Archive for April 1988

Above the Law

April 8, 1988

mov259955.jpgAfter directing Chuck Norris’ best movie (Code of Silence), Andrew Davis made Steven Seagal’s best (and first) movie. Seagal is Nico Toscani, a Chicago detective out to bust corrupt CIA assassins. Davis stages the shoot-outs and brawls crisply; here, and perhaps only here, you watch Seagal’s moves and see why Hollywood thought he could be a movie star. (He was for a while, before he became a joke.) Seagal, an aikido master and former bodyguard to the stars, relies more heavily on dodging and economy of motion than on simple punching and kicking. As usual in Davis films, the Chicago locations are convincing and lived-in, and the solid supporting cast includes the feral Henry Silva as a despicable CIA interrogator, Pam Grier as Nico’s partner, and Sharon Stone as his wife. Look quick for Michael Rooker in the early barroom scene. Cinematography by Robert Steadman; score by David Michael Frank; sharp editing by Michael Brown. Seagal’s next was Hard to Kill; Davis’s was The Package. The director and star would team up again in ’92 for Seagal’s second-best movie, Under Siege.

Permanent Record

April 2, 1988

It appears to have been made to be shown in high-school classes as a warning against suicide. Alan Boyce is David, a music student with everything going for him: talent, acceptance into an elite music school, popularity, two girlfriends (Jennifer Rubin and Pamela Gidley), loving parents (Kathy Baker and Barry Corbin), and a rock band with his best buddy Chris (Keanu Reeves). But he throws it all away; he jumps off a cliff during a party, and everyone assumes it was an accident until Chris discovers the truth. The second half of the movie is basically everyone dealing with David’s suicide and asking the big “why?” (Points to the film for not definitively answering it; we get hints along the way, though.) This isn’t much more than a conscientious TV-movie drama, with a rather maudlin climax, but the performances are solid (including Keanu’s, surprisingly), and Gen-Xers who caught it back in ’88 probably have a soft spot for it. Music buff alert: Joe Strummer did the incidental score, and Lou Reed has a cameo near the beginning.


April 2, 1988

clownhouse-clown1A movie like Clownhouse  — and, fortunately, there aren’t too many like them — really  tests a reviewer’s ability to separate content from context.  Nonetheless, one must try, at least momentarily. Clownhouse  is a better-than-average chiller wherein three boys are terrorized  by escaped mental patients dressed as clowns. Viewers suffering  from coulrophobia (fear  of clowns), like the movie’s young protagonist Casey (Nathan Forrest Winters), might want to give the film a wide berth. What the movie sets out to do, it more or less accomplishes, and the performances of the three juvenile leads — including then-19-year-old  Sam Rockwell as the oldest brother, a taunting prick not unlike  Bill Paxton in Weird Science — are solid and credible,  which is good, since we spend most of our time with them. At  its best, Clownhouse taps into our unreasonable distrust  of those greasepainted mirth-pushers, gets its jolts more from  shadow and suspense than from gore, and would stand as a minor  overlooked classic about kids vs. evil were it not for the discomfiting  fact that the very same conflict took place behind the scenes,  and evil won.

Very few people other than  horror completists and Sam Rockwell fans would even know Clownhouse  exists today if not for the sins of its maker, writer-director  Victor Salva, whose feature debut this was. When Salva’s later  movie Powder, made for Disney, was about to open in 1995,  Clownhouse star Nathan Forrest Winters stood up and protested  Disney’s bankrolling of Salva’s career. Reason? Because Salva,  before and during the shooting of Clownhouse, had molested  the then-12-year-old Winters (and videotaped it). Sentenced to  three years in prison, Salva served fifteen months, completing  parole in 1992. The press had a field day with this information,  finding many newly creepy resonances in Powder, and Disney  quickly distanced itself from the hot potato. Luckily for Salva,  he had (and presumably still has) a guardian angel in Francis  Ford Coppola, whose company American Zoetrope produced Clownhouse  as well as Salva’s career-saving Jeepers Creepers films.  Why Coppola didn’t turn his back on the Fredo in his filmmaking  family is anyone’s guess; perhaps Coppola improbably sees Salva  as a sort of Michael Corleone circa Godfather III, a sinner  who deserves a chance to redeem himself.

And indeed, Salva seems to  be trying to keep his end of the bargain; no further evidence  of his pedophilia has risen to the surface, at least not outside  his films (viewers who know Salva’s backstory have reported many  strange details and fixations in the Jeepers Creepers  movies, neither of which I’ve seen). But Clownhouse, watched  in light of what Salva is and did, becomes a truly horrifying  glimpse into a diseased mind. It should be seen (though I’d recommend  borrowing it through interlibrary loan, if you can, and not making  yourself feel soiled by paying to see it) if only because it  is a rare cinematic document of a not-well-understood sickness.  And, boy, does Clownhouse play on a whole other level  once you know a pedophile made it.

The three brothers in the film  — young bed-wetting Casey (Winters), sensible middle child Geoffrey  (Brian McHugh), and the aforementioned bully Randy (Rockwell)  — spend two-thirds of the film isolated (their parents are out  for the night) and threatened by three silent, menacing men.  One of them is an eye-rolling baldy who fixates on balloon animals  and later tries to make one out of a human being. The other two  are hulking slobberers, much like society’s general mental image  of child molesters. (Salva himself, seen briefly in a crowd scene  at the carny, looked a bit slimmer and more presentable than  he does now — he seems to have morphed into one of the heavy-set  evil clowns.)

In a 1999 interview, Salva said that when  he was a kid devouring horror movies, he felt bad for the monster: “When someone in the movie pointed and screamed, ‘Arrrrgh, he’s so hideous! He’s so ugly!’ I thought, ‘No, the monster is  the most interesting thing about the movie. I wonder what he’s thinking and feeling.” Oddly, this never comes through in Clownhouse; we’re meant to identify with young, fearful Casey, not the clown-faced murderers. Casey is more or less constantly  bombarded with unwanted physical attention, from his eldest brother  as well as the three psychos. Far from being the defense of pedophilia  you might expect (though much has been made of the scenes when  Casey or Geoffrey are shirtless or even bare-assed), Clownhouse  plays like Salva’s self-loathing mirror on himself. Clowns are  weird, sometimes intimidating grown-ups entrusted with children;  Salva may have been viewing himself as the evil clown preying  on Casey, who, in real life, was left in Salva’s care by trusting  parents (who later, I’m sure, bitterly regretted it).

Salva refers to his sex crime  as “a stupid mistake,” but by “mistake” does  he just mean he got caught at it? The conventional wisdom is  that pedophiles are never “cured”; the obsession is  part of their hard-wiring, and all that can really be done with  them after they’ve served their time is to keep a close eye on  their movements. Or, in Salva’s case, their movies. But Clownhouse  is also an indelible document of pain as well as sickness. There  he is, poor Nathan Forrest Winters, cringing in fear in one scene  after another, reliving symbolically on film what he was enduring  in the dark after-hour shadows of the movie set or in Salva’s  home. Winters’ terror is all too real, and becomes unbearably  dismaying to watch. The other two boys in the film are acting;  Winters isn’t, quite. Am I recommending Clownhouse? In and of itself, divorced from the reality behind it, it’s a serviceable thriller with some truly odd touches (the boys’ mother and a  fortune-teller they encounter at the carny both seem like chubby  drag queens). Viewed in its real-life context, it becomes exponentially  distasteful and squalid, moreso than any 42nd-street European  zombie dreck that depicts the slaughter of actual animals.

Should Clownhouse be viewed outside this context? What’s more important, life or movies?