THE CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT
Director: Jean Pellerin
Year of release: 1998
Country of origin: Canada
Running time: 91 minutes
DVD/Blu ray: DVD only
Tagline: "So many victims, so little time".
Casting the spotlight on the slasher genre
Story: Several high school age teens volunteer to help with restoring an old theatre. Once a thriving opera house the place has long since fallen into a state of disrepair after the brutal stabbing of one of the leading ladies way back when. The culprit, thought to be a fellow performer at the time playing the role of a clown, was never caught. Now many years later the volunteers hope to restore the venue to its former glory.
Getting involved somewhat reluctantly with the project is Kate, a girl roped into helping by her much more eager best friend. As the orphaned daughter of the woman murdered years before, Kate is understandably uneasy. This is made worse when she begins to experience visions of the night her mother met her demise. Things get progressively worse for Kate when along with her fellow volunteers she finds herself locked inside the building with a nutcase dressed as a clown. Is it the killer of old back to do away with the daughter in the same manner as the Mother?
Good points: *The theatre is very reminiscent of the similar backdrop from one of my favourite eighties slashers Stage Fright. As was the case with that film it makes for a wonderful place in which the action can unfold. Along with the carnival/funfair it’s my favourite type of setting for a slasher film so of course I lapped it up here. The dilapidated old theatre also helps with the visual style with it being taken advantage of to the full in terms of lighting and cinematography. As a result the finished product looks great, stylish, artistic and moody all at the same time.
*The appearance of the killer clown is very solid with both the mask/makeup as well as the outfit itself looking the part. It was enough to come across as creepy but without going too over the top to the point that it doesn’t resemble what could have been a legitimate costume for a performer in years past. In relation to that I also liked how they made a point of it being an outfit from a show years ago as it tied into the history of the theatre itself as well as the backstory of the film. Initially I assumed the clown concept had been picked randomly simply because a lot of people find them scary but I was pleased that wasn’t the case and more thought had gone into it.
A regular criticism of this film is that it’s too familiar and borrows too much from earlier slashers but you could maybe say the clown seen here went on to inspire Art the Clown of Terrifier fame. Just speculation on my part but I do think they look pretty similar. Art was based on a mime clown though I believe so it may be the inspiration came purely from that. Either way the two clowns in question remind me of one another.
Another thing which this film may have provided inspiration for is the use of the tunnels underneath and in-between the walls of the building. This reminded me of what was later seen in Halloween Resurrection with Michael having a lair beneath the house. So although the film takes a lot perhaps it gives back something as well.
*Mild spoilers: This follows on quite closely from the tail end of the last point. Something I always enjoy in a slasher is the inclusion of little bits and pieces that are inspired by or kind of paying homage to older films. The Clown of Midnight has a number of these things included such as references to Friday the 13th such as the Walnut character and the rat as well as the fight, albeit a very brief one in this case on the roof. Nods to other films include final girl Kate bearing more than a passing resemblance to Scream’s Sydney and the bodies being brought together and put in a pose of sorts at the end. As long as it’s shot well this last one is always something I enjoy seeing.
*While it’s true that there isn’t much blood on display here, a common criticism of the project, on the plus side there is some variation in the deaths with several different methods being used to finish off the victims. It’s not going to blow anyone away in this area for sure but I think it deserves a bit more credit here than it generally gets. The beheading was well done for example and I really enjoyed the spear death plus the part with the screwdriver at the end.
Bad Points: *Big spoilers ahead: The writing is slightly clumsy on occasion with some small plot holes or parts included that aren’t fully explained. The most obvious thing relates to the character who we later find out is Kate’s father (Lorenzo?). We learn at the end that he had been held captive beneath the theatre for years by the owner Mr Caruthers as part of the frame job to set him up as the killer. To kidnap him and hold him captive would make it look to everyone else that he’d absconded due to being guilty of the murder. It wasn’t explained though how the old man was able to keep him there for so long as it wouldn’t be as if Caruthers could overpower his much younger prisoner. Plus he’d have been down there for too long of a time to make drugs or restraints all that plausible. He seemed to be walking around in the tunnel system freely anyway.
On top of this it wasn’t explained why Caruthers even kept him alive as it would have been easier just to kill him and leave his body underground. That way he wouldn’t need to ever worry about him escaping.
Something else that wasn’t explained very well is why the blood stain in the murder room was still fresh when the kids broke in? Most likely it was supposed to be an extension of the supernatural style visions Kate was experiencing to serve as a warning but it’s something I felt could have done with more by way of an explanation.
Another small thing with Kate which didn’t add up occurred when she and George had just discovered Marty’s body. George made a comment about how the clown was just in here so there must be another way out. Then they started looking for a hollow wall but I didn’t understand why they didn’t just go back the way they’d come in. It wasn’t as if a door or something had shut behind them cutting off their retreat. It could be argued they simply wanted to catch up with the killer but if so one should have suggested going back with the other saying something like “No, lets try and find him”.
Lastly I thought the bit at the end where George briefly attacks Mr Caruthers while dressed as the clown himself was unnecessary. Seeing how short and unsuccessful the attack was it didn’t add anything and just made things slightly more confusing with their already being a couple of different people in the clown suit previously as it was.
*Kate doesn’t make for a particularly good final girl. Funnily enough a lacklustre final girl was also a criticism I had of the similar Stage Fright and it’s definitely noticeable here as well. It’s not too bad though as it wasn’t that I didn’t like her but rather she’s just a bit simpering and forgettable for much of the running time. She doesn’t go through as much of a progressive arc as many final girls do or do anything substantial to stand out.
Verdict: As an overlooked gem for me this is a film deserving of more attention and admiration than it currently receives. I do love the theatre as a setting so maybe I’m a bit biased but I felt it looked evocatively stylish also as well as boasting a cool looking killer. The late nineties vibe running through the proceedings also sits well with me and in some ways I actually enjoyed this more than some of the other more generally fondly remembered slasher entries from this period.
It does feel as if it’s lacking that extra special something that would put it head and shoulders above the rest. Probably a more charismatic final girl would help with this as well as a bit more in the way of special effects for the murders. Despite this though and some issues that could be tightened up story-wise it’s still a very solid effort that I had a good time with.
Bodycount (contains major spoilers):
1)Kate’s Mother: Stabbed repeatedly.
2)Mrs Gibby: Struck on the head with an axe/hatchet type weapon.
3)Ashley: Strangled. Corpse later swung onto stage with a rope serving as a noose.
4)Monica: Impaled through the chest with a spear thrust through a wall.
5)Marty: Electrocuted in a prop style electric chair.
6)Taylor: Falls of a high roof.
7)Walnut: Decapitated with an axe.
8)Lorenzo: Knocked off a high catwalk.
9)Mr Caruthers: Impaled on metal implements after falling through stage trap door. Previously stabbed in the eye with a screwdriver.
Review added on the 21st of August 2020.