Monday, December 7, 2009

Issue #3: Night of the Clown (1998)

After watching the first three films for this little undertaking of mine I'm starting to feel a bit like one of those guys who sits in his basement rec room watching old 8mm nudie reels. Not because there's anything remotely prurient about creepy clown films (at least not for me) but because so far the movies I've watched all look as if they were shot on somebody's cell phone then circulated as bootleg copies until the one I got was seventeen generations removed from the original.

Seriously, Night of the Clown makes Purvos look like The English Patient in terms of cinematography. This thing is so dark and grainy that watching it makes you wonder if you're stoned. Which appears to be the idea. The cover of the DVD suggests (or perhaps warns) viewers "Get wasted . . . Watch this . . ." And in an interview contained in the DVD extras writer/director Todd Cook says about his film, "It's not supposed to make sense. It's just supposed to be a strange experience."

Isn't that what people who write poetry say?

Anyway, this marketing concept seems to have been developed after the fact, as Night of the Clown was never supposed to see the light of day. It's something Cook and his wife Lisa made just for the hell of it. Both had made other horror films and this was an experiment of sorts meant for their own amusement. Then the film got out to some friends and people started watching it at parties, usually while under the influence of mind-altering substances. And thus a minor underground cult hit was born.

Very minor. And very underground.

It's difficult to say why the film is entertaining, but it is. It's not so-awful-it's-good awful; it's so awful you keep watching it as you would an impending accident involving a truckload of kittens and a tar truck. Unable to stop it, you want to turn away in horror but something says, "This is sure to be the most awful thing I've ever seen, and I want to be able to tell my friends about it in detail, so I'm just going to tough it out no matter how bad it is."

The "plot" is this: Todd is a very successful pickle salesman married to Lisa. One night he comes home and announces that he has sold his company for 843 million dollars. We also discover that he has five identical brothers (Dante, Chris, Clyde, Bartholomew, and Jake, all played by Cook) any one of whom might want a piece of Todd's good fortune.

I won't torture you with trying to explain what happens or why. It just happens. One by one the five brothers show up at the house and are killed by an insane and apparently magical clown who is roaming around the neighborhood.

The DVD box copy claims that "Night of the Clown has been considered to be one of the strangest, wackiest, wildest slasher movies ever made, with some of the most original and weirdest kill scenes depicted in a movie."

The first half of that claim is debatable, but on the second I call "Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!" Only about half of the kills are even remotely inventive. Of the six central deaths two involve knives and one is carried out by golf club. Even with a clown wielding the instruments of murder these are pretty ordinary. The remaining three are a wee bit better, involve a mannequin hand bursting through a chest, an exploding miniature rocket, and what I think is either a shop vac or a leaf blower. It's impossible to tell.

The clown, however, is decidedly creepy, which earns the flick a point or two. He also does some sweet little dances that are way better than any production of The Nutcracker I've ever seen, and I've seen my share. Although now that I think about it, Mark Morris's The Hard Nut is great and I really enjoy Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!, so I will amend my statement to say that the clown dances in the film are better than any production of The Nutcracker I've seen that wasn't created by Mark Morris or Matthew Bourne. Which is still saying something, so a big round of applause for the clown for outdoing the San Francisco Ballet, the Dance Babies level one class, and some other heavy hitters.

It's just too bad you can't see the creepy clown and his dances all that clearly because of the crap camera work. Just as creepy (and crappy) is Todd Cook's acting as he portrays each brother's unique personality. Dante wears a Nixon mask and makes horror films, Chris doesn't really do anything, Clyde is a wannabe rock musician, Bartholomew is a classic nerd (who keeps a pickle in his pants), and Jake is a flatulent housecleaner with limited mental capacity. Cook, who incidentally could have benefitted greatly from orthodontia as a kid and who looks way better with the short hair he sports in the interview portions of the extras than he does with the nasty ponytail he has in the film, adds to the film's ever-mounting aura of craptastitude with every grimace of horror and every coyly delivered promise to reward Lisa with a big, juicy pickle if she does as she's told.

By the way, did I mention that the film is set in a future where there are 100 hours in a day and Todd and Lisa's house talks to them? Also, that the furniture moves around by itself? Pointless, but amusing. Also pointless and amusing are a lengthy and almost totally unrelated scene of girls being scared in what appears to be a real Halloween haunted house constructed in someone's garage, and a three-minute battle between two mischievous house cats. One of the cats is interviewed in the DVD extras.

All right, back to the story. All the brothers (including Todd) are dead. So what does Lisa do? That's right, she goes up to the bedroom and puts on clown makeup. Then she wanders down into the kitchen--which is lit by a disco ball--and encounters a creepy little mannequin girl that threatens to kill her with a pickle. The real clown shows up, Lisa chases it through the house and finds its magic music box (don't ask), and the clown begs her to give it back. Because women in horror films always do exactly the wrong thing, Lisa returns it and the clown promptly turns her into a mannequin sporting a disastrous Ogilvie home perm.

So if Lisa isn't the creepy clown, who is? Normally I wouldn't want to spoil it for you, but in this case it hardly matters. It's Lucy, Lisa's twin sister. She apparently has always been jealous of Lisa and her wealth. Also, I'm guessing, her fabulous moving furniture.

Lisa, understandably shocked, begs her sister to turn her back into, well, Lisa. Which Lucy does. The end.

Apart from the clown, the best thing about Night of the Clown is that it's mercifully short. Clocking in at just over an hour, it really would make a good thing to have on in the background at a party, or maybe on Christmas morning while opening presents. Watching five minutes of it here and there is no less gratifying than watching the whole thing, so no matter when you join in you're bound to marvel at its glory. Of course, you can always follow the advice on the DVD cover and play drinking games, taking a shot (or a swig of eggnog if you go with the Christmas morning idea) whenever anyone says "pickle" or every time Todd changes character. Then, when you're good and loaded, you can have even more fun recreating the clown's dances. It's family fun for everyone!

Should you be interested in learning more about this and other films produced by the studio you may visit them at Screamtime Films.

Favorite line: "You suck zit ridden pickles in butt sauce!"

Rating (out of 5):

1 Clown