Monday, February 15, 2010

Issue #13: Clown Dolls in Film, Part I

Let's just get right to this. The clown doll from Poltergeist (1982) is hands-down the scariest clown doll in all of history. It caused a generation of kids to pee their pants and be forever scarred to the point where just seeing a clown doll results in hysteria.

In the event that you were raised Amish and never saw it during your rumspringa, or have suffered a blow to the head and don't remember it, let me briefly explain the plot of Poltergeist.

The Freeling family--dad Steve, mom Diane, teenage daughter Dana, adolescent Robbie, and 4-year-old Carol Anne--live in suburban Cuesta Verde Estates. (That's "Green Hills Estates" for you who no habla español.) Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a sales rep for the development company, while Diane (JoBeth Williams) stays home and wears short-shorts. Dana (Dominique Dunne) is some kind of teenage Jezebel (at one point she suggests that she's intimately acquainted with the rooms at the local Holiday Inn) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) are typical American children, which is to say that they have too many toys and are kind of whiny.

One day weird stuff starts to happen. Specifically, little Carol Anne starts talking to the television because there are people trapped inside it and apparently she's the only one who can hear them. Eventually the TV people (as her mother refers to them) come out of the TV and into the house, causing no end of bother. They make chairs move around, cause people to hallucinate, freak out the dog and, worst of all, suck Carol Anne into the house with them.

But the clown is the point, so let's move on. First, let's give credit where credit is due. The doll was made especially for the film by sculptor and painter Annette Little. Little had a shop--appropriately called Here Come the Clowns--in San Diego, California. She made all kinds of clown-related items, from banks to mugs to trinket boxes. Her work is still sought after, and you can occasionally find it on ebay. (At right is a photo of one of her soft sculpture dolls that recently appeared at auction, and below is one of her cowboy clown figurines.) How Spielberg happened upon her I don't know, but aren't we glad he did?

Although it appears only a handful of times, the Poltergeist clown is arguably the most memorable thing from the film, which underscores just how much star power he has. To get the fullest picture of his work in the film let us examine his scenes one at a time. I'll list them by the time (in hours, minutes and seconds) into the film when they occur.

0:11:52 We first see the clown doll in Robbie and Carol Anne's room. He's a little creepy simply because he's a clown, but he seems fairly jolly. Still, it becomes obvious that little Robbie is scared of him, probably because Diane has positioned him in a chair at the foot of Robbie's bed so that he's constantly staring at the kid.

It's also obvious that Robbie likes Star Wars, as his side of the room is crammed with every Star Wars toy made at that time, including the Tauntaun with open belly rescue feature that was the coolest thing ever made. This is not really a surprise given that Star Wars creator George Lucas and Poltergeist producer Steven Spielberg are best buddies and that the special effects in Poltergeist were done by Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic. (My favorite Star Wars moment is when Carol Anne sucks on a Luke Skywalker action figure while trying to get to sleep.)

In addition to Star Wars stuff the product placement for other 80's games and products is out of control. At times while watching Poltergeist I feel as if I'm watching a commercial for my entire childhood. We have Peanuts toys, Crispy Wheats & Raisins cereal, even the Today show's Gene Shalit giving his movie reviews while the Freelings eat breakfast. One of my favorite moments, by the way, is when Diane finds Carol Anne watching static on the television set (that's how she hears the voices), tells her, "You're going to ruin your eyes," and changes the channel to a violent war movie. Good parenting skills, Diane.

But back to the clown.

0:17:09 Robbie wakes up and there's a thunderstorm. The clown is staring at him so he pretends his finger is a gun and shoots it. This does not have the desired effect, so he gets up and throws his Chewbacca jacket over the clown so that it won't stare at him while he sleeps. Also, he's freaked out by the creepy old tree outside his window. After being frightened by more lightning, he and Carol Anne run into Mom and Dad's room and sleep there, which is a good idea.

It's a particularly a good idea because we get to see a lot of Craig T. Nelson wearing just his pajama bottoms. For some of us this was a defining moment in our lives. I'm just saying.

0:36:24 There's another terrible storm that scares Robbie, but not as much as he's scared when the creepy old tree outside comes to life, reaches through the window to grab him, and then proceeds to eat him. Also, everything in the room is sucked into the closet, including Carol Anne, whose cheap wicker headboard is no match for the vortex of evil.

When her parents (having, unfortunately, rescued Robbie from the tree) search the closet looking for Carol Anne they find a body covered in a blanket. Thinking it's their daughter they get all upset, only when they pull the blanket off they find the clown doll. This makes them feel better, which is a mistake.

0:45:11 Deciding to be proactive, Steve contacts a trio of researchers at a nearby university. My favorite part of this scene is that the door to their department is labeled: Popular Beliefs, Superstitions, and Parapsychology. Which is how you know the movie is set in California.

The researchers are of course dying to see for themselves what's going on at the Freeling house so the pack up all their ghost tracking paraphernalia in the Mystery Machine and drive over. They're particularly interested in seeing the kids' room. Upon opening the door they find the toys in the room swirling around. The clown is sitting on the bed, twirling around as if he's riding a carousel.

1:38:48 The clown goes away for a bit while Carol Anne is taken hostage by the poltergeists and everyone tries to figure out what they want, but he returns with a vengeance. Having rescued Carol Anne from the poltergeists with the help of pint-sized psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), the Freelings are moving out of the house, for which you can hardly blame them. But first they have to spend one last night there. Of course.

Things go poorly for them. It all starts when Robbie wakes up to find the clown missing from its spot on the chair. He decides to look for it under the bed, which is the only time he shows even a hint of having any balls. He's relieved to find nothing under the bed. Unfortunately for him it's because the clown is on top of the bed. It attacks, throttling him with arms that suddenly grow unnaturally long.

I suspect this makes me a bad person, but I was hoping the clown would win this one. Robbie is really annoying, and I don't think anyone would miss him. To me he resembles a Margaret Keane sad-eyed waif painting. See for yourself in the triptych here. Although he cleaned up pretty well later on (and became a director), so perhaps I'm being harsh. Still, because of his incessant blubbering throughout the movie, it's disappointing when Robbie fights back and rips the clown to pieces.

But the clown isn't the last of the family's problems. Diane, who after enjoying a relaxing bubble bath has been forcibly dragged up her bedroom wall and across the ceiling while wearing only her panties and someone's old football jersey, now manages to fall down the stairs. Then she tumbles into the hole that has recently been dug in the back yard for a swimming pool and finds herself surrounded by skeletons and coffins. When she gets out she runs upstairs to discover that what appears to be a giant rectum has materialized in the kids' closet and that Robbie and Carol Anne are about to be sucked into it. (Curiously, Carol Anne's wicker headboard now seems to be whole again, but I suppose they could have purchased another one at J.C. Penny's in the interim.)

Of course Mom gets the kids out of the room and everyone runs outside just in time for the house to be sucked into the ground and for Steve to appear with his boss, who he now confronts and accuses of not having moved the graves of the people who he learned earlier in the film are buried beneath Cuesta Verde Estates. Not that it much matters now.

That's more or less the end.

There are a number of interesting stories about the making of Poltergeist that have nothing to do with clowns but which I'm including here because I feel like it.

First is the curse. On November 04, five months to the day following Poltergeist's release and a few weeks shy of her 23rd birthday, actress Dominique Dunne (daughter of novelist Dominick Dunne and sister to actor Griffin Dunne), who played Dana Freeling, died of injuries sustained a few days earlier when she was attacked and strangled by her estranged boyfriend.

Her on-screen sister, Heather O'Rourke, also seemed to be haunted by misfortune. After filming the 1986 sequel to Poltergeist (Poltergeist II: The Other Side) she was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, a chronic inflammation of the intestine. During filming of Poltergeist III the following year she was visibly ill, and in January of 1988, at the age of 12, she died of cardiac arrest brought on by septic shock related to her intestinal problems.

Perhaps more intriguing (albeit not life-threatening) is the question of who directed Poltergeist. Tobe Hooper (director, most famously, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is credited, but it's long been believed that Steven Spielberg did most of the work. Spielberg, whose contract with Universal to direct the upcoming E.T. prevented him from directing any other picture until that one was completed, could not officially direct the film. However, the notoriously territorial writer/director was reportedly involved in virtually every shot. Additionally, after turning in his cut of the film Hooper was never again involved in the editing process, and the finished product is said to bear little resemblance to his version.

Although some of the film's cast, including Craig T. Nelson and Oliver Robins, have defended Hooper's work on Poltergeist, others have been less kind. Interviewed later about the issue, Zelda Rubinstein reportedly laughed and said, "Tobe Hooper couldn't even direct traffic!"

The question became public when early trailers for the film listed "A Steven Spielberg Production" in type twice the size of "A Tobe Hooper Film." Hooper complained to the Directors Guild of America, which fined MGM $200,000 (later reduced to a $15,000 payment to Hooper) and ordered them to take out ads in trade magazine Variety correcting the wording that in their words "denigrated the role of the director."

Oh, the drama! Still, not even a curse or a directors' catfight is as frightening as that clown doll. By the way, if for some reason you should want your very own replica of that doll, you can purchase a life-size version (in either a "nice" or "evil" version) for a mere $1200 from Supermongrel Studios.

It's clear that famed Italian superschlock director Umberto Lenzi liked the Poltergeist doll because he totally ripped it off for his 1988 haunted house thriller Ghosthouse.

Seriously, these guys are twins, right down to the way they switch from good clown to evil clown. If they weren't separated at birth I don't know who was.

Apart from stealing the clown, however, Lenzi's film isn't really much like Poltergeist at all. The story centers around a little girl (variously called Henrietta and Henriette) who died under mysterious circumstances. Also dead are her parents, under not-so-mysterious circumstances because we see it all happen.

Fast forward 20 years and a ham radio enthusiast named Paul (a humpy Greg Scott, who like Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist also spends a gratifying amount of time in just his pajama bottoms) starts hearing strange things over the airwaves, including someone calling for help and a girl screaming. He finds this odd and tells his girlfriend about it. Her name is Martha, and she apparently doesn't speak English because all her lines are dubbed. (I'm joking. Although shot around Boston, the film was made for Italian audiences and I suspect German actress Lara Wendel's accent might have been too heavy.)

Paul manages to use sorcery and cunning to locate the origin of the broadcast and he and Martha set out to see what's going on. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker named Pepe who scares Martha with a fake skeleton hand and somehow gets $5 out of her pants pocket before being dropped off, leaving us wondering what he hell's he's doing in the movie at all.

When they arrive at the house Paul and Martha are confronted by a scary old dude who hates computers and looks like your typical crazy caretaker character and so I've dubbed him Mr. Crankypants even though his name is really Valkos (which I didn't find out until watching the credits, as I couldn't understand what people were calling him). He tells them to go away. They don't.

Then Martha sees a giant dead bat and says there's something evil about the house. They go inside anyway (you know you would too) and find a lot of dusty furniture and a calendar turned to May 23, 1967. Martha touches the large assortment of knives in the kitchen and then she and Paul hear a noise and go upstairs. There they find the ham radio they're looking for. They also find its owner, Jim, who says he's there with his sister Tina, his friend Mark, and Mark's girlfriend Susan, all of whom are supposedly outside in a camper that Paul and Martha somehow managed not to see.

Jim is curious why Paul and Martha are there and Paul says, "Because I'm a ham radio nerd too, Jim" and plays him the tape of the broadcast he heard. It's clear that it's Jim's voice calling for help, and he says the scream sounds like Tina, but since neither of them have done that yet he's a little freaked out by it all.

Now Martha hears music playing. She'll hear it a lot during the movie, as will we. It's a strange mix of circus music and what sounds like a child's voice saying something like, "Are you there? Are you there? Pineapple upside down cake. Are you there?" Really, you can't make it out. I've tried.

Listen for yourself. NOTE: The sound is very low at the beginning, so turn it up.

So Martha follows the music and ends up in the cellar where she sees some jars of jam explode and finds a head in the washing machine. This is upsetting and she screams. Only no one hears her because outside Susan has arrived on a motorcycle and it's really loud. Also, she gets into it with Tina, who is sucking on a lollipop so that we understand she's a little immature for a teenager.

Later on, after they finally hear Martha screaming and go see what's up but don't find a head in the washer, we discover that Tina is apparently a little liar because Susan has found out that Tina ran away from boarding school and isn't really on spring break like she said she was. Tina gets mad and says she's not a liar and because they're fighting nobody notices Mr. Crankyjeans spying on them.

Mark tells Susan to shut it and tells Tina to go into the camper and watch TV. She's perfectly happy to do this, at least until a picture of a little girl holding a clown doll comes on and then the little girl starts to cry blood. This makes Tina wish she'd watched Who's the Boss? featuring her crush Tony Danza instead but it's too late so she deals with it by screaming loudly.

No one hears her because they're in the attic doing nerd things with the radios, so Tina's left to figure things out for herself when the camper starts rocking back and forth and this is a lot to ask of her, I think, given that her super tight denim skirt makes it difficult to move quickly.

She's lucky compared to her brother Jim, though, who goes into the basement when he hears a noise, sees the girl and the clown, and is killed when a blade flies off of an old, unplugged fan and neatly severs his jugular. So now Tina is not only struggling with her skirt and with being called a liar, she now has no brother and even if she doesn't know it yet it's sad for her.

She finds out soon enough when she runs into the house looking for Jim and sees the ghost girl and the clown and then Jim's lifeless body. She screams some more, everyone comes running, and Mark is confronted by an angry Doberman Pinscher because everyone knows they and Rottweilers represent evil (see: The Omen). Tina is also threatened--by Mr. Crankypants, who chases her with a cleaver and is finally thwarted by Mark but not before Mr. Crankypants puts a pitchfork through Mark's arm and Mark has to be rescued by Paul.

I know, a lot happens and it all moves very quickly, but we like that in a scary movie. Besides, it means the clown is coming up again. Which he does, right after Susan and Paul leave to take Mark to a hospital and Martha tells Tina that she believes her about the clown and Tina is relieved because, "Everyone thinks I lie all the time." Which they might not, Tina, if you didn't.

Since everyone else is gone Martha has to go into the house alone (Tina has been given a tranquilizer and is sleepy) when she hears barking and sees a light on. And now it's her turn to meet the clown. She goes into what turns out to be Henrietta's bedroom and finds a trunk. And inside the trunk is? That's right.

At first the clown doll looks cheery, but then Martha looks again and sees that it really isn't. And its character becomes even more questionable when it becomes life-size and tries to kill her. There's quite a long and thrilling scene in which they struggle before Martha throws the clown off her and it disappears.

It's also at this point that we perhaps start thinking, "Haven't I seen this before?" And if you have seen Poltergeist the answer to that is yes, you have. But this is totally different because Tina is a grownup and a girl and not a little boy and there's no scary tree so please don't insinuate that anybody copied anybody else because, as Tina says, nobody likes to be accused of things they didn't do.

Even if they did do them.

At that very moment Paul bursts in, apparently having driven 600 miles an hour to get to the hospital and back so quickly. Since the clown is gone now he looks at Martha as if perhaps she has taken one of Tina's tranquilizers.

Now the police show up to take Jim's body away and a Lieutenant Ferguson (in the credits his character is listed as Lieu Tenant, which is what happens when Italians try to make sense of English while composing film credits). He tells Paul and the others that the house was once lived in by the Baker family, who we saw done in at the start of the film, and that little Henrietta Baker was found dead in the cellar. He also tells them that they're trespassing and should leave.

Paul and Martha go back to Boston after Mark assures them that he, Susan, and Tina will leave too as soon as they pack up the camper. Back in Boston Paul tries to decipher the weird rhyme everyone has been hearing and uses his computer to find out that the word "burial" is in there somewhere. He and Martha get into a fight because he tells her a story she doesn't understand and he asks her if she's gone stupid and she asks him how he managed to become a jerk while she was in the shower washing her hair. Really, she does. Then she storms out.

Paul doesn't really care because he was kind of tired of not being able to understand her accent and he calls Lieutenant Ferguson to ask him what Mr. Baker did for a living and finds out that he ran a funeral home. He thinks about what the computer told him a few minutes ago and has an idea.

Back at the Baker house Pepe the hitchhiker shows up and scares Tina, who tells him not to stay in the house but doesn't mention that her brother was killed there so Pepe doesn't understand the urgency and goes in anyway. Then the camper won't start so now Tina, Mark, and Susan are stuck there too.

Inside, Pepe finds a box of croutons but it's filled with roaches so he only eats a few. Then he hears a lot of banging but it's only a door so, phew, he doesn't have to worry because that never signals that something unpleasant is going to happen soon.

Apparently Martha wasn't all that upset when Paul said she was stupid because now the two of them arrive back in town and stop at a funeral home. There they question the mortician about Sam Baker and find out that he used to take little items like rings and watches and so forth off the bodies before burying them. One time he even took a doll from a dead child and gave it to his daughter. This is a clue, so remember it.

Paul and Martha realize a clue when they see it too, so they leave. Then Mr. Crankyjeans comes in and tells the mortician he shouldn't oughta have said nothing and whacks him with a hammer. Then he stuffs him, still alive, in a coffin. This probably wouldn't be so much of a problem now, as I understand they make coffins so that they can be opened from the inside. (You know, in case someone makes a mistake.) But they didn't do that in the 80's so, well, it's unfortunate.

Back at the house no one believes Tina about Pepe and Susan says there's no such thing as ghosts and so Tina's self esteem drops dramatically, to the point where she apparently forgets what happened to her brother and goes back in the house to prove she's right.

Now I thought Paul and Martha would be going right to the Baker house, but instead they go to a cemetery to talk to the custodian. Before they do, though, Tina hears the eerie little song and goes upstairs and Mark takes the motorcycle Susan was riding earlier and goes into town to get a part for the camper. Because there's no water in the camper Susan put on the world's biggest Walkman and goes into the house to take a shower. Because that's smart.

In the attic Tina gets pissed and demands that the ghost show itself. Then she sees a bunch of dead rats hanging from a beam and screams. You can't see the rats very well in the picture, but in the film they're quite gruesome. Tina wants to get away from them so badly that she trips and falls and is cut in half by a guillotine blade that descends from the ceiling.

No, I don't know what it's doing there either. It just is.

Susan doesn't hear any of this because she's listening to Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" really loudly and trying to wash her face. (Not really. Back then Def Leppard would want too much money for their song to be used in a film, although now I bet they'd be happy to have that kind of exposure.) Then the water turns to blood and Susan does what you or I would probably do in the same situation.

But that's not the worst thing that happens to her. Dead Tina shows up in the bathroom and when Susan hugs her (because she doesn't know Tina is dead) Tina turns into the evil clown and tries to kill Susan. Then, for unknown reasons, the clown disappears.

Now Paul is talking to the cemetery custodian, whose name is Mr. Harvey. He is a wise old black man, because every good horror film has to have a wise old black character who tells everyone what's going on. And what Mr. Harvey tells Paul is that he warned Sam Baker not to offend the dead, which is very wise indeed. While Paul is doing this Martha is in the truck trying to raise Mark on the ham radio. She doesn't get to do this for long, though, because Mr. Crankyjeans arrives and chases her.

Mark has heard her, though, and believes her when she says to get out of the house now. But he has to get Tina and Martha first so what does he do? Goes into the house. Instead of finding Susan he finds her Walkman on the floor and becomes worried, particularly because it's no longer playing Def Leppard and is playing the rhymey song. He goes upstairs, where he sees the girl and the doll sitting on the floor with some lit candles around them and sees Tina lying on the floor with some blood around her.

Before he can do anything, the floor gives way and he falls into what seems to be a pit filled with paper-mâché paste and skeletons. Or possibly it's curdled milk. Whatever it is, it's lumpy.

It turns out Susan has been wandering around this whole time. Now she finds Pepe, who is dead, and a pair of pruning shears. She decides to use these as a weapon, which is a fine idea except that she uses them on Mark when he manages to crawl out of the pit and up the cellar stairs, thereby proving that she isn't a very good girlfriend and needs to apologize to Tina because murder is way worse than lying.

While all of this bad stuff is happening Martha is running away from Mr. Crankyjeans and goes into a crypt. And you'll never guess whose crypt it is. Martha can't believe it either, and has kind of a nervous breakdown when she sees Henriette's name on the tomb. Thankfully she was not fooled by the fact that Henrietta's name has changed. Nor does she seem nonplussed by the fact that the date of birth on the tomb is 1938, which would have made Henriette/etta 29 when she died instead of 11.

Paul, who has been looking for Martha, finds Mr. Crankyjeans hanging from a tree for no good reason. Then he finds Martha, as well as a tarantula, which is particularly eerie given that there are no tarantulas native to Massachusetts. He gets Martha out of there and back to the truck, where he gives her some Jack Daniel's and Martha says, "Oh, Paul. I saw death." in a way that suggests she's going to write a book about it all when they get home and maybe get Deepak Chopra or possibly John Edward to write the introduction. Then Paul hears Susan's voice over the radio.

Speaking of Susan, she's been chased by that Doberman Pinscher into Henrietta's bedroom. Henrietta and the clown appear and then the door opens to reveal a skull-headed figure in a black robe. Say what? Oh, it also has maggots all over it and is holding a knife. Personally, I think this is a lot to lay on the poor girl. I mean even though she was bitchy to Tina she's just accidentally killed her boyfriend and lost her Walkman, so having to face the grim reaper thing is maybe a little too much.

Paul meanwhile has opened the tomb and found Henrietta and the doll resting comfortably. So he sets them on fire.

This is a good thing for Susan, as the skull thing was just about to introduce her to the pointy end of its knife. But now it vanishes and she's okay. Well, moderately okay.

Paul is no help in this regard when they all meet up later. He tells Susan that because she can never tell anyone what happened in the house she'll just have to deal with her guilt about killing Mark on her own. Oh, and have a safe trip wherever you're going on your motorcycle.

And now Paul and Martha are back in Boston and about to meet for lunch so that Martha can show off the new fringed jean jacket she bought to help her get over the trauma. Martha, standing in front of a store window, turns and sees something she hoped never to see again. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh! There it is, right next to a teddy bear.

Then she turns around and sees something else she hoped never to see. It's Paul. Running across the street toward her. In front of a bus.

Here's the thing about Ghosthouse. You will often see it referred to as one of the worst movies ever made. Usually this statement is made by acne-faced teenage boys who spend way too much time in the basement playing video games and thinking they know a lot about horror films because they saw Suspiria once and own a Goblin album.

It's not. It's actually quite good for what it is. You just have to not be a snob about it. And so what if Umberto Lenzi ripped off the clown doll? At least the bitching about that has kept the film's name out there, so if you ask me it was a pretty smart move on his part.

That's not the only smart thing Lenzi did. In Italy Ghosthouse was released under the name La Casa 3. Why? Because Lenzi wanted people to think it was a sequel of sorts to Sam Raimi's successful Evil Dead movies, which were released as La Casa and La Casa II in Italy.

In the United States Ghosthouse has been released several times. If you want to have a really fun evening, find the DVD released by PR Studios. It looks as if someone made it in their garage, but it's totally worth it because you not only get Ghosthouse you get the horrifitastic Manos: the Hands of Fate, which really is considered one of the worst horror movies ever made. It was produced by fertilizer salesman Harold Warren after he bet location scout Stirling Silliphant that he could make a horror film on a ridiculously small budget (reported to be about $19,000). What's the story? It doesn't matter. You absolutely have to see it. Especially the scene where some women wrestle in the dirt while wearing diaphanous nightgowns.

Also included on the DVD are two almost certainly copyright infringing Popeye and Superman cartoons, as well as one of those campy "let's all go to the lobby" type intermission segments and trailers for the films Murder, My Sweet; Curse of the Blood-Ghouls; Cannibal Girls and The Twilight People. My favorite is the preview for Cannibal Girls, which contains the helpful information that during the movie a bell sounds before scenes of an erotic or gruesome nature "in order not to horrify those in the audience of a squeamish or prudish disposition." Very thoughtful.

At first I couldn't figure out what all this stuff was doing on the DVD. Then it occurred to me--this is probably how the films would be shown at a double feature. How clever! All you have to do is pop the DVD in and make sure you watch everything in the correct order.

Now onward.

As we've seen, dolls in general are creepy and clown dolls in particular are absolutely scaryfying. But there's something even creepier than dolls, and that's ventriloquist dummies.

Don't believe me? Take a gander at the 1978 film Magic and then we'll talk. Starring Anthony Hopkins as deranged ventriloquist Corky Withers, it did for dummies what Jaws did for sharks. Seriously, one year for Christmas my parents gave me a Charlie McCarthy dummy and all I could think about was how if I  ever closed my eyes in his presence I would open them to find him nose-to-nose with me.

Now imagine if you will a clown dummy. I know, right? Forget the Antichrist being a political leader, it's going to be a clown dummy.

Which brings us to Dead Silence.

This 2007 film is by the writer and director of Saw, which despite anything you say I think is a great film, so you'd think Dead Silence would be pretty nifty. And maybe it is. I'm not saying anything.

One good thing is that it stars Ryan Kwanten. Most people know Kwanten as dim but hot horndog Jason Stackhouse from the vampy television series True Blood. But a year before that show brought his yummy naked self into American living rooms he starred as Jamie Ashen in this tale of dummy revenge. (Only he never gets naked, or even shirtless, in this movie so don't get all excited.)

As in Poltergeist, the clown dummy plays a small but pivotal role in Dead Silence. He doesn't show up until near the end, but when he does he packs a wallop. But let's start at the very beginning. I hear it's a very good place to start. Do, re, mi, play clothes made out of drapes, whiskers on kittens, etc.

So Jamie and his wife Lisa are newlyweds and they're all happy and looking forward to the future. Then a package shows up at their door. It's a trunk, and inside of it is a dummy, the standard tuxedoed guy kind. Of course there's no return address, and no delivery person in sight, but neither Jamie nor Lisa seems terribly freaked out, like maybe one of them ordered it from the Home Shopping Network one night when they couldn't sleep and just forgot, kind of like when Patrick once ordered two remote control dinosaurs at three in the morning when he was under the influence of cold medicine and then acted surprised when UPS delivered the package to our door.

Anyway, instead of worrying, Lisa sends Jamie out to pick up Chinese food for dinner.

Oh. It just occurred to me that perhaps they assume the dummy is a wedding gift. That might explain why they don't freak out. Even though they're clearly not into it, they probably think it's at least more interesting than a salad spinner.

So  Jamie comes back with mu shu pork and General Tso's Chicken and finds the door open and the hallway covered with blood. From this he deduces that something bad has happened, a theory which is proven correct when he finds Lisa in bed looking like this:

I know. It's not a good look for her. I mean, she's obviously a summer and shouldn't be wearing red or orange.

Now Jamie is sad and Donnie Wahlberg thinks he killed Lisa. At some point Jamie tears the lining of the dummy's box and sees the name and image of a woman named Mary Shaw, who was a famous ventriloquist from the town he and Lisa grew up in. Determined to get to the bottom of what happened, Jamie returns to the town of Ravens Fair, which I think should probably have an apostrophe in there but doesn't and therefore means "pretty ravens." The town is kind of rundown and empty in a "who thought it was a good idea to build over an Indian burial ground?" kind of way. Jamie seems startled by this, and he drives to his father's house to demand some answers.

Actually, he drives to his father's mansion to demand some answers. That's when we find out that he and his father don't exactly get along. Then a lot of boring things happen so I'll get to the point. Also, I will not mention Donnie Wahlberg again. All you need to know is that he follows Jamie and eventually dies. Now you can forget about him because he has nothing to do with the story and is just here because he's friends with the director and writer and played another detective in the Saw movies and someone thought it was funny.

As I mentioned, Mary Shaw was a famous ventriloquist. She performed at the Guignol Theater that sits on an island in Lost Lake.

Fun Fact: The Guignol Theater is "played by" the Palais Theater in Melbourne, Australia. As all aging stars are, the theater is digitally enhanced to make it look even more creepy.

One night during a performance a little boy in the audience, Michael Ashen, called out that he could see Mary's lips moving and that the act was bogus. Mary didn't much like this, so a week later she kidnapped Michael and kinda sorta turned him into a dummy. That part is vague, but she seemed to be working on a way to make living dolls. She was really good at making dolls, and had 101 of them in her little family.

When they figured out what had happened, Michael's kinfolk (who of course are also Jamie's kinfolk) and some of the other men of the town paid Mary a visit to get revenge. First they cut her tongue out, then they killed her. Then she was buried along with all of her dummies.

Only she didn't stay buried. Her spirit came back to exact revenge, which she does by terrifying her victims and when they scream ripping their tongues out and making them look like Jamie's wife. The way she looked after seeing Mary Shaw, not before when she was pretty and looked a little like Mia Farrow.

There's even a little rhyme about Mary. I love creepy rhymes in films. I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street the day it opened in 1984 and 26 years later I still hear the voices of the little girls singing, "One. Two. Freddy's coming for you. Three. Four. Better lock the door." Creeeeeepy. Also, it makes me want to drink coffee.

Here's what they sing about Mary:

Beware the stare of Mary Shaw,
she had no children, only dolls.
And if you see her in your dreams,
be sure you never, ever scream.

(Curiously, early press materials about the film--as well as the trailer--replaced the last two lines with, "And if you see her, do not scream. Or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam." Which really doesn't scan as well, so good for them for changing it. Also, whose tongue has a seam?)

Mary has managed to kill everyone involved with her murder, as well as everyone related to them and apparently everyone they ever knew or thought about or saw on TV. Jamie, being a descendant of the Ashens who chopped off Mary's tongue, is the last name on the list.

What about his father, you ask? That's a secret. You'll have to watch the movie to find out what happens to him. Just trust me that Jamie is the last of the Ashens Mary needs to take care of. Turns out she didn't get him earlier because Daddy made sure Jamie left Ravens Fair and went someplace Mary couldn't find him (how he accomplished that is kind of sad in a Sophie's Choice sort of way). How Mary did find him is tied up in why Daddy Ashen isn't still on the list. Again, just watch the movie. You might never think about soup in the same way again, but it's totally worth it.

Jamie finally gets the local undertaker to tell him the story of Mary Shaw. Inevitably he then ends up at the theater where Mary performed. Of course it's now in ruins. And there he finds not only the corpse of little Michael Ashen but an entire wall of Mary's dummies, each in its own little glass box. They're all creepy, but the King of Creepy is a clown dummy Jamie finds sitting in a rocking chair. Rocking. Which it shouldn't be because, you know, it's not alive.

Jamie kind of gets why Mary would want to kill everyone who contributed to her murder, but he wants to know why she killed Lisa, whose family had nothing to do with it. The clown (who of course is animated by Mary's soul) tells him to come closer so that she can tell him a secret.

I don't know about you, but at this point I really wouldn't care about any old secret. I'd just want to see that clown toasted. But Jamie really wants to know so he creeps right up close and the clown whispers in his ear that Lisa had to be killed because Jamie wasn't the last Ashen still alive--there was another one inside. Get it? I know. Mean.

Then Mary sticks her long, nasty demon tongue through the clown's mouth and licks Jamie. I don't know why the villains in horror movies always have super-long, deformed tongues, but they do. Frankly, I'm a little over it.

(I found out later that Mary's tongue is super long because it's made from the tongues of all her victims. Fine. I can live with that.)

The rest of the movie goes exactly the way you think it does.

Actually, not quite. Jamie manages to get out of the theater alive, and returns to his father's house to get Billy, the last remaining "child" of Mary Shaw. He throws Billy in the fireplace and thinks it's all over.

But he forgot about Mary Shaw's plans for creating a perfect doll. Well, it seems she finally managed it, and that doll is Jamie's father's latest wife, Ella. So that really sucks for him, because when he finds out Ella is a doll he screams, and you know what happens when you scream in the presence of Mary Shaw.


Favorite Line: "They're heeeeere."

Rating (Out of 5):

4.5 Clowns


Favorite Line: "How could you do such a thing to one of God's innocent creatures? And on your birthday of all days!"

Rating (Out of 5):

3.5 Clowns

Dead Silence

Favorite Line: none

Rating (Out of 5):

3 Clowns