Friday, July 8, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Clown Murders (1976)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Would-be big shot business man Philip (Lawrence Dane) is just about to make an actually big deal for once, selling the farm that belongs to his wife Alison (Susan Keller) to a land development company that will build one of those nice apartment complexes where once fields were. Because the land is not Philip's but Alison's property, he needs her signature on the sale contracts, which for some reason that is never made quite clear need to be signed on October 31st just before midnight.

This is not a case of a husband forcing his wife, Alison is in fact quite willing to get rid of the farm and with it a part of her past she would like to forget, but there are other people who have quite different ideas.

Alison's ex-boyfriend Charlie (Stephen Young), who once lived with her on the farm this is all about, has just returned from some unsuccessful business adventures outside of Canada, and he, for one, would just love to get back with Alison, her being married notwithstanding.

While pretending to be as drunk as the people he's speaking with actually are, Charlie manages to talk three supposed friends of Philip's, Ollie (John Candy), Rosie (Gary Reineke) and Peter (John Bayliss) into helping him with a mad plan he sells them as a prank. He wants them to use a Halloween party Ollie arranges as a backdrop for kidnapping Alison so that she won't be able to sign the papers selling the farm on time. Since every single one of them hates Philip at least a little, and lusts quite frightfully after his wife, the idiots agree.

On Halloween, the quartet sets their plan in motion, dresses up as clowns and kidnaps Alison. At first, they drag the woman to Peter's home, but there, cracks between the men become obvious. Until now nobody except Charlie did truly realize what repercussions their actions would have. For some reason, not one of them imagined that Philip would just call the police, as he of course does. Now, the men don't know what to do anymore.

Alison herself doesn't exactly act like a good kidnap victim. She doesn't seem too sure about what to do with Charlie and the others, but she is most certainly not afraid of them or trying to escape from them.

After some arguments which already begin to turn violent, Charlie talks his co-kidnappers into transporting their "victim" to the farm. Surely, nobody will look for them there.

At their destination - and after a meeting with a cop that goes as badly for them as everything else - the men squabble and drink some more, while Alison does her best to provoke them. You'd think leaving these people cooped up with each other alone would be enough provoke a minor blood bath, but there's someone else stalking them, someone who dons a clown mask and shows some rather murderous tendencies.

The Clown Murders is certainly different. The DVD cover (and the plot description on the IMDB, of course) let the film look like a run-of-the-mill slasher, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It's a psychological thriller much more interested in building an atmosphere of tension up to the moment just before it turns to violence than in the violence itself. There is a bit of bloodshed, to be sure, but the film spends most of his running time building up to it until it becomes seemingly inevitable.

The character work here is surprisingly subtle. While the characters' actions aren't always logical or rational (actually, the men mostly come over as rather dumb, Alison as quite inexplicable), they perfectly fit their character types. These are all men jealous of something in Philip that they find embodied in his "possession" of Alison. Rosie and Peter are certainly not able to see Alison as a person, and their lusting after her has much more to do with their wish to prove their dominance over Philip than in any carnal interest in her. Charlie for his part has (probably, the film is only insinuating, not telling) thought up the whole bizarre plan as a way to win Alison again, yet it is the Alison he remembers he wants, and not the woman standing right before him. I had my problems understanding Ollie's character, or why he goes along with the kidnapping, but I'm pretty sure there's a reason why he is the one among the men Alison sleeps with in the end, apart from her sharing the self-destructive urge that seems to drive everyone's actions.

There's an uncommon element of ambiguity running through the whole film; nobody's motivations are ever directly explained, and I'm quite sure that the characters don't know why they are doing what they are doing. There is of course a subtext to the film talking about violence lurking just below the surface of male interaction, barely repressed and just waiting to explode, and the roles someone like Alison has to play just to survive, but that doesn't explain everything that is going on in the film's text.

What is Alison trying to achieve? Does she realize who the other man in the clown mask is? The film isn't telling, and I'm not too sure if the director and writer Martyn Burke actually knows, or if he's making some parts just up as they come along.

Burke does some fine, unobtrusive directing here. The Clown Murders might move slowly, but not a single shot in it is padding. Everything on screen is meant to convey something about the characters that couldn't be told through dialogue alone.

Of course, one could argue that the film is just too ambiguous and/or too subtle for its own good, and it is certainly true that this is a film for people willing to take it on its own terms and in its own rhythm.

The Clown Murders needs viewers willing to accept that there are theories to have, and interpretations to be made, but no clear answers will be given about its characters. Like some things in life, much in it needs to stay ambiguous.

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