Clownhouse (1989): No Laughing Matter

Matty takes a look at a very real circus of horrors and determines that, sometimes, separating the art from the artist is impossible. Trigger warning: child sexual abuse. 

CLOWNHOUSE (1989) is a good horror film.

Briskly paced, surprisingly slick and technically ambitious considering its miniscule $250,000 budget, and, of course, thrillingly scary, this effective little jolter elicits every ounce of fear from its simple premise — three youngsters terrorised by a trio of homicidal clowns on Halloween night — and emerges as one of the most authentically frightening pictures to deal with coulrophobia, right up there with IT (1990) and the clown doll business in Poltergeist (1982). However, even the most passive and unassuming of views reveals uncomfortable details that betray the awful truth surrounding Clownhouse’s sordid and upsetting production. Despite the film’s positives — such as Michael Becker and Thomas Richardson’s Elfman-esque score, and Robin Mortarotti’s atmospheric photography — it is, in no uncertain terms, impossible to watch without feeling repulsed, angry, depressed, and utterly heartbroken. 

On 18th August 1987, a few weeks after Clownhouse finished shooting, the film’s writer/director, Victor Salva, was arrested. Then twenty-nine, Salva had been sexually abusing Clownhouse’s twelve year-old star, Nathan Forrest Winters. Having worked in a daycare centre prior to becoming a filmmaker — a truly disturbing point — Salva had befriended Winters and his family several years earlier, and had started abusing Winters when the boy was six. The abuse continued through Salva’s award-winning, Winters-led short, Something in the Basement (1986), and culminated during the making of Clownhouse, whereupon the depraved wannabe auteur videoed one of his assaults with the camcorder used to document his feature-length debut’s creation. Winters finally disclosed what was happening to him following a conversation with his mother, Rebecca, who’d grown suspicious of Salva’s increasingly possessive attitude over her son.

“Victor said I couldn’t go to the set,” stated Rebecca Winters in 1995. “He said Nathan couldn’t work if I was there. I just had this feeling. I confronted Nathan and he admitted it to me, he said, “I have a secret and I can’t tell anyone”.” [1]

When Salva was apprehended, child pornography and a wealth of dubious — albeit commercially available — images of scantily clad children was found in his home alongside the aforementioned tape of him and Winters, and additional sexually suggestive snaps and videos of Winters’ fourteen year-old Clownhouse co-star, Brian McHugh. Like Winters, McHugh also featured in Something in the Basement

Interestingly, concerns had already been flagged by pockets of Clownhouse’s crew.

“Victor acted like a jealous lover whenever Nathan spoke to anyone other than him,” a source told me recently, on condition of anonymity. “He was always very tactile too, and it was very strange, but — well, maybe we were naïve, but not a single one of us could anticipate the exact extent of it, especially when what we’d say would be quickly shrugged off… Horrific. Just horrific.” 

Reportedly, even Clownhouse’s executive producer, the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, cottoned on that all was not right behind the scenes, later remarking to The Associated Press that he “saw a few things [on set] that raised an eyebrow”. Nevertheless, until Winters’ actual disclosure, Clownhouse rattled on — and Coppola has remained a vocal supporter of Salva’s, visiting him in jail, offering advice, gifting him a lumper to keep him afloat when he was released, and subsequently bankrolling his most famous film, the equally lascivious Jeepers Creepers (2001), and its first sequel.  

Indeed, in the wake of Salva’s arrest, rather than junking the project as any sane person would have done, Coppola took Clownhouse’s reins in order to bring it to completion. According to Winters, Coppola personally supervised the film’s ADR sessions (of which there were many — the picture was totally re-looped due to a mixture of poor quality sound equipment and an extremely loud camera) and ordered the traumatised lad to attend lest he be sued for breach of contract. Winters maintains that, throughout the sessions, he was repeatedly told he’d never work again. As an actor he hasn’t — though the now forty-eight year-old has earned a crust as a musician, documentarian, and, most triumphantly, as an advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse.

In April 1988, Victor Salva pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd conduct with a child under fourteen and three counts of filming a minor involved in sexual activity. Six additional charges pertaining to child sexual abuse were levelled against him, but dropped as part of a questionable plea deal. While Salva’s defence team — paid for by Coppola — claimed that he was “remorseful”, “instinctively decent” and “crying out for help with his urges”, the prosecution were adamant he’d reoffend, describing him as “a manipulative conman who has consistently put himself in places where he has access to children”. They rightly drew attention to his past employment in daycares, schools and various youth programmes.

That said, all the prosecution should have done is host a screening of Clownhouse.

The whole sorry saga is a proud, gloating confession in film form. Years of abuse and misery condensed into an eighty minute wallow in Salva’s sickness.

Presented with a child’s eye view, the camera constantly gunning up at its grease paint-slathered antagonists, Bippo (Byron Weible), Dippo (David C. Reinecker) and Cheezo (stand-up comedian Michael Jerome West), Clownhouse bubbles with Salva’s twisted lusts. He delights in harassing Winters, McHugh and the film’s sole star of note, future Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell (then eighteen) [2], beyond what’s required in the story. He packs Clownhouse with lingering shots of bare, prepubescent bodies, and he teases Winters’ tortured yet grotesquely fetishized character — a timid, serial bed-wetter — with innuendo-laden dialogue that affirms how the tween’s fears will never be taken seriously. Alarmingly, the young actor alternates between genuinely petrified and frazzled, his default gaze the thousand yard stare of a broken soul.  

Salva has since discussed his own abusive upbringing, and has implied that the typically beleaguered ‘heroes’ of his movies are often autobiographical extensions of sorts. Alas, even parking hindsight and empathy for Salva’s apparently damaged past, there’s a strong, unshakeable, and unpalatable sense that the entirety of Clownhouse is a giant grooming exercise deliberately designed to mirror the coercion that Salva used to dupe Winters — and, to a lesser-known extent, McHugh — to begin with.

The same problem plagues each of Salva’s later offerings — from the sexually charged powerplay dynamic within his post-jail ‘return’, Nature of the Beast (1995); to the paedophile apologist fantasy of Powder (1995), and the obvious metaphorical connotations of the boy-hungry monster at the heart of Jeepers Creepers. With Salva, separating the art from the artist is out of the question. His perverted cinema is awash with barely disguised trophies. They’re aural and visual crime scenes at best; revolting, paedo-coded dog-whistles at worst. As far as anyone knows, Salva has never reoffended — but why would he when he can indulge his warped desires creatively?

On Tuesday 27th September 1988, Victor Salva was sentenced to three years confinement in a state penitentiary. He served fifteen months, much of which inside a cushy ‘facility’ that he was transferred to following an (alleged) beating from another inmate. A rumour persists that Coppola pulled a few strings to get him there. 

In January 1989, Clownhouse played at the Sundance Film Festival with Heathers (1989) and sex, lies, and videotape (1989). It was the sixth full-blown horror movie to be showcased at the iconic fest, a dynasty that includes Demon Seed (1977), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Fade to Black (1980), Wolfen (1981), The Lift (1983), Star Time (1992), Braindead (1992), Nadja (1994), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Saw (2004), Get Out (2017), and Hereditary (2018). Since coverage of Salva’s crimes outside of California was shockingly scant (in fact, his deplorable antics only became common knowledge as the Disney-backed Powder edged towards release), the film was acquired by Vision International and Triumph Releasing Corporation for a brief U.S. theatrical run in mid-1990. The company booked dates in second-run cinemas in Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Nebraska. Clownhouse was then issued on tape by RCA Columbia per their distribution pact with Vision [3]. Save for Psychotronic, nary a single notice spotlighted what Salva did. Instead, the bulk of them praised the director’s aesthetic skills — a notion as maddening as it is accurate.

Contrary to popular belief, Clownhouse didn’t vanish into obscurity either. It was a late night favourite on cable and satellite deep into the ‘90s, when the Powder controversy nudged Salva’s transgressions into the mainstream. Infamously, MGM’s 2003 DVD was swiftly pulled from the shelves ahead of its official release, when talk of Salva’s heinous past started circulating again circa Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003). The copies that made it into the wild have — what else? — become collector’s items [4].

[1] Disney Movie’s Director a Convicted Child Molester by Robert W. Welkos, The Los Angeles Times, 25th October 1995.
[2] Rockwell has largely kept quiet about his involvement in Clownhouse, commenting in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times that the film simply “gave him the confidence to have a go at acting [professionally]”. He encountered Coppola again when he moved to New York and (unsuccessfully) read for a role in The Godfather Part III (1990).  
[3] Here in the U.K. Clownhouse landed on VHS in March 1990 via Entertainment in Video, with whom Vision and their associates, Trans World Entertainment, had a lucrative British output deal.
[4] Clownhouse was scheduled to arrive in tandem with MGM’s discs of The Ghoul (1933), Squirm (1976), Burnt Offerings (1979), Once Bitten (1985), I, Madman (1989), and Death Line (1976) (aka ‘Raw Meat’) on 26th August 2003.

2 thoughts on “Clownhouse (1989): No Laughing Matter

  1. I don’t think I ever knew the full extent of Coppola’s support for Salva, so that’s incredibly disappointing to learn. I’ve been utterly disgusted with Salva and his apologists for ages now, and it still amazes me he was able to continue working in such high profile films. It seems he’s receded into the background these days, but for all I know he’s still making films. I’ll have to look at his IMDb.


  2. Hi, Michael. Thank you for reading and commenting. Seemingly, as of this writing, Salva does indeed have a few projects in development. Worryingly, they appear to be as thematically troubling as always – from what I gather, they’re rooted in his go-to topics of past trauma and youthful protagonists. If he is going to keep making films, he really should stay away from such lurid, rubbing-our-noses-in-it material…

    Liked by 1 person

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