Eat Horror

“Am I recommending Clownhouse? In and of itself, divorced from the reality behind it, it’s a serviceable thriller with some truly odd touches (the boys’ mother and a fortune-teller they encounter at the carny both seem like chubby drag queens). Viewed in its real-life context, it becomes exponentially distasteful and squalid…” eFilmCritics

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“The atmosphere builds throughout, becoming extremely creepy in the second half of the film, and the scares are often developed in a low-key manner as opposed to just making viewers jump (although there are jump scares) […] Sadly, it’s also a movie made all the creepier for all the wrong reasons, and a hard one to watch impartially once you know just what happened on the set.” For It Is Man’s Number

“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.” Gone with the Twins

“Interesting idea, but this movie is very, very slow. Honestly, I f*cking hated it. If I was a little kid it might scare me, but as an adult you can see all of the scares coming a mile away […] Another thing that upset me was it took damn near 30 minutes for the killers to even get into the clown make-up! That’s way too long for a set-up… the entire movie is only 81 minutes!” Happyotter

“As sad as the film’s regrettable history may be, there’s no way around the fact that it does truly work wonderfully as a bare-bones horror film (I’ll even throw in my biggest compliment, it recalls early Carpenter), and no discussion of good killer clown movies would be complete without its mention.” Kindertrauma

“There is little to the plot of Clownhouse. Just a series of spooky peripheral jumps and point-of-view tracking shots […] However, it is what director Victor Salva does with this that makes Clownhouse something worth watching. Salva knows what is horror is about and goes for it with a remarkable assurance. He has a supremely fluid handling of peripheral suspense and an incredible ability to conjure atmosphere and tension out of subliminal jumps and eerie pop-ups scares.” Moria

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Clownhouse takes a little while to get going, but once it does, it ends up being an effective little chiller. I think horror fans looking for old-fashioned scares and suspense will find much to like about the movie, if they can look past its controversial history. I can’t ask fans to ignore what Salva did because it is truly unforgivable and despicable. I can, however, ask horror fans to at least attempt to view the film itself with an open mind…” Oh, the Horror!

Clownhouse‘s entire opening hour is essentially superfluous and could easily be condensed into about five minutes worth of screentime, and while the film’s third act is admittedly quite exciting, it’s almost negated by everything that’s preceded it. And while director Victor Salva does a nice job of establishing a creepy, off-kilter sort of atmosphere, there’s just not enough substance here to keep the viewer engaged throughout.” 2/6 Reel Film Reviews

“Despite the dodgy history surrounding the film, it holds up well enough. If you are looking for something atmospheric to get you in a jumpy mood, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Clownhouse. Once your expectations are in check for gore and massive production value, you should have a good time with this.” Rewind Your Damn Videotapes

“If you can get beyond the production’s notorious backstory then as a horror movie it’s not too bad as Salva shows a good ability at building a creepy, surreal-like atmosphere particularly the scenes done at the circus and then later at the large, ominous house […] The plot though is weak…” Scopophilia

“The first hour of Clownhouse is 90% talking and 10% stalking […] The film is aesthetically pleasing. Salva is experienced visually. Sadly, his script is crappy, his pacing is terrible, and his actors look like they want to be elsewhere.” Tales of Terror

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Clownhouse is a harmless enterprise, sometimes rewarding, certainly not as frightening as it could have been. Nevertheless, an inoffensive venture worth a late-night viewing.” The Terror Trap

“Though hampered by an uninspired script and its obviously low budget, writer-director Victor Salva’s first feature plays cleverly on the visceral dislike many people feel for clowns and the result is often truly creepy.” TV Guide

“Nathan Forrest Winters and Sam Rockwell give more realistic performances in a film that’s largely not. Clownhouse is a horror movie version of Full House that probably would fit well as a made for television movie. That being said, there’s just something enjoyable in this Clownhouse. The Home Alone concept on a life or death scale works for me.” Without Your Head

Victor Salva
Disgraced director Victor Salva cavorting with the clowns

Cast and characters:

Nathan Forrest Winters … Casey
Brian McHugh … Geoffrey
Sam Rockwell … Randy
Tree [Michael Jerome West] … Lunatic Cheezo
Byron Weible … Lunatic Bippo
David C. Reinecker … Lunatic Dippo
Timothy Enos … Real Cheezo
Frank Diamanti … Real Bippo
Karl Heinz Teuber … Real Dippo
Viletta Skillman … Mother
Gloria Belsky … Fortune Teller
Tom Mottram … Ringmaster
Erika Young … Storekeeper
Russell Jasper Watts … Storekeeper’s Assistant
Bobby Salem … Booth Barker
David E. Gehringer … Balloon Twister
Anne Tomin … Marci
Sondra Utterback … Melissa
Karl Peters … Gapino Brother
Kurt Peters … Gapino Brother
Andrew P. Swan … Circus Performer

Filming locations:

3033 Bonifacio Street, Concord, California (mental institution)
1598 Niebaum Lane, Napa, California (house)

Technical details:

1 hour 21 minutes
Audio: Dolby
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1

Budget:

$200,000 (estimated)

Release:

Mainly due to the controversy during its production, Clownhouse became a sleeper hit but soon fell into obscurity. The film was released on VHS and LaserDisc in 1990 by RCA/Columbia.

In 2003, the film was released on DVD by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer but was pulled from store shelves due to protests surrounding the criminal activity that occurred during production. The film has been out of print on home video ever since and any DVD copies that aren’t bootleg are near impossible to find.

Fun Facts:

Francis Ford Coppola bankrolled the Clownhouse. His film Dementia 13 (1963) can be seen playing on the TV.  For some inexplicable reason, Coppola continued to support Salva even after the director’s short prison sentence; his American Zoetrope company partly produced the Jeepers Creepers franchise. Read this BuzzFeed article for more on Salva and Coppola.

Trailer:

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