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The Clonus Horror
Parts: The Clonus Horror

Mondo Macabro
1979 / Color / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / The Clonus Horror, Parts: The Clonus Horror / Street Date March 29, 2005 / 19.95
Starring Tim Donnelly, Paulette Breen, Dick Sargent, Keenan Wynn, Peter Graves, James Mantell, Lurene Tuttle
Cinematography Max Beaufort
Production Designer Steve Nelson
Art Direction Frank Coccaro
Original Music Hod David Schudson
Written by Robert S. Fiveson, Myrl A. Schreibman, Bob Sullivan
Produced by Ray Dryden, Robert S. Fiveson, Walter Fiveson, Michael D. Lee, Myrl A. Schreibman
Directed by Robert S. Fiveson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Originally titled Parts: The Clonus Horror, Clonus (1978) is a reasonable science fiction story that when new was unfavorably compared to the previous year's Coma, Michael Crichton's big-budgeted but equally formulaic medical conspiracy movie. Inexpensively produced and uneven in most departments, it nevertheless works as an acceptable reworking of ideas from other movies.

Clonus's fate in the 1990s was to become a comedic punching bag on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 cable show. Mondo Macabro's careful DVD presentation restores a good deal of the film's dignity.

Synopsis (non-spoiler, although the rest of the review contains spoilers aplenty):

Richard (Tim Donnelly) is one of many healthy young people being raised in a sealed-off compound under the watchful eyes of benevolent doctors and careful security guards. The official story is that they all will one day go to "America," and everyone looks forward to their own going-away party complete with cake and ice cream. Among the residents, only Richard seems to have any real curiosity about the outside world, but Dr. Jameson (Dick Sargent) carefully deflects his questions. Richard begins a forbidden romance with Lena (Paulette Breen), another atypically imaginative resident. What's really going on here? What exactly lies beyond the compound's security perimeter?

Clonus rearranges a number of interesting elements from earlier fantastic films. The human guinea pigs secretly reared in ignorance of outside world echo back to the dystopia of Logan's Run and the inhuman military experiment in Joseph Losey's key science fiction film These Are the Damned. The pampered inhabitants of the secret colony also fit well into a microcosm of a totalitarian political system: An intellectual elite uses technology to focus the general populace on the role the elite expects it to play. As in the Losey film, all of Richard's questions are answered with a paternally oppressive "You'll be told when the time comes."

(the real spoilers begin)

The overly familiar conspiracy behind Clonus is revealed a little at a time. It takes a couple of reels to find out that both Richard and Lena are "controls," unlike the other residents that have had their intelligence artificially retarded at birth. For some unexplained reason Dr. Jameson lets the two controls meet, and soon thereafter Richard sneaks into restricted areas of the compound. He discovers a map of the United States and a file that tells him that he is the "son" of a famous writer named Richard Knight (David Hooks).

People who have paid attention to the title will already have figured out that Richard is actually a Clone of Richard Knight senior, an exact genetic copy. Clever casting (or makeup?) gives the two actors strong facial similarities. Both Richard Sr. and his brother, presidential candidate Jeffrey Knight (Peter Graves) are members of the Clonus conspiracy, which aims to grant effective immortality to rich elites in a political inner circle. An industrialist named George Walker (Frank Ashmore) started the colony and the residents are all Clones created for the purpose of providing replacement organs and tissues as needed. We see an ecstatic Clone go through his little graduation party, but almost immediately thereafter he's murdered and put in cold storage to await organ harvesting, an arrangement similar to the stockpile of living bodies in Coma.

After these revelations the rest of Clonus plays out as a predictable paranoid thriller, with bits of 1984 and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club thrown in for good measure. Anonymous government agents chase Richard while ruthlessly eliminating unlucky witnesses who learn about the Clonus operation. The conspiracy remains in complete control; we never get a full explanation about how simply having some handy transplantable organs will grant anyone immortality. If some biological imbalance wrecks one's liver, it stands to reason that a new liver is going to be subjected to the same abuse. And if a conspiracy bigwig has cholesterol problems, how does one transplant a replacement circulatory system?

The movie lacks hi-tech production values but makes good use of a then-new college campus in Moorpark, California. A church choir creates an eerie musical soundtrack. Too much of what we see lacks visual interest or a feeling of design - the colony's Clones wear ordinary jumpsuits and the supposedly sophisticated surveillance center looks like a college audiovisual lab. The actual Clonus surgery is done in a space less impressive than the average high school nurses' station. Every Clonus resident displays an inspirational "America" sticker to remind them of their ultimate goal. It's a good idea, but the stickers are just too amateurish. Finally, the cold storage center for the all-important Cloned corpses looks like someone's basement. It didn't have to be as impressive as Coma's suspended animation organ farm, but this is the film's key set and there's just nothing to it. Only the anemic support rallies for Peter Graves' presidential run are less convincing.

What was saved on sets apparently didn't go into preparation for the actors. Overall the direction is weak, a situation not helped by the necessity of having the Clones talk in stilted speech patterns. Some behave like lobotomized Stepford Wives and others as the arrested-development children described by the doctors. Others just act normally. The kindly characters played by Keenan Wynn and Lurene Tuttle are glorified bits and their bickering scenes unfortunately play as filler.

The sturdy story structure keeps us concerned for the fate of the confused and disoriented Richard. The last few minutes of the thriller spin to an appropriately bleak conclusion. Clonus is one of those odd under-produced movies that gets by on the basic appeal of its ideas.

Mondo Macabro's DVD of Clonus gives this low-budget show a classy polish. The enhanced encoding makes the serviceable photography look far better than earlier 16mm presentations. The menu screens and graphics compliment the film without overwhelming it - the only futuristic image in the movie is a shot of an oscilloscope screen.

Robert S. Fiveson earned no plaudits for his direction but makes the most of his one-shot film career with a full commentary and a separate interview docu. His commentary is insightful while the docu tends to drag on with tangents and personal philosophies. Both are produced with care and respect. An original trailer is included as well.  1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Clonus rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, interview-docu with the director, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 23, 2005


1. A note from the film's director, Robert Fiveson (4/21/05):
I read your review of Clonus (Parts: The Clonus Horror) and... as the producer/director I cannot quibble with your review. There are only three mitigating items I wish you had factored into your review:
The film was not shot on 16mm it was shot 35mm.
It was shot in 18 days for $257k.
It presaged the reality and moral dilemma of Cloning, long before either was salient.
As regards how one might change the circulatory system or avoid high cholesterol in the 'parent' clone - it's a movie not a medical documentary. LoL.
Having said that however I do thank you for your review. - Robert Fiveson


Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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