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The Clown Murders (1976) and the Aesthetics of Ugliness

The Clown Murders is a title that excites the senses and promises a carnivalesque display of technicolour gore. A Canadian production filmed in 1976 and directed by Martyn Burke, the film seems as though it should be a product of the nihilistic brutality of 1970s disillusionment. Wearied by the perpetual momentum of the Vietnam war machine and shocked by the devolution of flower-child idealism into the violent frenzy of the Manson murders, North America channelled its collective cultural trauma into spectacular displays of independent horror. Out of the frustration, paranoia and disenchantment of the era, came a wealth of uncompromising, visceral horror films like The Last House on the Left (1972) Black Christmas (1974) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Despite its title, The Clown Murders is neither a brutal response to the frustrations of a devastated culture, nor is it a Grand Guignol of surreal horror like Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973). Instead, it is simply a tedious, ugly film; one whose rejection of anything resembling artistic ambition could in itself serve as a treatise on ugliness in cinema. Indeed, there is nothing about the film that is not repulsive. From the characters to the aesthetic, every single component of The Clown Murders arouses disgust and disdain. Yet, while connoisseurs of horror may be adept at navigating the thematic and artistic complexities of the repugnant, The Clown Murders is a film that evokes repulsion not through excesses of gore or moral ambiguity, but rather through the ugliness of its characters and the dull, lifeless world they inhabit.

In 1976, the real-life killer clown John Wayne Gacy was murdering adolescent boys and young men in Cook County, Illinois. A decade later, Stephen King’s It would spawn a million coulrophobes. The Clown Murders, however, exists in a world utterly removed from such terror and its fictive reality is more akin to that of a bad daytime soap opera. Despite its sensational title, The Clown Murders is primarily focused on the rather mundane efforts of a group of affluent college friends (now creeping up on middle age) to sabotage a real-estate deal by kidnapping a businessman’s wife. The film saves itself from accusations of false advertising in its final act by allowing our “heroes” to be stalked by a masked killer, disguised as a clown, for about twenty minutes of its ninety-five-minute runtime. The repugnance of this film, therefore, has nothing to do with violence and gore, but it has everything to do with the quotation marks bracketing the word “heroes.” The protagonists are wealthy, elitist and morally reprehensible. They are introduced to the viewer during a polo match, and the entire persona of each character seems as though it has been carefully constructed out of a series of simplistic stereotypes about self-absorbed, spoiled rich people. There is hardly a character in this film who could not have been easily slotted into the role of “generic preppy villain #2” in a ‘70s or ‘80s college campus comedy. While the narrative itself suggests that the object of the viewer’s scorn should be the real estate developer who seeks to transform an area of verdant farmland into luxury apartments, almost everyone we encounter in the film is equally reprehensible. The film’s four “heroes” – Charlie (Stephen Young), Peter (John Bayliss), Rosie (Gary Reineke) and Ollie (a young John Candy) – do not decide to kidnap the wife of their friend, the film’s ostensible villain, because they need money (they don’t!) or even as part of a genuine effort to preserve a rapidly disappearing rural way of life from the indifference of capitalist greed and urban expansion; they kidnap her because they consider it fun, a caper! They come to this decision while drinking in the polo club, reminiscing about how they “haven’t had a good caper since we let the fox and hounds into the clubhouse.” Agreeing that kidnapping would be a worthy successor to their collegiate hijinks, the four grown men then burst into a rousing rendition of their school song.

The exaggerated, almost ridiculous, self-centredness of the four protagonists is so extreme that it seems vaguely comedic, as though buried somewhere beneath layers of tedium there might exist an earnest satire about the deluded indifference of the wealthy. The film’s heroes appear to exist within a strange, self-contained bubble of luxury in which everyday concerns such as work, family or community mean nothing. Just as they seem oblivious to the fact that their college prank, releasing a large volume of animals into an indoor setting, would likely result not only in property damage but also in some anonymous, underpaid manual labourer having to clean up the mess left behind in their wake, so too do they seem blissfully ignorant of the potential ramifications of kidnapping. In many ways, these four men, adults who seem so sheltered from reality that their world is defined by games and practical jokes, embody the toxic, frat-boy mentality that so often characterises those raised in comfort and privilege. In contemplating the repercussions of their actions, perhaps finally realising that kidnapping is in fact a felony(!), the incompetent band of weekend criminals attempt to defend their behaviour by repeatedly claiming that “it was just a joke” and “we’re not criminals”. This, of course, is the natural rejoinder of the privileged. Whether a college sports star accused of assault or a white-collar worker charged with embezzlement, affluent white people regularly justify questionable, or outright illegal, actions by appealing to the fact that they do not look like the popular stereotype of the criminal. Although the kidnappers in The Clown Murders are violent, mean-spirited and cruel, they do not look like criminals, and so they are shielded from the consequences of their actions by wealth and influence.

Nevertheless, despite appearances, when they finally abduct their friend’s wife Alison (played by Susan Keller), the men easily give themselves over to violence, using chloroform to sedate their victim and knocking her husband unconscious. The immediacy with which the group erupts into violence, first when abducting Alison and later when they begin to fight amongst themselves, suggests a brutality and a simmering aggression lurking beneath a façade of affluent gentility. A key example of superficial propriety is Peter, one of the kidnappers, who is a member of the local chamber of commerce, a respected pillar of the community, and a Young Conservative. At the same time, Peter is also fundamentally self-absorbed, cruel and indifferent to the needs of those around him. In fact, each of the protagonists is inherently selfish, lacking in concern for others and spoiled by a life of comfort and ease. Like spoiled children, they believe that the world exists for their entertainment and, like spoiled children, they become aggressive and belligerent when denied one of their whims. The only character who is not utterly repulsive is John Candy’s Ollie, though he seems to function solely as a target for the many hurtful fat jokes with which his “friends” assail him. Rosie, another kidnapper, is both pathologically preoccupied with sex and deeply misogynistic, warning Ollie that he does not trust their victim Alison because “she’s trouble”; this in spite of the fact that they kidnapped her! Likewise, Charlie, who is both Alison’s ex and a feeble attempt at a likeable hero, behaves as though he is entitled to Alison simply by virtue having been her one-time partner. Even Alison ultimately proves to be fundamentally and deeply unpleasant when she seduces the naïve and inexperienced Ollie.

The moral universe of the film is an abhorrent one. Characters are cruel to each other with little motivation and a group of grown men behave as though the world is their playground. The movie’s climax, when the impromptu kidnappers are stalked by a killer dressed in a clown costume, actually comes as a welcome relief from the petty malevolence of the protagonists. The slasher-style conclusion is utterly incidental to the film, and its horror-movie violence pales in comparison to the nastiness of its characters and aesthetics. The Clown Murders is an ugly film. Its world is one inhabited by nasty individuals, punctuated by acts of cruelty and saturated by depressing tones of yellow and beige. In fact, the colour palette resembles nothing so much as old, cigarette-stained wallpaper. It is a film that exemplifies and foregrounds ugliness. From a theoretical perspective, it embodies Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s eighteenth-century attempt to define the ugly as that which “offends our eyes, clashes with our taste for order and harmony, arous[es] repugnance […].” The Clown Murders seems to take as its foremost project the subversion of all notions of order, composition, harmony and aestheticism. Everything about the film runs counter to any established notions of the cinematic, the beautiful or the artistic. It is at once hideous and bland. Permeated by yellow, beige and brown, its mise-en-scène is as repulsive as the characters who occupy the cinematic space. In his 1853 book Aesthetics of Ugliness (from which this article takes its title), Karl Rosenkrantz employs a parallel between ugliness and evil. According to Rosenkrantz, while evil and sin are the inverse of good, ugliness is the inverse, or opposite, of beauty. Therefore, if evil and sin are the hell of good, then ugliness is the “hell of beauty”. Drawing on this perspective, The Clown Murders could be viewed as the “hell” of cinematic beauty. Nothing about the film betrays any form of creativity, artistic endeavour or even the faintest flicker of effort on the part of its creators.

Of course, ugliness does have a pivotal and vital place in horror. The aforementioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre is perhaps the apotheosis of horror’s tendency to aestheticise the ugly. The grainy texture, over-exposed film and squalid set design in Tobe Hooper’s paean to rural decay all combine to elevate the repugnant to the level of art. Although the very notion of art is in itself subjective, it is fair to say that the intricately sculpted ugliness of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre serves an expressive function and underscores the film’s themes of isolation, degeneration and the absurdity of violence.

In his Poetics, the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that this kind of artistic ugliness had a valuable role to play in our creative lives, observing that it is possible to create beauty through a masterful replication of the ugly. In a similar vein, the historian Plutarch argued that the artistic depiction of the repulsive could potentially achieve a sort of beauty as a result of the artist’s creative talent. Lucio Fulci and Herschell Gordon Lewis, directors who both received the honorific “the godfather of gore”, understood the aesthetic of the ugly. Their cinematic worlds are vile and repulsive, but they are creative, original and fundamentally inspired. The Clown Murders foregrounds ugliness, albeit unintentionally, as its setting and characters exude unpleasantness. Yet, this ugliness serves no purpose and rather than being tied to any real thematic concerns, the film’s repulsiveness is unbearable, all-pervading and, worst of all, pointless. The ugliness of The Clown Murders is prosaic and bland; it saturates the film and envelopes it. Not only is this movie unpleasant to behold, it also eschews any sort of artistic ambition through its dull, unfocused plot. Like many horror fans, I can find beauty in what others reject as revolting. The Clown Murders, however, is an exercise in insipid, unappealing monotony. It is a film that seems to almost consciously resist any attempt a viewer might make to find it interesting or likeable. Horror may pivot on ugliness and the monstrous, but the dull, beige-drenched vulgarity of The Clown Murders and the repugnance of its spoiled, petty characters is not such an exploration of the monstrous. It is simply a film that sought to capitalise on the independent horror boom of the 1970s but was so fundamentally misdirected in its aims that the terror evoked by its masked stalker was dwarfed by the nastiness of both its characters and its visual aesthetic.

Writing on the subject of bad taste, the filmmaker John Waters once famously opined that there is an important distinction between “good bad taste” and “bad bad taste”:

“It’s easy to disgust someone; I could make a ninety-minute film of people getting their limbs hacked off, but this would only be bad bad taste and not very stylish or original. To understand bad taste one must have very good taste. Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humour, which is anything but universal.”

The Clown Murders may evoke disgust and it may repulse the viewer, but it is not creatively nauseating. Its ugliness is woven into the very fabric of the film. Yet, the fundamental substance of this particular cinematic product is vapid and uninspired. Its hideousness does not say anything and serves no function. Indeed, its aesthetic of the ugly is not even intentional; instead, it is simply a culmination of nasty, cruel characters carrying out malicious acts in a world that is dull and tedious. Rather than deploying ugliness for some thematic or artistic purpose, the repulsiveness that pervades The Clown Murders is simply an accumulation of unpleasantness that often verges on the overwhelming.

About Miranda Corcoran

Miranda Corcoran currently teaches American literature in University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests include Cold-War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She also enjoys researching and writing about topics related to horror, the supernatural and witchcraft.

One comment

  1. lol. Damn. I actually agree with a lot of this, but I will say this film exposed the ugliness of people. And considering how much people sucked then, now, and probably since the beginning of time, I can’t go as far as saying it was unintentional. They had to know those characters, even the dame in distress, were unlikable douches with little to no redeeming qualities. Great review!

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