Monday, November 23, 2009

Issue #1: The Clown Murders (1976)

Welcome to the first installment of Spawn of Bozo, my look at the world of creepy clown films. Each week I'll be featuring a film (and sometimes a television show) that prominently features a clown as an object of horror. For some of you that means any clown, but I'm basically interested in films where the clown is meant to make you scream. You may be surprised to learn that this sub-genre of film is quite large. At the moment I have enough films to take me through an entire year, and I discover more every week. So we have lots to talk about.

We begin with what is arguably the first creepy clown film of the modern age, 1976's The Clown Murders.

This is the original one sheet for The Clown Murders. Not exactly scary, is it? In fact, one might even say they're going for a kind of seriousness one would expect from a Deep and Meaningful Play like, I don't know, The Crucible, or something by an alcoholic Russian.

It's the graphics. They imply something that might be performed by well-trained actors in a theatre and not by semi-competent actors in a theater. Looking at this poster you might imagine yourself at a very swank cocktail party, talking to a dashing man who has just shared with you the details of his recent trip to Paris, during which he attended a performance of Manon Lescaut at the Opéra National and had lunch with Jeanne Moreau. Taking a sip of your martini, you nod and reply, "Have you seen The Clown Murders? I found it a provoking commentary on the tragic nature of obsession."

Oddly enough, you wouldn't be entirely off base. I think the makers of the film really did want to do something serious. Well, kind of serious. Here's the basic plot: A nice enough fellow (Charlie) comes home after being gone for a while to discover that his ex-girlfriend (Alison, that's her on the left there) has married another friend (Philip), a businessman who is planning on turning the farm on which Alison grew up into high-rise condos. For reasons that have everything to do with the plot, the deal is to be signed at midnight on Halloween.

To celebrate the closing of the deal, Philip is throwing a Halloween party at his country club. He orders his meek assistant, Ollie (played by funnyman John Candy in one of his first film roles), to order costumes for everyone attending. Charlie's buddies Rosie and Peter convince Charlie that they should scotch Philip's plan by kidnapping Alison from the party and hiding her so that she can't sign the paperwork to complete the sale of her family's property. I'm not entirely sure why, as I fell asleep for about 10 minutes at this point. But it's supposed to be a practical joke.

Anyway, for more reasons having everything to do with the plot, Rosie and Peter convince Ollie (who just wants to be one of the guys) to change the costume order to nothing but clown costumes. Now all the partygoers will look exactly alike. Ha ha! It's a whole herd of clowns! Scary, right?

Not so much. Well, if you find clowns in general creepy then seeing 80 of them in one place drinking cheap white wine might freak you out. But it isn't exactly frightening. However, when Charlie and his pals surround the golf cart on which Alison and Philip are riding (I forget why they're on a golf cart, but it doesn't matter) and force them to get out, there's a moment when you think, "Yeah, getting carjacked by clowns would probably make me soil my pants."

And here is where things go terribly wrong for everyone. This is supposed to be a harmless prank, right? Only during the kidnapping Philip gets knocked out cold and you start to sense that some people have anger issues that are going to be a problem later on. Rosie, in particular, seems a little unhinged, which if you ask me might have something to do with the fact that he's called Rosie and is a full grown man. But more on that in a bit.

Having knocked Philip out, the four clowns (Charlie, Rosie, Peter, and Ollie) take Alison to an old farmhouse and deposit her in an upstairs bedroom. They leave Ollie to look after her. Then a bunch of talking happens and everyone gets mad at each other. You find out that Charlie is sad that he lost Allison, Peter is kind of a putz, and Rosie has some serious problems with women.

For reasons I again can't remember (probably because the script told him to) Charlie goes out to look in the old barn. Finally--FINALLY--a creepy clown shows up. Here he is. Not a great picture, right? Well that's pretty much all you see of him in the film, so enjoy it while you can.

Realizing that this clown is not one of his friends, Charlie begins to worry. He worries even more when the clown chases him and he ends up trapped inside a chicken pen surrounded by an electrified fence. Yes, you read that correctly. And now back in the house a bunch of stuff happens that is supposed to be dramatic. Basically, Rosie is being an even bigger jackhole than he's already been, which is saying something. He's making fun of everyone--particularly Ollie, who eats a lot. I mean a LOT. He's a total fatty boombalatty.

One of the things Rosie decides is that he wants to have sex with Alison. But not in a good way. He kind of wants to make her have sex with him, if you get my drift. But Ollie protects her by baring the door and so Alison decides to have sex with him instead. No, I don't know why. But she does. And they show it. For far too long. Which is worse than any creepy clown in existence.

Now it's time to wrap the film up. Alison goes to take a shower, which I totally can't blame her for. Rosie drags Ollie (in his underwear) outside and beats him up. Ollie cries and acts like a giant sis and you don't feel one bit sorry for him. Meanwhile, Charlie is still in the chicken coop and is screaming at Ollie to get up and help him, which he doesn't because Rosie has hogtied him and, as I mentioned, he's a blubbering mess, apparently over having just lost his vrginity.

Rosie goes back inside, where he finds Alison standing wrapped in a towel. She drops it and tells him to come make love to her. Instead, he runs away. No, I don't know why either. I think they're implying that Rosie is gay and is going pyscho on everyone because he can't handle it, but that's kind of homophobic of them and let's hope it's not the case. Whatever the reason, he runs out of the house.

Honestly, I don't even remember who dies. I think the clown shotguns Peter, then Ollie shoots Rosie more or less accidentally (but not really, because he totally hates Rosie for teasing him so much). Alison stabs the clown in the hand. Charlie gets out of the chicken coop. The police show up and dawn comes. Everyone is sad because they realize they're unhappy. Or something like that.

Oh, the creepy clown. I almost forgot. Early on in the movie, when Charlie returns to the farm (where he used to live with Alison) to pick up some stuff he left there, we learn that the farm is being looked after by a caretaker with a Scottish accent and his semi-special son who likes to decapitate chickens. And guess what--they don't want the farm sold! So there you go. What? No, not the chicken-killing son. The father, although I suspect the son helped. (We know this because his hand is bandaged where Alison stabbed him.) Who saw that coming, eh? The film ends with the two of them walking through a field, apparently going to IHOP to have a celebratory breakfast, although it's unclear what they've accomplished.

As I said earlier, I think the filmmakers were going for Something Big. You know, the clown as the exposer of human foibles and so on. And good for them. But, well, I don't know. It was all kind of meh. Also blurry, as the DVD quality is crap even for a movie shot in 1976. Still, as one of the first movies to use the whole creepy clown trope, it's worth watching.

By the way, here are the covers of the VHS releases of the film and the 2007 DVD release. Notice anything different about them?

I thought you might.

I can give the artwork on the first VHS a pass, but the second one and the DVD are problematic. There's no graveyard in the film, no clown doll, and definitely no clown with a machete. So boo on you, Image Entertainment, for making us expect something a little more shriek-inducing than what we get. And boo on you for making us think John Candy is the star. Sure, he's got a pretty big role, but what about poor Stephen Young (Charlie), who was in Soylent Green and had parts in TV shows including CHiPs, The Bionic Woman, Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I., and Hart to Hart? Or Lawrence Dane (Philip), who appeared in a ton of stuff including Scanners, Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last, Amy Fisher: My Story, and Queer as Folk? Don't John Bayliss (Peter) and Gary Reineke (Rosie) deserve top billing too? After all, they were in episodes of Goosebumps and The Adventures of Sinbad respectively.

But I suppose you do what you have to do to move units.

Favorite Line: "There's more to life than just building apartment buildings."

Rating (out of 5)

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