The Clown Murders of 1976 is not significant on account of being the first Canadian horror film, or even the first Canadian slasher film (at an absolute minimum, Black Christmas has it beat by two years, and even that wasn't the first). It is, however, the first AND ONLY Canadian horror film to feature John Candy in a major role, which I think we can all comfortably agree is important in its own right.
Also, it's not accurate to call it a slasher - and, for a very long stretch, to call it a horror film at all - despite a plot that certainly feels like it ought to evolve along slasher lines, even by the uncertain proto-slasher rules that were just barely starting to coalesce by '76. The short form of the plot is that a group of four friends agree to kidnap the wife of their mutually-disliked acquaintance - and the ex-fiancé of one of the four - and take her to a farmhouse where Someone Else is already hiding, and That Someone doesn't want them there. They're all thirtysomething professionals, and all rich enough to spend their leisure time at what's obviously a snooty golf club, instead of horny, drunk teens (though one of them is horny and drunk), but that's about as far as The Clown Murders drifts off the slasher template.
Except for how it's, y'know, not a slasher film. God help my soul for what I am about to say, but I truly think that the film would be a whole lot better off it it was an outright body count horror picture, because at least then it would have the cheap but legitimate appeal that comes with the generic territory. Instead, writer-director Martyn Burke has powerfully ambitious goals for the film: to make it a character-driven thriller, and to include a sizable commentary on avarice and the wanton march of progress, making the film's most unpleasant and widely-hated character not the killer, but the smarmy real-estate mogul, Philip (Lawrence Dane), whose eminently punchable dick face is the target of the kidnappers' righteous anger. That's actually a pretty interesting concept, and so is the shift that the movie makes over its second half, to focus on the way that the kidnappers start to psychologically disintegrate as the weight of what they did in the spirit of a Halloween prank starts to come home. But there's the rub: they're interesting concepts. The execution of The Clown Murders is a great deal less interesting: downright boring, in fact, and the movie is as ripe as I've ever seen for a remake, one that cuts to the chase a little bit faster and includes more than a few minutes of a clown committing murder, which is so inelegantly and pointlessly worked into the movie as it stands that it's offensively clear that the idea was motivated more by the opportunity for a salacious and marketable title than because Burke believed in it in any meaningful way.
That's hardly the worst of it, though. No, the worst of it is a deadly opening 20 minutes, where the characters are introduced in stupefyingly repetitive scenes intercut arbitrarily with flashbacks, as the main character, Charlie (Stephen Young) remembers the way things used to be, before he left Toronto to go zipping all over the world, leaving a broken-hearted Alison (Susan Keller) in his wake. Alison is now married to Philip, plainly unhappy, and as Charlie makes the rounds of his old buddies, he starts to figure out that just about nobody like Philip any more than his wife does. Those buddies, introduced in a grueling, momentum-strangling run of practically identical scenes, are Ollie (Candy), Peter (John Bayliss), and Rosie (Gary Reineke), respectively the fatty, the one with class-resentment issues, and the psychotic horny drunkard. So we're back in slasher territory, basically.
The plot finally decides it's done having a nice sit-down wherever it spent the first act, and we can get going, as the four men agree that pretending to kidnap Alison on Halloween night, disguised as clowns, would be an absolutely terrific idea. It's still not very exciting, but at least the film perks up a bit through their planning and to the party, and finally, the movie really starts up in earnest when they take her to her own farmhouse, an inheritance that Philip wants to turn into part of a condominium development (it's this that has earned him such an extra helping of wrath at the time the film begins). Here's where they find that Someone, though he (having stolen one of their clown masks to conceal his identity) doesn't do much besides staring at them from shadows or verbally taunting Charlie in a barn until literally nine minutes remain in the movie.
There are two irreversible problems with The Clown Murders, and it could have survived one of them. The first is that it's a failure as a character drama, in roughly equal parts because of bad acting and bad writing. The bad acting is mostly courtesy of Reineke, as teeth-grindingly irritating in his shrill line deliveries (though its mostly plausible service to a wretched character), and Keller, whose checked-out expressions work well enough in the "emotionally sapped trophy wife" scenes, but are titanically disastrous in the sequence where out of nowhere, she begins to seduce and fuck Ollie - John Candy's weepy O-face is mind-blowing - and it's impossible to tell based on the actress's non-performance what's going on in the character's head at this exceedingly crucial juncture. The bad writing is omnipresent: clumsy character introductions and the sort of exposition that makes it exceedingly clear what will and will not be important later (there's absolutely no doubt from the minute they're introduced that the killer will be one of two tightly-related characters, and it's not much longer before we can comfortably pick which one), and bland dialogue.
The second problem is that, if The Clown Murders was thus not going to be good in its first goal, it could at least be a decent horror-thriller; how hard it is to throw a killer clown at a bunch of kidnappers in a remote farmhouse on Halloween? Pretty damn hard, apparently, because other than one effectively-blocked scene where Charlie is locked in an electrified cage, nothing that happens here is terribly tense or, in many cases, visually coherent - throughout the last third, it's a bit confusing where exactly the four main characters are supposed to be all at once (and not because of red herrings: we know for a fact none of them can be the killer at this point). Frankly, it's the second, chintzier failure that annoys me more: lots of people have failed to make credible character dramas with message movie trappings, but to make a bare-bones expendable meat thriller this leaden? That's a gift.
Also, the killer's actions are not in any way compatible with what we're expected to believe of his motivations, rendering the anti-real estate theme even more neutered than it had to be. But that's just gravy, on top of how badly the film performs elsewhere: nonsense is not half as bad a crime in horror as boredom, and except for some flashes in the last 30 minutes where the inherent creepiness of clowns and whispery voices buys the film some atmosphere, it's got boredom to spare. I have long had much reason to praise the makers of Canadian horror films for being a bit more mature and grown-up than their counterparts to the south, with more adult concerns, plausible characters, and depth to the narrative; on that front, The Clown Murders is in keeping with national tradition. But now I have learned a very important corollary: all that stuff only matters if it's married to at least a modicum of talent.
Body Count: 2, as well as a chicken body with no head and a pig head with no body. Neither of the deaths involve wacky, clown-themed shenanigans.
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