The Clown at Midnight (1998): No Laughing Matter

Matty looks back at a pleasingly chilly slasher throwback.

Originally conceived by scripter and special effects supervisor Kenneth J. Hall (Evil Spawn (1987), Dr. Alien (1988)) back in 1984 with Vincent Price in mind for the role that Christopher Plummer would eventually play, THE CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT (1998) is an earnest Golden Age slasher throwback that wears its old school mentality like a badge of honour. While there are a few moments of Scream (1996)-esque self-awareness (“I felt like a bimbo in some slasher movie screaming like that”), The Clown at Midnight generally eschews the postmodernism of its Craven-inspired brethren in favour of something baser and more classic-seeming. 

Taking its name from a quote that Lon Chaney supposedly used to explain why fright is relative to context (“There’s nothing funny about a clown at midnight,” the star allegedly told an interviewer), Hall’s story is so rote you can hear Siskel and Ebert tearing into it from beyond the grave. It’s exactly what the thumb-slinging duo would have called “a dead teenager flick”. Recruited to renovate a dilapidated theatre by their queer-coded professor (Black Christmas’ (1974) Margot Kidder in a canny bit of fan service), a bunch of college kids are lined up and knocked down by a maniac in a clown suit. 

However, there’s beauty to The Clown at Midnight’s simplicity. Everything is in service to Hall’s killer clown hook, gimmicky setting, and haunted house framework. The characters aren’t thinly written, just archetypes: The Sinister Codger (Plummer), The Troubled Ingenue (Sarah Lassez), The Sassy BFF (Tatyana Ali, post The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), The Handsome Oddball (James Duval, pre Frank the Bunny in Donnie Darko (2001)), The Bitchy Gay One, The Nerdy Chick, The Jock, The Jock’s Squeeze etc… Rigid yet reverential and wholly comfortable in its own formulaic skin, the narrative unfolds like a Point Horror come to life and oozes the kind of mythic, rooted-in-folklore quality ascribed to tertiary carve-‘em-ups The Burning (1981), My Bloody Valentine (1981), and The House on Sorority Row (1982) — the latter being an especially fitting comparison considering its own murderous live-in jester and melancholic tone. 

Directed by Jean Pellerin, The Clown at Midnight is easily the music video helmer turned DTV journeyman’s finest work, trouncing his solid but hardly remarkable other offerings, Laserhawk (1997), Escape Under Pressure (2000) and Daybreak (2000), with style. Primarily lensed at The Burton Cummins Theatre (née The Walker Theatre) in Winnipeg, Canada, Pellerin presents the location as a macabre playground, and boasts an eye for an arresting visual and a good feel for atmosphere. Featuring several nice jolts and a couple of good kills (there’s a natty decapitation I’m convinced is a homage to Jeffrey Combs’ death in Frightmare (1983), and an eerie, cadaver-peppered stretch in the final reel that rivals a similarly orchestrated sequence in Michele Soavi’s StageFright (1987)), The Clown at Midnight’s inky photography fosters a quietly upsetting mood conducive to the film’s themes of heartbreak, obsession and remorse — traits echoed by Hall’s clever use of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera, Pagliacci, as part of its story.  Again, though, it’s simplicity that’s the film’s strongest aesthetic attribute. Because both Hall and Pellerin are savvy enough to know that, as Chaney purportedly stated, sometimes the scariest sight is a clown standing where he shouldn’t be at a massively inappropriate time [1].

The inaugural production of Oak Street Music chief Giles Paquin’s film company, Paquin Entertainment (in co-production with Gary Howsam’s GFT Entertainment and Walter Josten and Jeff Geoffray’s Blue Rider Pictures) [2], The Clown at Midnight was shot in thirteen days on a $2.5million budget in February 1998. It was released straight-to-video in the U.S. by Artisan on 16th February 1999 — exactly one year to the day after it first started shooting, and a week before the North American VHS debut of another underappreciated, clown-centric shocker: suitably, Adam Grossman’s Wes Craven ‘presented’ remake of Carnival of Souls (1998) [3].

[1] Of course, they’re aided by the killer’s excellent, elegantly designed costume and make-up by Wanda Farian and Doug Morrow, which pays dual homage to the look of Chaney’s clown characters in He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928).
[2] Paquin, Howsam, Josten and Geoffray would also team for Silver Wolf (1999), Hide and Seek (2000), and the back-to-back Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell (2001) and Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled (2002).
[3] Here in the U.K., The Clown at Midnight landed on cassette via Universal five months later, in July ‘99.

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