Kinda creepy, kinda fun, kinda funny…it’s a treat if you’re in the right mood for it.
By Jason Hink
Mill Creek Entertainment has released the cheesy 1989 killer clown thriller Out of the Dark, starring Karen Witter, Karen Black, Bud Cort, Geoffrey Lewis, Tracey Walter,
Divine (in his final role before he died), and Cameron Dye — a B-movie cast to die for (literally)! Directed by Michael Schroeder from a script by J. Greg De Felice and Zane W. Levitt, this late-80s film was produced by Zane W. Levitt, David C. Thomas, and Paul Bartel and features some cool instrumental 80s synth pop cues by Paul Antonelli and David Wheatley.
The film is part of Mill Creek’s 10-movie, 3-DVD set, Shadow Stalkers, a collection featuring “10 terrifying features.”
The (simple) Out of the Dark setup: “Suite Nothings” is a low-rent L.A. phone-sex hotline staffed by wannabe models passing the time while waiting for their big break. But all is not well…Bobo, a psychotic killer who wears a clown mask, is picking them off one by one. The police are clueless trying to uncover the clown’s identity, and the body count keeps piling up.
The opening scene sets the tone as a man, presumably the film’s killer, is seen talking to one of the phone-sex operators while fondling a knife and saying how he “likes nipples” as he works the blade towards his own…when it looks like he’s about to slice into himself, his eerie voice becomes silent and the call ends. The scene is so over the top, so…”80s thriller,” it entices you to see just what this maniac will do. As the film proceeds, you wonder who’s going to be next…and which of the sexy ladies will remain standing, if any. But a question lingers: Just what is this movie aiming to be — horror/slasher? Comedy? Erotic thriller? Somehow, someway, by design or, most likely, by accident…it winds up being all of the above.
Tone shifts wildly, beginning with a comical look at the phone sex industry featuring the operators doin’ their thang while working out of a rundown building (what’s up with their office space – a series of cubicles separated by curtains that look like bed sheets). The film then ping-pongs to some expertly shot softcore, the kind of long-ish, drawn out, airbrushed scenes you’d expect to see in any number of mid-90s erotica via the straight-to-video shelves at your favorite hometown rental shop. Throw in some relationship-style drama for the soap fans and a couple hard-nosed police officers for a little crime procedural flavor, and you got it all covered, with sometimes chuckle-worthy results.
The movie was reportedly shot on a small budget ($1.6 million), but doesn’t always show it. At times it looks like a high-end made-for-television film, but the cinematography by Julio Macat is top notch, belying its small, B-movie origins. Producer-actor Bartel reportedly spent a lot of money to get this production made.
Bobo the Clown’s (whose demented voice and pun-filled language is reminiscent of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels) murders are interesting. A complete lack of logic and smarts on the part of the victim takes place during the first kill, which happens in a darkened park. One of the phone sex operators is walking her dog in the dimly lit, scary-as-f*ck park when along comes Bobo out of nowhere, holding a baseball bat. So what does she do? She smiles and mimes a baseball game with him. Yeah, no…I don’t scare too easily, but the first glimpse of that freaky clown mask would’ve sent me (and my dog) sprinting the opposite direction at a speed I never knew I possessed. But not this dimwit…somebody’s gotta die first, I guess. Future murders are more imaginative and less preposterous (relatively speaking), including that of Barbara (played by gorgeous Karen Mayo-Chandler, Beverly Hills Cop, Party Line, Hard to Die, ’89 Playboy playmate who apparently once dated Jack Nicholson). She gets to pose and strip for photographer Kevin before her death, complete with neon lighting, smoke and overcranked slow-motion in an overlong erotic set piece. Best of all, it’s set to a pretty cool instrumental synth track appropriate to the era.
I found the lead protagonists fun to watch in their roles, with handsome youngster Cameron Dye (Valley Girl, The Last Starfighter) as photographer Kevin Silvers, and Karen Witter (a 1982 Playboy Playmate of the Month, guest spots on TV’s The X-Files, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, NYPD Blue) as Jo Ann, one of the phone-sex operators and Kevin’s girlfriend.
But who is the killer? That’s the fun of Out of the Dark; like a good episode of Murder, She Wrote, you’re kept guessing until the end. Is it Doug Stringer (Bud Cort), the creepy accountant with perverted tastes who works in the office next door? Is it older photographer Dennis (Geoffrey Lewis), who trains his lens on unsuspecting models while harboring a grudge against his protege, good-looking Kevin? Is it one of Kevin’s models? Heck, maybe it’s Kevin himself? Sure, you might figure it out early on, but I’m willing to bet you you’ll question your guess a couple times during the film’s 89-minute runtime.
It’s fun attempting to figure out what function the myriad guest stars serve, as each come and go with little fanfare. Chief among them are the police officers – Lt. Frank Meyers (Tracey Walter, Duplex, The Two Jakes) and McDonald (Silvana Gallardo, Death Wish II, A Walk in the Clouds). Here’s one hilarious scene between the partners: When cliche-ridden, grizzled Lt. Meyers is flabbergasted by Kevin’s sleazy work shooting nude models, he disgustedly tells his partner, “Anyone who photographs phone-sex girls has gotta be a little bit kinky,” to which McDonald replies, “Maybe he’s just trying to make a buck. I mean, c’mon Frank, try to be a little liberal!” It begs the question…is a man who works as a photographer shooting nude models in his apartment considered “liberal” today? ’89 was certainly on the outskirts of the sexual liberation era, but my oh my, how the times have changed. The scene ends with the two cops in their car and McDonald says, “Look at the guy…he probably gets more ass than a toilet seat.” And here I thought Eminem came up with that line!
When reading up on this movie, much is made about the the appearance of singer/drag queen Divine, who plays Detective Langella, a rival cop. There’s a a big buildup to this character, who remains off-screen for most of the film, with McDonald and Meyers frequently alluding to Langella’s eventual appearance (he’s supposedly some brash, well known, unorthodox cop). By the time his scene arrives it’s a bit anticlimactic, and if you blink you’ll miss it.
Out of the Dark was released in 1989, but filmed in early 1988. Divine (real name Harris Glenn Milstead) passed away on March 7, 1988. It was his final appearance.
If you’re a horror freak and like to watch everything in the genre — good and bad — Out of the Dark is enough fun to keep exploitation fans happy with its mishmash of genre cliches. This Mill Creek release looked fine on my smaller TV, despite sharing space with three other titles on the same disc, and it looked adequate on my 2016 60″ Vizio. At less than $10, it won’t set you back much to add this large collection to your standard definition library.