Clownhouse (1989)

Sorry, I died there for a month and a half…

Directed by Victor Salva

Like most kids from my generation who grew up hearing stories of John Wayne Gacy, or having seen Tommy Lee Wallace’s sterling two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s It, young Casey is terrified of clowns.

Clownhouse begins in a fairly predictable way — with a nightmare. Casey is dazedly wandering around his huge Hollywood home (Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola’s home) in that signature, half-conscious being beckoned by an invisible force kind of way horror characters tend to. The storm outside blows an illustration of an angry clown against his window. He pees himself, then wakes up in a sweat.

Clownhouse 1

Love that title font.

Let’s set the stage: Halloween is two weeks away, Casey’s dad is off on a business trip, his mom is visiting relatives, and the Jolly Bros. Circus is back in town. With nothing better to do, Casey and his two older brothers, dutiful protector Geoffrey and needlessly antagonistic 80s bully Randy, decide to go after school, in spite of Casey’s, well, mattress ruining affliction, and breakdown he suffered a year prior at the same exact circus.

Ambling home from the bus stop that afternoon, a pair of police cars drift past the boys, sirens blaring. Our trio runs up an embankment over a hedge to watch as the cruisers speed toward an old building.

“Trouble at that nuthouse.” Randy elucidates.

“Where the crazy people live.” Casey adds, if you can call that adding. The brothers laugh the apparent emergency off, thinking nothing of it, and head to the circus as planned. Their first stop is a fortune telling tent, where Casey is eerily forwarned by an elderly marble-eyed palm reader that “something very soon is cutting through [his] lifeline.” Shaken, Casey attempts to brave the main show in the Big Top — buuuuut, as the bed wetter’s luck would have it, he’s plucked from the crowd to assist with a stunt by Cheezo, an evil looking, orange-haired pantomime clown. Casey loses his shit, knocks Cheezo on his ass, and bolts from the tent, much to his two brothers’ embarrassment.

Geoffrey steps out to console coulrophobic Casey while Randy sucks face with his girlfriend. The brothers depart soon after. Later that night, Cheezo and sidekicks Bippo and Dippo are attacked and killed in their dressing room tent by three escaped loons from the town mental hospital (think back to that cop car scene), who then assume their personas.

By absolute chance, I guess, the murdering psychos pass Casey’s house, and make direct eye contact with him during one of those drawn-out The killer dramatically, knowingly turns around to show he’s aware the hero is watching him! moments. And that’s when the real fun mild horror begins.

“He knew they would find him, all of them.” Casey dourly states in one scene, referring to himself. “Their faces like painted nightmares. As sure as anything real, they would find him. It was kind of like they were already inside of him… They would always know where he was hiding.”

Subtle, reserved, with a slight air of menace, Clownhouse is one of those few kid-marketed-or-at-least-friendly horror films to emerge from the glut of slashers and splatter flicks of its time, that shameless, seemingly never-ending barrage of blood, titties, mullets, and heavy metal that was the 80s. Its adolescent leads and campfire feel remind me of The Gate for some reason (though my memories of that one are vague), or an episode of Goosebumps, or Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Maybe even The Monster Squad. Hell, throw The Lost Boys in too, while we’re at it. Scary? Shocking? Nah, just a fun, little build, eerie and atmospheric in parts.

Clownhouse 2

The sad truth is, more disturbed and unnerving (by a mile) than Clownhouse itself are the offscreen events that transpired on set, that loom over the film, not unlike the main character’s fear of clowns looms over his every thought — the sex acts writer/director Victor Salva (later credits include Disney’s Powder, as well as the Jeepers Creepers duology) forced on his lead, then twelve-year-old Nathan Forrest Winters.

Knowledge of Salva’s appalling actions, of his subsequent trial, conviction and jailing for “lewd and lascivious conduct, oral copulation with a person under 14, and procuring a child for pornography” (Salva reportedly filmed at least one encounter), and that he only served fifteen months of a woefully insufficient three year sentence is much more horrifying than anything that could be realized onscreen, and severely mars the end product, no question, causing its numerous shots of underage male actors in various states of undress — shirtless, pantless, bathing, even bare-assed — and the implication, at one point, that one of them was masturbating (“artistic” inclusions I may or may not have found suspect otherwise), to be viewed in a different light — an awkward, uncomfortable hue of perversion. In hindsight, the first twenty minutes of this thing were a warning, a near-peep show of pedo-eroticism and poor taste. Either Salva saw little need to conceal his unacceptable sexual preference from the public, or didn’t realize how openly it was manifesting itself onscreen. Either way, it detracts from the film, like I said.

The good news is, as noted earlier, if one can detach one’s self (as I was able to do) from the facts, and view this film on its own, as a piece of fiction, a piece of entertainment, a group effort, the product of a whole cast and crew, and not the embodiment or sole vision of a sexual predator, it’s decently enjoyable.

So… Yeah? Fair enough? Yes? No?

Right. Let’s get back to the film.

Clownhouse 3

An obvious nagging problem here is this bad boy’s sound quality. Its dialogue is distant, metallic, and hard to hear, like its actors dubbed their lines through a ventilation duct. As kids, my brother and I had a pastime. Well, many. But one of them was communicating from separate rooms of the house via speaking into the floor vents. It was simple, yet fun, and we felt like geniuses for figuring out how to do it (this was after we’d learned the much-hyped Tin Can Telephone was nothing more than a sham). Now, as I gravitate closer and closer to my laptop to make out just what in the Sam Hell these characters are muttering, I’m reminded of my brother’s Darth Vader impression echoing up from the vent in my bedroom. Sound dude from Clownhouse, you dropped the ball on this one.

Thankfully, the music is unaffected, and makes up for the otherwise abominable audio. In horror, good scores will develop an atmosphere, whilst great ones will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. In my opinion, no decade understood this better than the 1980s. Michael Becker and Thomas Richardson’s (the latter of which scored this and literally nothing else) creepy circus music here is a winner — effective in both the above-mentioned ways.

Most effective as well is the way these villains were photographed, lurking, prowling about, inching doors open, peeking through cracks, their painted faces and outfits contrasting the shadows.

The high point of this film for me is a quick shot that sees Randy fixing a fuse box. It sparks, creating a strobe light effect by which we see Bippo (or was it Dippo?) race past in the background — a startling half-second visual, staged to perfection.

Now, while the setup is careful and well-crafted, my one big complaint (besides the metallic dialogue business) is that it don’t lead nowheres. We’re teased with a noose and a clown doll throughout that never really come into play in satisfactory ways, and the ending is, well, an ending, I guess, but abrupt and lacking that full circle tie-up, that fitting resolution. A quote is tacked on to the end stating “No man can hide from his fears…”, though Casey does just that right up until the end and it works for him. So… Remind me how that applies.

When it comes down to it, Clownhouse is good — pretty good — but not quite there. On top of that, Director Salva’s disgraceful, destructive, irreversible actions have stigmatized it, and rightfully so, but the film can still be enjoyed on its own merits if given a fair shake. A mixed bag to be sure.

It’s not really a goof, but the teenage voice crack at 55:27 is gold.

The Verdict
Iffin’ you’re not ethically opposed to the whole thing (which you may well be), check it out, it’s on YouTube (above).

Are You Afraid of the Dark? (TV, 1990)

this incomplete list of other killer clown movies:

Funland (1987)
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
It (1990)
The Clown at Midnight (1999)
Killjoy (2000)
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
S.I.C.K.: Serial Insane Clown Killer (2003)
Fear of Clowns (2004)
Mr. Jingles (2006)
Amusement (2008)
Stitches (2012) — this one’s a riot!
All Hallows’ Eve (2013)


11 Responses to “Clownhouse (1989)”

  1. Wow, I never realised there were so many! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome review. By chance, are any of those clown films you list (besides It) both supernatural and not ridiculously over the top?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Erm, probably not. Most of them would be slashers. The first two are comedies. Stitches is too, but I still recommend it. Hard to put into words… like a big-budget, Irish teen comedy flick with a dead clown and age-old clown cabal thrown in. All around hilarious, great deadpan delivery by the clown actor, and some of the best effects work I’ve ever seen.

      If Amusement is the movie I’m thinking of, it’s an episodic anthology flick based on the old “clown statue” urban legend. I remember very little of it.

      The 1998 remake of Carnival of Souls is sort of a psychological horror. Never seen the original, though it’s supposed to be a classic.

      Here’s a more complete list. Dunno how much you’ll find here, but:

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I may have seen this flick a way back when. Thanks for repeating the story about Salva. It’s sad that money can buy you freedom in this country.


    • You’re right, it’s sad the way the elite are able to sweep their sex crimes under the rug, and escape prison time for manslaughter and such. I’ve heard so many celebrities have killed people with their cars that it’s now just a $5 fine.


two cents here

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