Clownhouse: A true video nasty if there ever was one. I mind-wrestled since the beginning of Nightmare Nostalgia on the notion to ever even write about this film, and here we are finally. At the end of the day, I got some things to say so we’re diving into this really troublesome movie that has become the true horror fan’s forbidden fruit.
Let’s start with my first experience with it:
Walking around the horror section in 1990 at my local mom and pop rental store Action Video, was definitely a highlight in my childhood. I’ve written countless times about how the hypnotizing VHS art covers opened up a world of horror I may have never known about before. Classic films like The Blob remake and Popcorn would have slid right by me in this era had it not been for those glorious artwork promos on the plastic rental box staring at you from afar like a lonely stranger begging for conversation. And of course, this new film stalking the shelves in the Summer of that year by then-unknown filmmaker Victor Salva caught my attention. The peering eyes of a demented clown taunted me. So duh, of course, I rented it. Brought it home, watched it on a Friday night with my dad, and I absolutely loved it.
I really hate saying that knowing we all know now about the movie.
Clownhouse is a fairly straightforward horror film about three brothers, Nathan Forrest Winters, Brian McHugh, and a then-unknown Sam Rockwell left alone in the house with some lunatic clowns on the loose who so happen to target the brothers in particular. Casey (Winters) has classic coulrophobia, and of course, his asshole big brother (Rockwell) who has a hot date but is also in charge of his two younger siblings while Mom is out of town, takes the clan to the town carnival to kill two birds with one stone. After a scare inside the big tent with a red-nosed nightmare (which was solely based on Casey’s own fears) the brothers head home for the night and the clowns retire to the makeup tents to wash off their faces- but the circus clowns themselves are being stalked by a trio of escaped mental patients. They themselves are killed and the lunatics take their clown gear, makeup, and have a hunt of their own. The prey being the three brothers of course.
As stated, Victor Salva was then an unknown to the industry and came in with this, actually really good B-horror movie flick. Beyond the obvious, this is what is incredibly problematic. The film hardly has any gore but rather plays on a psychological scare and chase theme. I would almost go far as saying it’s like a hardened, and more sophisticated “Are You Afraid of the Dark” episode made into a movie with much better acting. Which could be why I liked it so much as a kid. The film has great tension-filled pacing and eerie cinematography that sets the mood for a terrifying night filled with pained nightmares running around. But alas, it’s so uncomfortable to sit through now.
Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Well, it’s not easy when the center of the art involves child molestation and really unsubtle shots of young boys in their underwear throughout the picture. I used to be able to think I could. However, the older I get, the more I can not. It hurts knowing what happened to the star, Nathan Forrest Winters and what he must have felt and gone through during production. After the disgusting scandal was made public, and if you do happen to rewatch it, you can just tell in this kid’s eyes the fear he has. The torment that Casey goes through in the film is a disturbing parallel of the heinous abuse Winters was subjected to at the hands of a real monster. That’s not acting, and that really angers me. It angers me even more that this piece of shit didn’t do nearly enough prison time AND went on to make a goddamn movie with Disney of all people: Powder, another really suggestive-looking trope with lots of half-naked young men, and then ultimately, Jeepers Creepers– who fuckface Salva himself said he modeled The Creeper after his own persona.
What a fuckin’ slimeball.
Anyways, if you’re one of those people who can by some magic sorcery separate the film from the behind-the-scenes horrors, then you’ll probably enjoy it; good luck finding it though beyond a free version up on YouTube. Just be prepared for the most uncomfortable hour and twenty minutes of your cinematic life.