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Cownhouse (1988) is a film that will, justifiably, forever live in infamy. It went from obscurity to the heights of cult filmdom due to the rising career of its director Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers, Powder), who was convicted of molesting the child actor who plays the films lead role.
Brothers Casey, the youngest, Geoffrey, the middle, and oldest/meanest Randy (the debut of Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Green Mile) are on their own for the weekend. The Jolly Bros. circus is in town, and the timid, still bed wetting Casey desperately doesn't want to go but is pushed into going by Randy, who is meeting his girlfriend there. Inevitably, under the big top, in front of a crowd, Casey is scared by the well meaning clowns, but not as scared as he and his brothers will be later in the night, when three escaped mental patients murder the performers, dress in the clown gear, and begin terrorizing the brothers in their isolated house.
Obviously the horrible acts that went on the behind the scenes will sully many people on the film. And, with that knowledge, viewing the films opening as the three brothers are walking around in the their underwear and we see brief flash of young male flesh, you cannot help but feel an initial pull of extreme disgust. Watching this film is a slippery slope, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. I'm afraid the film geek in me is too great, so as reprehensible as I found out he is, I still watch Salva films and when the chance to see this film came to me, well, I couldn't resist. I do still watch Polanski films. I've read books by convicted murders. But, Clownhouse is different; it represents a definite blurring between someone who commits a terrible act and their art, because the film, his art, helped Salva commit the terrible act and he did it with one of his actors.
On the other side, the film has also gained a cult status as some gem that was re-discovered after the tale of its notoriousness came out due to protests (which the child actor Salva molested took part in) against Salva's big comeback Disney film Powder. So, infamy or not- is the film worth the hype and this merit that has often been placed on it? In my opinion, not really. Completely setting aside it's backstory, it is not that bad a horror film and certainly delivers a few scares, but it also is pretty limited and you can tell why the film never gained much buzz until its more lascivious background became widely known.
It is a pretty simple and grandly 80's premise: Clowns are scary, so why not use the Silent Night, Deadly Night device of a lunatic in a children's icon image? While there are a few jump in you seat moments, the horror is pretty tepid. If not for the cursing, Clownhouse would be a PG rated film (maybe PG-13 due to the previously mentioned flesh baring) or possibly a tv movie. The premise is light and at roughly and hour and fifteen minutes (minus credits) it fells pretty stretched out, like a short film that has been padded. The acting is all amateur hour. While some of the stalking/chasing scenes are really tense and well done, they are eventually brought down a peg in believability, like the fact that an out of his mind mental patient cannot catch up to a pudgy pre-teen. As the film settles into its finale, it is contained within/around the house, like some horror Home Alone, and any suspense that could be had is ruined by the oppressive and terrible synthesizer score.
The DVD: MGM
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1. I was expecting it to look much worse, but, actually, for an 80's horror film, done with little fanfare, it looks pretty good. The colors are strong, and anyone familiar with Salva knows he likes dark shadow drenched shots diffused with color. Aside from some minor bits in the opening credit sequence, the print is free of any dirt or spots. The films low budget does come across in the contrast and sharpness of the photography, so those elements are a little weak. They could maybe have been a bit better, but, considering the small scale of this release, the transfer is adequate.
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English or Spanish language with optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles. It almost sounds like this entire film was dubbed. The dialogue is all a bit muffled, bass heavy, and seemingly barely in synch with the actors. I'm going to chalk it up to budgetary restraints. It is mono, so don't expect much. To be fair, I don't know if the film is so fx heavy that a 5.1 remix would help it too much. But maybe I just think that because the damn synthesizer score on this mono mix is strong enough, so the last thing I'd want is it being pumped up more.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Theatrical Trailer.
Conclusion: Obviously if its history disgusts you, you'll not support the film making a dime. For fans, the transfer is decent enough and one of MGMs lower priced, easy to afford barebones discs. However, my own personal feelings are, if you are the least bit curious, the film only merits a casual rental because beyond a few well done tame shock scenes and its notorious chapter in film history, the film isn't all that much to crow about.