Clownhouse (1989) was one of the classic early Evil Clown films, released the year after Killer Klowns from Outer Space and the year prior to Stephen King's IT. To summarize briefly for those who've not seen this somewhat obscure, currently out of print piece of 80s horror:
Coulrophobic adolescent Casey (Nathan Forrest Winters) is dragged to the circus by his two older brothers, the semi-sympathetic Geoffrey (Brian McHugh) and the classic 80s dickhead older brother Randy (skillfully played by Sam Rockwell in his movie debut), where Casey is barraged with predictable clown and macabre circus imagery, then terrified and humiliated by overly aggressive clowns under the Big Top.
After the show, some of the surly, dirty-talking circus clowns are brutally murdered by 3 violent psychotics who escape from a nearby mental hospital and end up at the circus. Taking up their costumes and makeup, the three killers prance across town in a giddily deranged fashion, stalking the boys back to their house, where a standoff akin to a more murderous version of Home Alone ensues.
Despite its cheesiness, for what it is, Clownhouse actually does a pretty good job of climbing inside the mindset of acute coulrophobia, successfully dramatizing the triggers to provide some decent scares throughout- ostensibly far moreso for anyone already afraid of clowns. Judged on its own terms, it is a solid horror flick, and arguably Salva's best work. Its contribution to the genre, and to the overall perception of clowns as objects of inherent creepiness, cannot be overlooked.
As protagonist Casey reflects, in a candid attempt to explain his phobia to one of his brothers:
"That's what I don't like about clowns. Their faces are fake. Big happy eyes. Big painted smiles. It's not real. You never know what they really are."
Real Life Predator
Sadly, what was going on off-camera was more horrifying than anything in the movie.
Writer/Director Victor Salva had actually met the film's star, Nathan Winters, several years prior, while working at a day care center (the filmmaker was also a writer of children's books, and a participant in the Big Brother program). After meeting Nathan's mother Rebecca, he became "a trusted family friend," and later cast Nathan in his first short film, Something in the Basement (1986). The following year, filming began for Clownhouse.
Given the family's years of association with Salva, at first no eyebrows were raised when he began asking the 12 year old star of the film to stay late for additional rehearsals. It was only later, after the completion of Clownhouse, that Nathan came forward to his mother with the admission that Victor Salva had been engaging in sexual conduct with him since he was 8 years old.
Throughout the filming of Clownhouse, the filmmaker had repeatedly forced him to perform and receive oral sex, acts which he videotaped to add to what would turn out to be a growing collection of child pornography. After Winters came forward, a police raid on Salva's home uncovered not only videos he'd made with the young actor, but a variety of other pornographic videos and still photos of underage boys.
In retrospect, Clownhouse is not without its clues to Salva's appalling predilections.
The full first five minutes of the film are almost completely taken up by underage boys shirtless, in their underwear and bare-assed, and within the first 30 minutes the boys are back in the bathroom in a state of undress. In a more general way, there is something disturbing about the way the film's direction seems to gleefully relish the terror inflicted on the adolescents. It's a subtle effect, and would most likely not stand out so much if not for the revelation of the molestation that was taking place behind the scenes.
Salva pleaded guilty to 5 felony counts of child sexual abuse in 1988, and was sentenced to three years in jail. He served 15 months in total, and was released on parole in 1989.
Nathan never acted again; however, it was far from the end of a Hollywood career for Victor Salva, who would return to film making a few years later with his largest budget ever.
Stay tuned for Part II, where Salva returns to playing out his pedophilic fantasies in films, this time under the patronage of Disney, along with a more in depth discussion of the recurring connection between evil clowns and sexual deviance.
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