People today take the idea of a movie being based on a video game as something almost commonplace – even goofy-ass games like Rampage get adaptations – but back in the mid-80s, producers John Landis and Debra Hill wanted to make a movie based on a board game – a game that didn’t even have the rudiments of a plot or story. A completely unheard of idea, full of all the perils and pitfalls such a production was bound to have, and thus the world was given the motion picture Clue, a brilliant farce with a cast of comedy greats.
It would have been easy to make an Agatha Christie “And Then There Were None” type murder mystery, and then slap the board game title onto it, but writer/director Jonathan Lynn – after battling for months to come up with a “mystery” his producers would greenlight – made the brilliant decision to have his mystery be two parts French farce, three parts American screwball comedy, and a five parts of slapstick. The only real direction Lynn got from the studio was that the movie had to include all the characters, weapons, and rooms that appear in the game, but other than that, he had free reign. All Jonathan Lynn had to do was assemble his cast – get them approved by the studio – and somehow make a cohesive mystery, one with three bloody endings. Having multiple endings was certainly in the spirit of the game, but to come up with a plot that would support three different conclusions is next to impossible, and when looked at honestly, one must admit some of the elements do not hold water – certain characters logistically being unable to perform the murder they are accused of – yet the script moves along at such breakneck speeds that such trivialities are hardly noticeable.
The basic plot that Lynn came up with dealt with six strangers being invited to the classic “Old Dark House” and each of the guests having been given a pseudonym – Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), and Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren) – whom are all greeted by the butler Wadsworth (Tim Curry), who reveals to all that they have been brought here to help expose the man who is blackmailing each and every one of them. When said blackmailer Mr. Body (Lee Ving) arrives – who seems at first to be as clueless as everybody else – he provides all the guests with a gift box, and in each box there is a weapon; a candlestick, a dagger, a lead pipe, a revolver, a rope, and a wrench. What follows is a madcap series of murders that will leave most viewers’ heads spinning.
As the characters from the game are to be suspects – whose crimes will be revealed at the end – the movie had to introduce more characters to be bumped off – having only one murder would simply not due for this film – and so we have the buxom French maid Yvette (Colleen Camp), the Cook (Kellye Nakahara), a stranded motorist (Jeffrey Kramer), a police officer (Bill Henderson) and a Singing Telegram Girl (Jane Wiedlin), all who help provide for the film’s ample body count. One of the key elements that makes this comedy work so well is how the cast of characters slowly go from being terrified about finding a dead body, to baffled at the next, to almost blasé about finding the third.
That the film did so poorly at the box office – making about $14.6 million on a budget of $15 million dollars – is just a crime, and that it was also savaged by critics is completely mind-boggling. Did they see the same film I did? When Tim Curry’s manic recreation of the events — sprinting from one room to the next, with the six guests trailing after him like frantic puppies — is comic gold, and the sheer brilliance of Curry’s performance, having to rattle off reams of exposition, cannot be undersold, and if he was the sole highlight of this film it would still be enough to recommend checking this movie out. He’s far from the alone, however; Curry is working alongside some of the best comedians in the business, and they all bring their “A” game.
The movie has fantastic production value – the manor house set is simply gorgeous – and the score by John Morris has a perfect Bernard Herman/Hitchcock feel to it. There’s also the film’s running time, which is a mere ninety-six minutes, just rocketing along. So with all that going for it – from its madcap script to the great ensemble of comedians – why did it fail? Most point at the film having three endings as the major culprit in the film’s dismal box office (the marketing department seriously dropped the ball there because the film was released with theaters having different endings, and audiences were stuck wondering if they were supposed to go and see all three endings and if they were to only see one, which was the good one?). The result was that many didn’t bother to go at all.
Clue was pretty much destined to become one of those cult classics, one that would pick up more fans over the years – being that it could air on any network because it had no nudity or foul language didn’t hurt – and thus, this madcap murder mystery will forever be one of my top comedy recommendations. Keep your Assassin’s Creed and Hitman movie adaptations, which were overproduced and painful at times to watch, and instead give me the one that started it all, the murder mystery to end all murder mysteries, Clue.
Clue may have been a box office disappoint when it was initially released – sending poor Jonathan Lynn into Hollywood purgatory for years – but now it is regarded by many as a comic gem, a murder mystery-farce-screwball comedy that if it doesn’t have you laughing out loud you should check your pulse, because you could be dead.