The Clown at Midnight 1998 Review
The Clown at Midnight 1998
Directed by: Jean Pellerin
Starring: Christopher Plumber, Margot Kidder, Tatyana Ali
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
The emergence of Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996 had a similar effect on cinema as John Carpenter’s Halloween did back in 1978. Once again, shelves of video rental stores were filled with colorful low budget knock-offs. There were so many, in fact, that Blockbuster Video reported that it was receiving four times the amount of Horror films from 1998 to 2004 that it had since the organisation’s birth in 1985. Although this was also due to the popularity of titles like The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense and The Ring, Craven’s opus can be credited for playing a major part in the reemergence of horror as a bankable medium.
It’s been over a decade since the post-Scream influx of stalk and slash titles, so now we can look back and analyse the difference between that period and, the one, from twenty years earlier during the first slasher boom. Whilst there certainly were a number of weak entries released during the eighties (Don’t go in the Woods/Home Sweet Home etc), their lack of credibility was sweetened by the likes of ‘The Prowler‘ and ‘My Bloody Valentine‘, which went on to become horror classics. The more recent span of stalk and slash titles hasn’t given us anywhere near as much panache to shield the brunt of the mediocrity and we haven’t seen many that are worthy of a place amongst the elite.
The Clown at Midnight was released hot on the heels of Scream and chose the horror chestnut of incorporating a killer clown into its synopsis. It tells the tale of seven drama students that are forced, as part of their coursework, to clean and prepare a dilapidated theatre for re-opening. It had been closed for many years since a leading actress was brutally butchered by a maniac who escaped the scene without trial. The victim’s daughter, Kate Williams (Sarah Lassez), is among the eager group and upon her arrival she begins suffering flashbacks and visions of the fate of her mother. Before long, the group are locked in and the psychopathic clown makes an inevitable reappearance for his swan song performance.
If there is any credit to be given to this scarcely popular new-age entry, it has to be for the visible effort that’s been made by Barry Gravelle, the ‘horror-regular’ cinematographer. Most of his work is stylish and energetic and he tries admirably to add a little ‘va va voom’ to the shoot. It’s a shame, then, that despite his enthusiasm, the film still plays too much like a hobo with a hangover, which has no doubt contributed to its lack of a global DVD release. Considering the fact that this was first circulated in 1998 by a relatively large studio, it can be considered a huge snub that as of mid-2013, it has still been ignored by the digital format.
The main problem with The Clown at Midnight is that it feels bereft of energy from everyone else involved aside from the aforementioned camera guy. We are given a cast that portray themselves lazily with minimal intent on bringing the story to life, which is a shame as these are actors that have proved previously a level of panache. Despite the inclusion of various ‘stars of the future’ (so it says on the back cover, but I’m not so sure), the dramatics remain distinctly sub-par throughout and I found it really hard to have any kind of bond with the people carrying the story. It’s left up to Christopher Plummer to inject some class to proceedings, but even he looks like he’s turned up to contribute the bare minimum and quickly ‘escapar’ with his payslip. There are various attempts to add some intrigue and depth to the personalities that guide us through the story, including a wonderful back story that links well to our final girl, Kate. She’s played so coldly though by Sarah Lassez that I felt zero sympathy for her and therefore had no one to root for.
The mystery is smartly constructed and in fairness, you’ll do well to guess who it is that’s sporting the creepy clown attire. It’s just a shame that the twists and turns are made somewhat redundant by the film’s limp spine, which removes any hope of suspense. TCAM felt like a movie that was screaming for a tense chase sequence or a one-off sprinkling of terror that would really get the viewer engaged. No such moment ever arrived though and instead we were left feeling like we were treading over the same old ground. Slasher movies rarely break away from the multitude, but there’s enough in the age-old formula that can make for an exciting and entertaining picture. It just depends on how well you utilise those ingredients. Jean Pellerin seemed more concerned with directing pretty photography than creating any kind of horror atmosphere or pushing his actors and Kenneth Hall’s script deserved better.
I have seen posts that describe The Clown at Midnight as the best killer clown movie since the more psychological ‘Clownhouse’ on some message boards. That statement says more about the lack of quality in that sector of horror than it does about the credibility of this muddled effort. I first watched TCAM many years back as a young student in Uni. I remember that I was lucky enough to be with an extremely hot chica called Faye and she was a huge fan of horror flicks. I enjoyed it thoroughly because she was the kind of girl that would flinch at every jolt in the soundtrack of a scary movie and each time that she did, my hands would ‘accidentally’ wander further down her top. After seeing her reaction, I remember feeling that The Clown at Midnight must have been really good to have that kind of effect on her, even if she was something of a vulnerable viewer. Unfortunately after watching the film again so many years later, I was disappointed with not only its mediocre quality, but also with my ability back then to judge a decent movie. It’s surprising how our levels of awareness can change isn’t it?
There are reports of an uncut copy somewhere in existence, although these have neither been confirmed nor denied. A huge amount of gore would not subtract from a half-hearted final product though and with the finances that Pellerin had at his disposal, this really should have been better. It does have its share of ambitious moments (The opening killing marks an excellent use of camera tricks and creativity), but overall it doesn’t have enough of them to warrant a purchase. I agree, there are not enough killer clown movies in existence, but the excellent ‘The House on Sorority Row‘ should always be placed miles and miles above this.
Killer Guise: √√√√
Final Girl: √