Clownhouse is a 1988 horror film written and directed by Victor Salva. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category at the 1989 Sundance film festival.
About the film
Clownhouse was one of the last slasher films to come out of the 1980s, a decade notable for the plethora of slasher pictures like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Prom Night, and many others.
Despite ending a decade known for intense violence and gratuitous gore, Clownhouse didn’t have much of either. Instead, the film followed in the tradition of John Carpenter’s Halloween by limiting the onscreen carnage and focusing on lighting, sound, and suspense. The film also portrays a message concerning the fears of mankind. The final onscreen text reads:
“No man can hide from his fears; as they are a part of him, they will always know where he is hiding.”
Writer/director Victor Salva spends a majority of the film setting up sardonic situations that allude to the characters and their positions. Throughout the movie, a song is frequently played or sung, in which a line reads: “Don’t be afraid of the dark, sweetheart.” Moments later, two of the brothers are being unknowingly chased in the night by two of the clowns.
The film is mostly responsible for Victor Salva’s temporary filmmaking absence between 1996 and 2001. In the 1980s Nathan Forrest Winters, the leading actor who played Casey, would press charges against Salva for sexual abuse during the making of this film. Forrest would come forward again in 1996, when Salva’s film Powder was released.
Salva became noticeable again in the film industry in 2001 with the release of his sleeper hit Jeepers Creepers, followed by its 2003 sequel Jeepers Creepers II.
Clownhouse follows the story of leading protagonist Casey (Nathan Forrest Winters), a normal boy whose life is constantly influenced by his intense fear of clowns. His two older brothers, Geoffrey (Brian McHugh) and Randy (Sam Rockwell), are mostly disobliging. One night, the three boys are left alone, so they decide to visit a local circus for a night of amusement, despite knowing Casey’s uncontrollable coulrophobia.
Meanwhile, three mental patients have escaped from a local insane asylum, and their first stop is at the same circus the brothers are attending.
At the circus, Casey innocently visits a fortune teller despite Randy’s better judgment. The fortune teller reveals to Casey that his life line has been cut short, and says to him:
Beware, beware, in the darkest of dark /though the flesh is young and the hearts are strong /precious life cannot be long /when darkest death has left its mark.
As the boys go home from the circus, a shaken Casey thinks his nightmare is over, but it has only just begun. The three escaped mental patients have murdered three circus clowns, disguised themselves with their costumes and makeup and have made their way to the boys’ house to unleash a night of terror, where Casey is forced to face his fears once and for all.
- Director Victor Salva was convicted of molesting lead actor Nathan Forrest Winters during the making of Clownhouse. Winters was 12 years old at the time and Salva was sentenced to three years in prison, of which he served 15 months.
- In the scene where the brothers are reading a comic book in Geoffrey’s room, a poster for Something in the Basement can be seen on the bedroom door. This is a reference to Victor Salva’s first film/short from 1986, which also starred Nathan Forrest Winters. Additionally in an earlier scene, on the outside of Geoffrey’s door there can be seen a poster for The Outsiders; directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who helped finance both Clownhouse and Salva’s subsequent films.