Nostalgia Check: Tim Curry is Clue (1985)’s Overworked, Undervalued MVP

Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing ensemble cast whodunnit Knives Out is proving to have a surprisingly substantial box office presence. The murder mystery Old Dark House throwback with a large cast of celebrity players is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but it’s not one that always translates to commercial success. Consider, for instance, the 1985 John Landis-penned whodunit spoof Clue, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the eponymous board game. While Clue has gradually earned cult classic status over decades of television broadcasts, it first arrived in American theaters as a financial flop. That’s difficult to fathom in retrospect, as its TV broadcast familiarity throughout my life has always framed it in my mind as a beloved, popular classic. It turns out its financial & cultural impact aren’t the only aspects of Clue that had been altered through the faulty lens of my own memory either. Through time, I’ve lost track of exactly how funny this film is and who in the cast is responsible for its biggest laughs.

Given the presence of comedic heavyweights like Landis, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Tim Curry, it’s easy to misremember Clue as a nonstop laugh riot. The collective charms of its cast does make the film eternally pleasant to revisit, but its laugh-to-joke ratio is disappointingly low. In recent years, I’ve come to think of Clue as a less-funny Murder By Death (which admittedly does have its own problems, mostly due to Peter Sellers’s yellowface performance as a Charlie Chan archetype), just with an updated-for-the-80s cast. Clue‘s sense of humor is a paradoxically low-energy offshoot of ZAZ spoofery, in which the genre-homage slapstick is plentiful but arrives at an unrushed pace. The biggest knee-slapper laugh lines come from mainstay Mel Brooks collaborator Madeline Kahn, whose “flames on the side of my face” & “It’s a matter of life after death; now that he’s dead I have a life” zingers have transformed the murderous widow character into a hall-of-fame meme. However, her presence is too sparsely doled out to carry the film on its own. To match the ZAZ-level energy needed to keep this genre spoof lively, Clue needed a much louder, more frantic MVP.

As the deceptive butler of the Old Dark House who gathers a group of high-profile strangers as dinner party guests to reveal that they’re all being blackmailed by the same soon-to-die rapscallion (the amusingly named Mr. Body), Curry has the fairly thankless role of constantly explaining the situation at hand. While the rest of the cast can rest on the charm of their personalities & Old Hollywood noir costuming, Curry is constantly doing the labor of providing direction & purpose for the proceedings. The true comic genius of Clue is in watching how that role escalates into total delirium as the bodies pile up and the party descends into chaos. By the final half hour of the film, Curry is soaked in flop sweat as he frantically runs around the house, dragging the rest of the cast behind him and explaining at length What’s Really Going On Here. In bewildering rapid-fire line deliveries & breathless monologue, Curry re-explains the entire plot of the film from the very first scene to the revelation of who among the suspects killed Mr. Body. It’s an absurd spectacle of physical comedic acting, one that only becomes funnier the longer it stretches on — driving Curry into a blissful mania that hasn’t been given nearly as much credit for its accomplishments as Kahn’s laidback zingers.

I don’t mean to downplay the pure pleasure of Madeline Kahn’s magnificent presence in Clue. I just find it bizarre that her cultural impact has been outshining what Tim Curry acheives in the film, when he does so much more heavy-lifting in keeping the film memorably funny. For instance, Kahn’s .gif-famous “flames on the side of my face” zinger is only included in one of the film’s three alternate endings, which you might not even see if you allow your DVD player to choose an ending at random. Meanwhile, Curry’s deranged flop sweat explanation of What’s Really Going On here is a substantial anchor in all three alternate endings, so that he’s literally doing triple the work of the rest of the cast. As so much of Clue’s legacy is built on nostalgia—both in its 1950s Agatha Christie throwback aesthetic and its 1990s television broadcast repetition—the frantic spectacle of this performance is just yet another element at play that deserves re-evaluation in a nostalgia check. The movie may not be as energetically silly, commercially successful, or Madeline Kahn-heavy as it’s misremembered to be, but Tim Curry sure does his damnedest to make up for any & all of its shortcomings all on his own, practically turning an ensemble-cast comedy into a one-man show.

-Brandon Ledet

The Reverence & Irreverence for Unicorns in Black Moon (1975) & Legend (1985)

EPSON MFP image

When we were discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, it was all too easy to pick on the film’s depiction of a plump & frumpy unicorn, since that’s not the image we typically associate the mythical beast with. The movie itself even picks on the unicorn, with its protagonist Lily (one of three Lilys) stating plainly to the poor beast, “You’re not very graceful. In my books unicorns are slim & white.” The Eeyore-esque unicorn then laughs in her face & brays “The most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.” Black Moon playfully subverts the iconic image of a unicorn with what is essentially a horned donkey with a smartass sense of humor. The most realistic depiction of what Lily & ourselves were picturing when we mentally conjured a basic unicorn wouldn’t gallop onto the screen until a decade later in Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend.

As a European art film featuring cross-species breastfeeding & a literal battle of the sexes, Black Moon isn’t at all interested in basic cinematic concerns like clear narrative or commercial appeal. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1980s when American movie studios would start mining the same fantasy realm representation for wide commercial releases, but you can see echoes of the Natural World magic & down-the-rabbit-hole story structure of Black Moon in popular fantasy titles like The Neverending Story, The Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke. Although Legend was an outright commercial flop it was a big studio picture that firmly fit in that category. Legend is more of an adventure epic than Black Moon in a lot of ways, structuring its tale around dual journeys to restore order to a broken world instead staying put & feeling out the weirdo magic vibes of one particular location. Both films do pursue a dead still sense of pacing, though, concerning their narratives more with an overwhelming immersion in Nature than any kind of action-packed pursuit. Legend‘s scope & budget allows for the inclusion of goblins, demons, fairies, zombies, and swamp witches that you aren’t going to see anywhere near Black Moon‘s small scale domestic horrors, but both films do depict a mortal woman in over her head in a magic realm and they do share  a common talisman: the unicorn.

In Black Moon, the unicorn doesn’t do much but trot lazily & crack wise. It’s just one element among many that confounds our hero Lily in her quest for simple answers about where she is & why that world is so hostile. In Legend, on the other hand, unicorns are everything. They’re exactly what Lily was conjuring when she insulted their Black Moon equivalent: slim, white, majestic, and (just like everything else in Legend) slathered in glitter. Lily chases down the Black Moon unicorn out of sheer curiosity and the consequence of the transgression is a line of dismissive insults no worse than anything else she suffers in her newfound home. In Legend, princess & Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend Lili (Mia Sara), lures a unicorn in for an intimate moment, but her indulgence’s consequences are much more severe. When the princess calms the mythical beast into standing still a goblin severs its horn, instigating a fantasy genre version of the Ice Age. There are only two living unicorns in Legend‘s folklore and their existence & health affects the state of the world no less than almighty gods. According to Tom Cruise’s woodland nymph character (who’s a decent stand-in for Black Moon‘s mute Fabio houseboy Lily), the unicorns “speak the language of laughter” & “Dark thoughts are unknown to them.” Furthermore, the princess “risks [her] mortal soul” when she says that she doesn’t care that the creatures are sacred. Like in Black Moon, the unicorns can talk, but they communicate in beautiful whale songs. Everything about them boasts divinity. And when “a mortal laid hands on a Unicorn” the whole world goes to shit.

Recent try-hard films like Deadpool & Suicide Squad and their like-minded internet memes have made the image of the unicorn a sort of cheap visual gag supposedly humorous for its Lisa Frank brand of femininity, a likely result of its brony-based cultural resurgence. Black Moon, similarly (but more purposefully), pokes fun at the divinity & femininity of classic unicorn representations by subverting the mythical creature’s attributes in an image & demeanor that pokes fun at the importance of physical beauty. That subversion wouldn’t mean anything without a unicorn hegemony to buck against, though, and you’ll find its best contrast in the divinity of Legend‘s horned equestrians. Ridley Scott’s mid-80s fantasy epic is maybe a little lacking in pace & plotting, but it’s a jaw-dropping work of gorgeous production design if I’ve ever seen one (I could happily spend 1,000 mall goth lifetimes in Tim Curry’s demon lair if nothing else) and that attention to glitter-coated beauty is a perfect stage for a traditional white unicorn ideal, the exact antithesis of what’s presented for laughs in Black Moon.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet