One of the better ultra-cheap clown horror films is Clownhouse (1989), an unexpectedly effective entry into the growing number of evil clown movies, & a few years ahead of the great rush of slasher clown that have proliferated in the first decade of the new millenium.
This film knows something about clowns many of the films in this subgenre have failed to understand: clowns, regular clowns, are creepy. Not just clowns with fangs, painted to look like the psychos they are, but actual straightforward clowns, the ones purportedly designed with the idea in mind that children should find them amusing & pleasing.
With their smelly pants, floppy shoes, deathly white or greasy technicolor faces or sooty tramp complexions, messy flaming yarn hair, & swollen alcoholic-red noses, they are strange for glorifying deformity, worrisome for disguising identity or even humanity, & creepy for making expansive jests that are frequently sadistic.
Clownhouse knows this. Clowns need no exaggeration beyond the fact that they are clowns.
The tale convincingly conveys the fear of clowns through the young, surprisingly good performance of Nathan Forrest Winters as Casey, youngest of three brothers. He'll piss his pajamas even at the sight of a picture of a clown. We might not all share his phobia, but it's understandable. It's not like being afraid of kittens, they're fucking clowns for crying sake.
It's mid-October. The circus has come to town & Casey's brothers are eager to attend, after school. Mom & dad leave town, with oldest brother Randy (Sam Rockwell) having responsibility for the younger boys, though Randy's not all that responsible a young man.
Everyone's assuming Casey's gotten over the terror of clowns he experienced the previous year, for he strives to suffer silently, especially as Randy teases him mercillessly about clowns. His middle brother, Geoff, tries to be supportive, & is generally more mature than the obnoxious eldest.
Casey tries to enjoy the carnival that evening, while sidestepping the clowns. He's very curious about the fortuneteller (Gloria Belsky). Randy thinks it's a waste of money, but Geoff says to let him do what he wants.
The fortuneteller is pretty damned creepy, though she gives a positive reading as one would expect to be done for a kid -- until she looks closely at his lifeline, & goes quiet & concerned. "Something very smooth -- is cutting through your lifeline. Take great care!" And she goes all batshit spooky as the three boys flee the fortuneteller's tent.
Despite that the film's primary characters are kids, there's no sense of it being only a children's horror film.
I expect kids would like it, but circuses of this kind are part of the fabric of a former generation of American fact & mythology. The terrors represented are bound to be more familiar to adult viewers. Plus the young actors are good enough to be captivating in their own right, especially Casey as he deals with things very like, if not exactly like, dark echoes of every childhood.
The first attempt of a "nice" clown to entice a child, closely observed by nervous Casey, really is bizarrely unsettling, though nothing definitively untoward. It's Cheezo the Clown, supported by three other clowns performing in the circus ring while Casey sits stern-faced & observant. But then Cheezo tries to grab Casey out of the audience to be part of the act, & he takes off out of the tent, screaming for all he's worth.
Geoff chases after him & calms him down, tries to make him feel less of a chickenshitted idiot. "You know what I used to be afraid of? The Wolfman. I don't know why. I know he isn't real."
We're about to get a point-of-view, for the first time, outside of Casey's perspective of looming threat. There is a scene late that night when the circus has closed, & the clowns are cleaning off their make-up. They're just regular old bozos, & they're even a bit distraught to have scared a kid so badly earlier in the evening. Phobias are irrationial after all, & these clowns mean no harm whatsoever.
When the lights go out in the tent, & the circus animals are screaming, it's the clowns we suddenly worry about. By now we know that they are not going to be the problem, but we do have clues that someone on the prowl, with an unwholesome interest in the art of clowning.
"Get away from the tent please!" shouts one of the clowns, half out of his make-up. "Show's over!" yells another of the clowns, shadows deep around them.
Oh, I can't reveal it, I just can't, but we soon understand that even professional clowns can have reasons to be afraid of clowns! The editing is so tight, the quietly sinister music so perfect, & then...
A psycho gathers up all the clown make-up, costumes, & paraphernalia he can carry. Soon in company with two other lunatics who escaped from the town's mental asylum, three clowns are wandering the night. Mom's away & Randy, though not terribly reliable, is responsible for his little brothers. The headcase who has stolen Cheezo's make-up design seems to know exactly which house of the boy who most fears clowns -- & the parents are away.
The typical psycho killer movie just picks off teenagers one by one, no plot required. But by right of having pre-teens as the primary cast, an iota of good taste seeped in, if only an iota. Hence this is going to be in great part a story of heroism in the face of terror, as Casey does everything he can to protect his brothers from what he is first to recognize as a threat.
For instance, when Randy's decided to walk through the woods to a ma/pa grocery down the way a bit, Casey unexpectedly decides to go with him, scared shitless but not wanting Randy alone if the clowns try to get him. This is effing brave, & an effective set of woods-by-night scenes follow Casey's terrific decision.
And when Casey tries to convince his brother, "The clowns, Randy. The clowns. They're here," even unsupportive Randy has to feel for the kid, for the first time sounding concerned when he replies, "Casey, you are the weirdest brother I've ever had." Luckily they make it home through the night. But the clowns will get in the house.
In order to have a quota of slaughter without hacking up children, the story takes a small turn with the farmer down the road, just long enough to provide disgusting clowning bloody doom.
The three kids on their own watching a video tape & eating popcorn, suddeny the lights blow out, & the clowns have gained entrance. It's stalker time, & I tell ya, I rarely worry about the dumbass teenagers in most films of this kind because they're never well drawn characters. These three kids, by contrast, had me on the edge of my seat for the rest of the film!
None of it is funny, though now & then I got a giggle, like when Casey serious as all hell wants Randy to call the police & says, "Call Officer Friendly." Officer Friendly? There are a few little touches like that which don't quite break the tense mood but remind us this is just a movie, & we've all just got to be having fun.
I'm just impressed with the script, too. In most such films there's a "dumbass goes alone in the basement" scene which is just so stupid. But this time it fits in the script convincingly when none of the boys have the nerve to go up in the attic to check the fusebox, & draw straws to see who does it.
They've not yet seen what we've seen, that clowns lurk in shadows, & really it won't matter if one, two, or all three go in the attic. Or anywhere else in the house. It's a gawdamn nightmare no matter what they do. And no sense of any of these lads being just too stupid to deserve life, which is frankly what I feel a lot of the time about the boring teenage victims of less imaginative films about psychopaths.
It takes so long for the kids to realize clowns are hiding nearby that it does get a bit dull, but not unbearably so.
When Randy elects to dress up as a clown to scare Casey in the dark, hidden Cheezo & his two buddies look scowly & upset. All hell breaks loose for Randy as the clowns reveal themselves at last. The fight is on, Casey & Geoffrey vs the three loonies.
Such sensitive direction of child actors is surprising in a horror cheapie. Alas, the "sensitive" director turned out to be a pedarast & shortly after filming Clownhouse was arrested for molesting the kid who played Casey, so Victor Salva turns out to have been the real Cheezo, a pure nightmare for children.
Salva's pedarasty is ultimately the only reason not to spend money on this film, as who wants to put dollars in the mits of a registered sex offender. With a simple web search you can find it on-line available to watch for free, & I'd recommend that just so that you won't give even one penny in support of a molestor. You wouldn't think anyone like that would ever find anyone to back further filmmaking, but he went on to make the rather competent Jeepers Creepers films, & even did work for Disney, living up to his long history of trying to get work where children are within reach.
Here is the "unrated" direct to video release of DeadHouse (2005). I'm glad to rate it for them. And I rate it a turd. And be sure to note the "special" capitalization of the title, as nothing else is going to be so clever.
Teens Lisa, Christina & Brandon (Tracey Dalton, Cara Dalton & Anthony Carvalho) are kidnapped by cloyingly upbeat psychopaths Victor & Kain (Shaun Israel & director Pablo Macho Maysonet IV; these two really were boyhood friends & their film comes off as the work of small boys who've mistaken themselves for filmmakers).
Trapped & tormented in the run-down residence of the happy nutters, there's a lot of running about & a few gore FX. Because psycho Victor wears a clown mask, this one is marginally apropos of "clown horror" sub-genre, but only barely.
Amateur from start to finish, the best thing you can say about how badly these would-be actors deliver lines is the sound recording is so bad you don't actually have to hear what they're saying. The video digital cinematography isn't much better than the sound. And the script -- what script! The content attempted is so generic no script was required.
Digital video has made it possible for would-be filmmakers with no money & no knowledge of how to make a feature film to make one anyway. From lighting to musical score, they've gotten nothing even close to right, but a good painting of a scary clown on the package (because no still from the film could possibly appeal to anyone) & some of us will be tricked into giving it a try.
It's getting harder & harder for B-horror film fans to know what is going to be a sleezy cool trasho-filmo, & what is a digital-video home movie with little to no entertainment value.
Some of the set-ups for grue aren't completely bad but the filmmakers lacked the skills to really capture what they were attempting to frame. And making the psychos vaguely likeable should've been a good touch. But it's just so massively awful, nothing that was the least bit likely to lend interest to DeadHouse ever quite gets through.
Pablo & his fellow school chums have continued to make movies. Maybe they're getting better at it, but I lack sufficient faith to have any desire to find out.
Funland (1986) has an occasionally effective sense of the absurd, mixing parody with satire. Unfortunately the dvd copy looks like a transfer of a color-runny vhs copy & cinematography is often out of focus.
The film was formerly packaged as a gangster spoof, but is presently being packaged as a psycho clown movie, which is completely misleading. The clown in the story is certainly mentally ill, but harmlessly so, as this is strictly a comedy.
Filmed at Six Flags Over Georgia in Cobb County, Georgia, having access to hundreds of acres of theme park rides & locations greatly helped with the low budget, though they weren't permitted to film the Monster ride or Thomas the Train Land or the D.C. Comics characters or the Wild West show. What they did access gives the impression of a more generic Funland than was necessary, but I can understand clearing permission to include trademarked & copyrighted images & characters would be beyond this film's budget.
Bruce Burger (David L. Lander, best known as Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley) is a spokesman-clown for a national pizza chain. Neil has long held the local rights to be Bruce the Clown for the local franchise which is a major advertiser for Funland, a summer retreat for families & teens where Neil can live as Bruce pretty much full time.
Having had a nervous breakdown before the film started, Bruce has largely forgotten he was ever Neil, plus he seems to think his phallic handpuppet, Pete the Pepperoni, really is his best friend.
He's inept at being a clown & really ought to be fired, except the owner of Funland, Angus (William Windom), has a fatherly fondness for Neil, & completely accepts him in his post-breakdown beleif that he really is Bruce.
Because Funland is being marketed as horror we keep waiting for Bruce to go psycho & kill people. In one scene we see everyone from dysfunctional families to young lovers to nuns to Klan members in sheets enjoying the carival atmosphere of Funland, so when Bruce takes a high-powered rifle up to Funland's clocktower, we expect a whole mess of comedy killings. But he's a terrible shot that everyone's safe.
Parodying The Godfather, a mafia family has assassinated Angus making it look like a suicide. They took over Funland to use it to launder money while they run it into the ground, with the intent of eventually using the land for bigger development projects. But first they must find the key stockholder, who the gangsters would like to make an offer he can't refuse. Only they don't know Bruce is Neil, the clown they've recently fired.
Being certifiable though harmless, Bruce has moved into the closed-down Wax Museum with his imaginary friends. The wax figure of Humphrey Bogart (Robert Sacchi) is alive for him, as for Woody Allen in Play It Again Sam (1972). Sacchi also plays the godfather figure Mario Dimaurio, proving he really can play something beyond The Man with Bogart's Face (1980).
Also keeping him company in the wax museum is the ghost of Angus, pluks of course Pete the Peperoni. Together they plot to save Funland. Bruce has swiped a rifle from hitman Larry (Richard Reiner). Phase one of his plan is to take a sniper's shot at Chad (Lane Davies), the national Bruce the Clown whose existence so much annoys our Bruce.
Chad is a Shakespearean actor who hates children & hates being a clown, but being a national advertising symbol pays so much better. In his clown wig practicing lines of Shakespeare alone in his dressing room, he's a hoot.
He in no way deserves to be Neil/Bruce's target for death, & as a comedy, we won't really have to worry about him, since our crazy hero couldn't hit the side of a barn. He can, however, in this film's upbeat goofiness, easily be mistaken for the "hero clown" who stopped hitman Larry from killing people, leading to a happy ending & the salvation of Funland for the benefit of mankind.
Crowded with silly jokes, this is an eccentric enough film to forgive it any weakness. The side character of security guard Darlene Dorkner (Bonnie Turner, a writer for Saturday Night Live in its classic period, & writer/producer for some of the best sitcoms, rarely seen in front of a camera) is almost worth the whole show.
Almost anyone who thought they were getting a slasher horror film will be very unhappy with it, but for anyone who expected an off-kilter satire with touches of black comedy, it's perfectly enjoyable.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl