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The Clown at Midnight

1998, Starring Christopher Plummer, Margot Kidder, Sarah Lassez, James Duval, Tatyana Ali, Melissa Galianos. Directed by Jean Pellerin (GFT Paquin Entertainment).

The post-modern slasher craze that blossomed in Hollywood during the late 1990s was spearheaded by films like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, each of which combined bloody thrills and clever winks at their fidgety, teenage audiences. Shot in Winnipeg and released at the height of this self-reflexive trend, the straight-to-video The Clown at Midnight doesn't compare well to those box office hits, but it is probably the closest we'll ever see to a true PoMo stab at the Canadian horror genre.

If the concept of Canuxploitation could be reduced to a simple mathematical formula, this film would have mastered it, packing in cameos from tax shelter stars Margot Kidder (Black Christmas) and Christopher Plummer (Mindfield, The Silent Partner), a Happy Birthday to Me-styled heroine prone to flashbacks from her hidden past, stereotyped victims-in-waiting  la Prom Night, and a plot involving a murderous clown that harkens back to The Clown Murders, Curtains and Matinee (by way of My Bloody Valentine's curse). The Clown at Midnight is a film that--knowingly or not--seems to toss a good chunk of the history of Canadian horror in a high-speed blender. Too bad that these time-tested  ingredients never mix quite as smoothly as they should, however.

The Clown at Midnight is set entirely in Winnipeg's Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts (formerly The Walker Theatre), which has been donated by the stoic owner (Plummer) to the students of the local high school. Things get started as grumpy drama teacher Ms. Gibby (Kidder) assigns moody teenager Kate (Sarah Lassez) and six school pals to help cleanup the aging theatre, which has been closed for years--ever since Kate's birth mother, a well-known opera star, was mysteriously murdered. She's understandably nervous about working there, but after entering the building, Kate keeps having visions of the night of the killing, when her mom was sliced up by an unknown assailant dressed as murderous opera clown Pagliacci. When the other kids start to disappear one by one, it's up to Kate to discover who was really behind her mother's death, not to mention those of her own well-meaning friends.

A film that makes several nods to Canada's long horror cinema past is an intriguing idea, but it's still not particularly entertaining. From the constant red herrings to the laughable dialogue spouted by the stock, one-dimensional victims--shy, nerdy girl (Melissa Galianos), insensitive jock (Ryan Bittle), mean-spirited slut (Liz Crawford), wildly flamboyant homosexual (J.P. Grimard), secretly sensitive bad boy (James Duval), and loyal best friend (former Fresh Prince star Tatyana Ali)--the lowbrow script from American schlock specialist Kenneth J. Hall is a straight-up dud, a lifeless slasher that's too mired in genre clichés to do anything significant with the killer clown promised by the title.

Of course, many badly scripted horror films have succeeded by delivering some decent atmosphere and gore, but The Clown at Midnight can't manage much in that department either. Pedestrian director and former Skid Row videographer Jean Pellerin's (Laserhawk) darkly lit scenes of the clown advancing on the unsuspecting teens are handled almost entirely without suspense. And the gore, supervised by Hall, is disappointingly lame. The Clown at Midnight is a virtually bloodless teen massacre that certainly doesn't deserve its Restricted rating. The only effect in the film that makes any impact on the viewer at all is a run-of-the-mill decapitation (another possible Prom Night reference?), with almost all the other death scenes shuffled off screen or obscured by shadows.

While Scream and its ilk also managed to imbue their films with a dose of self-knowing irony throughout, The Clown at Midnight is fairly straight-faced throughout, mustering only a few lacklustre lines, such as one where one of the girls confesses that she feels " just like a bimbo in a slasher movie!" Really, the only halfway original moment in this by-the-numbers film is a lovemaking scene (between the jock and the slut, natch) that is intercut with the rest of the teens pretending to swordfight on the stage above them while loudly talking about " thrusts" and "parries." Sadly, that's about the highest level of wit The Clown at Midnight aspires to.

A misguided and poorly realized attempt at the slasher subgenre, The Clown at Midnight may be channeling some of Canadian B-film's past successes, but like with those of the sleaziest spirit medium, it doesn't take much to see through its simple, unsatisfying tricks. One of the last horror gasps of the decade, it would soon be forgotten when Ginger Snaps would reinvigorate the genre just a few short years later with just a sprinkle of originality--something that Pellerin's work sadly lacks.

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