Retrospective Reviews: CLUE – A Halloween Masterpiece

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Teenagers in cinema, looking shocked.

Halloween season is almost upon us, and with that glorious time comes pumpkin-themed food and drink, grown-ups dressing up in costumes and, of course, horror movies. Horror movies are great and they get even better when you combine them with crisp air and dying leaves. Everyone has their traditions, their movies they can “only watch around Halloween,” like Halloween, but I’m here to tell you about one of the greatest and most undervalued of Halloween movies, a movie that hits all the boxes for a Halloween classic and yet never receives the respect it deserves, a movie that ought to be in constant rotation year round but especially in this, the most horrifying of seasons. I am, of course, talking about the 1985 comedy masterpiece, CLUE.

You read that correctly; a movie based on a children’s board game is a masterpiece and deserves your undying admiration.

CLUE Deserves Its Status as a Halloween Classic

The Plot

Set in 1954, Clue tells the story of six strangers meeting in a creepy old mansion in the middle of nowhere for dinner. Nobody knows why they have been summoned to this horrible place, nor do they know any of the other guests. However, it is soon revealed by the estate’s butler that they are all being blackmailed by a devious sleaze named Mr. Boddy. Everyone is gifted a lethal weapon, the lights go out, and when they come back on, Mr. Boddy has been murdered!

Chaos breaks out amongst the guests, all of whom claim not to have committed the crime, leading them to suspect if none of them did it, then there is a killer hiding in the house!

Desperate to avoid the public humiliation that would ensue from having their pasts dragged out in the papers, the six strangers, the butler, and the maid must search the house to find the killer before the police arrive. But as the night creeps on and the deaths start to mount, a sense of dread begins to creep through the party that any one of them might be the one whodunit.

What follows is a mischievous and dastardly combination of terrifying suspense and madcap capery, capped with the crackling wit of a Billy Wilder comedy.

Based on the board game of the same name, Clue translates so well to the screen because its source material has the most narrative value. It has six characters with memorable names, murder weapons and locations. The game also has a tremendous sense of character, depending which edition of the game you are playing, but as a child, I remember poring over the beautiful artwork for the players and the board designed by movie poster GOD, Drew Struzan.

The Characters

The characters. My God, the characters. A murder mystery movie lives and dies on the strength of their characters. They need not be complicated, nuanced portrayals of the human condition, as long as they are dynamic and memorable, and in this case CLUE stands out above recent movies of similar ilk like Murder on the Orient Express, The Hateful Eight or the more recent Bad Times at the El Royale (which I reviewed here).

Allow me to break down this ensemble.

The game famously features six playable characters, namely Colonel Mustard, Mrs. White, Mrs. Peacock, Mr. Green, Professor Plum, and Miss Scarlet, all of whom appear as main characters in the film.

Colonel Mustard is played by Martin Mull, a heavyset man with a history of military combat. He comes across as a Teddy Roosevelt type, with a mustache and a call to arms, but he also reveals brief glimpses of a sensitive past he’s not keen to discuss. He has been accused of war profiteering, leading to the deaths of American soldiers and sleeping around with escorts in a house of ill fame.

Madeline Kahn plays Mrs. White, ironically named since she is a widow who wears all black. Kahn plays the part like a spider in wait, a carnivorous man-eater whom the movie implies has murdered several husbands in the past. Her memorable lines are too numerous to count, but they include interactions like this:

“Husbands should be like Kleenex: soft, strong and disposable.” When someone accuses her of luring men to their deaths “like a spider with flies,” she responds, “flies are where men are most vulnerable.”

And of course, there is the notorious ‘flame’ monologue. She’s outstanding.

Eileen Brennan plays Mrs. Peacock, the wife of a politician with a heavy conscience and a desire to do anything that’s necessary to keep her powerful family afloat. She can’t stand silence and can’t fight the compulsion to lead the group in discussion if there is even the slightest lull in the conversation. Her best line: “What are you afraid of a fate worse than death?” “No, just death. Isn’t that enough?”

Mr. Green is played by Michael McKean of This is Spinal Tap fame. He plays an accident-prone member of the State Department and a homosexual who must keep this side of himself a secret or he will lose his job. He immediately comes across as the most sympathetic member of the party, an awkward, gangly man all thumbs and two left feet, who jumps at sudden sounds. He is, from the outset, the most altruistic of the bunch but, like everyone else, he has a few secrets of his own.

Professor Plum is played with pipe-smoking, large spectacle brilliance by the immortal Christopher Lloyd. If it weren’t for his iconic turn as Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, this would be the film for which he would be known. Plum plays a therapist who lost his license for having an affair with a patient. He had previously worked for the United Nations Organization and now works at the World Health Organization (UNO WHO gettit?). He plays a relentless womanizer, obsessed with women with the libido of ten men.

The best joke for Professor Plum:

Wadsworth: “You were once a professor of psychiatry specializing in helping paranoid and homicidal lunatics suffering from delusions of grandeur.”

Professor Plum: “Yes but now I work for the United Nations.”

Wadsworth: “So your work has not changed.”

Ironically, the character that, in the rule book, gets to automatically go first, is also the last character to be introduced. Miss Scarlet is played by the phenomenal treasure, Lesley Ann Warren. Warren had been nominated for an Academy Award for playing a classless bimbo in the vastly underrated Victor Victoria!, and here she defends her title as a figure of pure sexual confidence. Miss Scarlet is the madam of an escort service in Washington DC that at least one of the men in this house has visited, and at least one other wishes to. She has a swagger and confidence at the beginning of the film that says “I know men. I know how they work.” She knows exactly when to play this part broadly and sweeps through scenes like a hurricane.

Colleen Camp as Yvette is an addition to the cast, and serves as a distraction for the men and a frustration for the women. She gives Miss Scarlet a run for her money as the living embodiment of sex, clad in a skimpy french maid’s outfit and looking as though she just popped in from a Halloween party. She plays the part with a ludicrously thick accent, but, like the rest of them, she is more than she seems and uses her sexuality as sleight of hand.

But the film’s greatest addition is Wadsworth the Butler, played by the legendary Tim Curry. Curry is known for his over the top delivery but in this film he is remarkably restrained, playing a macabre Jeeves, until the final act, where he explains how the crimes were all committed via a killer monologue for the history books. A popular picture that makes its rounds on Facebook suggests that you can tell a lot about a person by where you know Tim Curry from. If you know Tim Curry from Clue, I can discern that you are a clever, beloved person who is probably going to get into heaven.

The Screenplay

This screenplay is an astonishing achievement in adaptation in its ability to interweave the details of the game into the film. Every angle of the setup feels organic and exciting.

The film even manages to succinctly explain the setup of the entire game as Wadsworth declares “We’re trying to find out who killed him and where and with what!

We used to joke in my family, “how can you not know ‘with what?’” Surely you can tell if he was strangled or stabbed? But the movie cleverly finds a way around that problem too!

The only area in which the film stumbles is the location of the crime. A third of the game is finding out where Mr. Boddy was murdered after all. The narrative cleverly has Mr. Boddy killed twice, so “where” he was killed is a bit of a mystery, but even still, it’s pretty obvious he wasn’t murdered in the conservatory. That said, the movie then turns into a search to find the killer, causing the group to split up and scour the house, so we get to see all these iconic rooms anyway.

Credit has to be given to John Landis and Jonathan Lynn who crafted the story and screenplay respectively. Introducing all these details into the story must have seemed a daunting task but the movie feels positively effortless. You never feel the strain of getting these people, these ludicrous names, these murder weapons together. It all comes across quite naturally, with production design, cinematography, and a soundtrack to make it all a whole, but more on that later. They even manage to include the secret passageways from one room to another. It is incredible.

But the screenplay is more than just a whodunit that checks the boxes of things you expect to see in a CLUE movie. The film goes a step further by having a crazy political bent to its humor. There are dozens of jokes that fly over the heads of younger viewers because the film decides that it would rather talk about Hoover-era surveillance for a second. As the movie is quick to point out, all of the cast members have government jobs or live in a government town. This was never a part of the game, but it is funny, and no doubt added to the rewatchability to the movie to an audience of people who saw it on HBO or picked it up at a video store as children because it’s based on the game they liked.

And did I mention that it has multiple endings? That’s right! There are precisely 324 possible outcomes in the game and the movie manages to give you three different endings for the crime. Originally, the movie was shipped to theaters with one ending a piece, so you’d have to see the movie multiple times to see all three endings. Audiences were understandably miffed to discover that they had received what they thought of as an incomplete product, but once the film hit the home market, the movie was re-edited with all three endings intact and it’s just the best.

It’s that kind of thinking that turns this into more than just a movie based on a game.

But It Is Based on a GAME!

I am a firm believer that every genre has its masterpiece. It drives me up the fricken wall whenever someone says “ugh, a movie based on a blah blah blah?” To those people, I say, “shut up.”

Tomorrowland may not have been a great movie, but everyone who says it is unoriginal because it is based on a theme park ride is both wrong and stupid. One: It’s not a theme park ride. It is a section of the theme park. They didn’t make a movie about Space Mountain; they made a movie named after the land in which Space Mountain is located and the lofty ideals the land is meant to represent. Two: So what if it is based off a theme park? Can you tell me what a movie called ‘Fantasyland’ is going to be about? No. Because it is a wide-open title that can house an infinite amount of possibilities.

These dumb-dumbs were saying the same thing back in 2003 when Disney released a trailer for a movie called Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl inspired by the theme park’s most notable attraction. “I can’t believe they’re making a movie about a Disney theme park ride,” they scoffed. And yet, the movie is a masterpiece of modern blockbuster entertainment, a movie of such profound excellence and magnificent perfection that I can’t even begin to talk about it now.

My point is, people have always been quick to deride entertainment from its origins, and I’m confident that people reacted the same way in 1985 when John Landis began writing an adaptation of the board game, CLUEDO (or CLUE in North America).

Underappreciated in its Time

Clue was met with mixed reviews at the time of its release, holding only a 59% on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie also failed at the box office, not even earning back its budget. Which is a shame, because as I’ve expressed, this is a film that really goes for it.

The cast is outstanding and the screenplay is sharp as a tack. The cinematography by Victor J Kemper is dark and foreboding, and accentuated perfectly John Morris piercing, playful score.

The world of Clue feels tactile and real in a way most films could only dream. Production designer John Lloyd and set decorator Thomas L Roysden deserve particular recognition for their work, bringing the haunting mansion and murderous weapons into the real world. Costume designer Michael Kaplan, whose impressive resume includes Fight Club, Blade Runner, and the most recent Star Wars trilogy carefully avoids the more outlandish designs for the characters on the board game’s cover and instead gives the characters a period appropriate, lived-in quality.

Despite the lackluster debut, appreciation for Clue has began to rise over the years. It is a particular favorite amongst 90s kids who discovered it at video stores like Hocus Pocus or Hook. but I would argue that this film is more than just nostalgia based. It is a film of true merit.

Last Word On CLUE

So what makes this a Halloween movie? Well, I guess we have to ask ourselves “what are the details that define a horror movie?” There are no set criteria, but there are several mainstays.

A Halloween classic will often involve murder, mystery, intrigue, suspense, colorful characters, jumps, a few laughs, drinking, sex, and nudity. Clue checks off all those boxes, except for nudity because the movie is rated PG. And even still, there is a shocking amount of sexual content and innuendo.

The film has murders that are child-friendly in so much as they don’t show any real violence, but I will say I was kept up at night by the thought that someone might sneak up behind me with a wrench or throttle me with a rope.

The movie has a delightful sense of tension and knows when you need to be a little scared, but also knows when to pull the rug out from under you. The movie carries the verbal heft of Billy Wilder and the suspenseful nerve and sexuality of Alfred Hitchcock.

Clue is still the best movie based on a board game ever, that is until Ridley Scott finally makes that Monopoly movie he’s been talking about, or Terrence Malick makes a retrospective meditation on Settlers of Catan. But until that day comes, we get to watch Clue, the undisputed king of the mountain. Long may it reign.

Clue is not a movie that is better than it has any right to be. OTHER movies don’t have the right to not be as good as Clue. Clue sets the bar (or should I say, lead pipe) and sets it high.

It has murder, laughs, chills, and literal spills. It has sex and it has violence and it has political intrigue. It is a perfect cocktail for 2018. In other words, it is a Halloween classic.

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