Clue holds a special place in my heart: it’s the first film I ever bought. I purchased it because, well, I was tired of renting it over and over again. I was probably eight or nine and it took weeks of saving up my allowance to buy that well-worn VHS tape. Over the years, it’s probably in the top-tier of the most-watched movies in my collection (the others are the original trilogy of Star Wars and Wayne’s World, if you’re curious).
As a kid, I was fascinated by this little film. If you’ve never seen it, the movie is basically a reenactment of the board game. If you’ve never played the board game (shame on you), the plot is simple: seven strangers are called to a mysterious mansion for dinner. Their host is murdered and no one knows who killed him. Fairly simple and straightforward. In process of finding the killer, hilarity and drama ensue. As an adult, I am still fascinated–mostly by the failure of the film.
Initially, the film flopped, and hard. It’s theatrical run almost recouped the film’s budget, even if the opening weekend was abysmal. Over time, the film has become a cult classic. To me, it’s a party favorite, something to play in the background on a loop. It’s a film that I watch when I’m sick or when I need to decompress after a long day. But that’s just me–this is a film that doesn’t come up in conversation too often. It’s not a movie that people remember or recommend. And that’s part of why I’m still fascinated by Clue. It’s a move that, by all accounts, should have succeeded. In the parlance of Malcolm Gladwell, it’s an outlier that never tipped.
Clue boasts a pretty impressive cast: Christopher Lloyd had appeared in Back to the Future only six months prior to Clue; he was a fixture in Taxi and had a prominent role in Star Trek: The Search for Spock. Ten years earlier, Tim Curry starred in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and in the meantime, the film had become a cult classic and Curry had indeed become our faithful handyman. Ellen Brennan had roles in major films like The Sting and Private Benjamin. This is Spinal Tap, starring Michael McKean, was released the year prior to Clue. Leslie Ann Warren had a role in basically every television show in the sixties and seventies. Madeline Khan starred in the major Mel Brooks films of the day: High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles.
And that’s just the cast. Victor J. Kempel, the director of photography, shot Dog Day Afternoon, The Last Tycoon, Slap Shot, The Jerk, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, amongst others. Not exactly a slouch. John Morris crafted the music for The Elephant Man, Johnny Dangerously, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie. Michael Kaplan designed the costumes for Blade Runner (and is the costume designer for Star Wars VII). These crew members–and many others–have had storied careers and, after Clue, have had monumental successes.
Johnathan Lynn was a first time director with a few writing credits. Amongst the crew, he’s the only one with such limited experience. But that never really shows. The dialogue is fast and full of quick quips, the acting is superb, and the plot is well-developed with a set of endings–something unique to Clue. But it was a little too unique.
The film is fraught with inconsistencies. These aren’t inconsistencies in the plot or the characters, but in the film itself. It’s an R-rated comedy in PG clothes. It’s a period piece, but for no really good reason. It’s a comedy and a mystery (with some elements of film noir), two genres that don’t exactly mix well. And it has three endings. During the initial theatrical run, these endings would be split up–some theaters would get the “A” ending, others the “B” ending, and still others the “C” ending. The “C” ending was “what actually happened,” at least, according to the subsequent releases on VHS, DVD, etc. While using multiple endings does lend a board-game feel to the film, it presents a quandary: the audience can’t trust the film. Such a postmodern approach was, to be kind, ahead of its time. To be realistic, it was a stupid decision on the part of the production company. For one, only including one ending shortens the film to a sub-90 minute mark–never a good sign. With all three endings, the quirky tone of the film and blending of mystery and comedy become solidified–which is probably why the film became a cult classic on home video. Clue then becomes a celebration and an elaboration of the board game in a way that other, subsequent films based on games and toys have not.
I chose to believe that Clue is a testament to postmodern film well ahead of its time. Of course, that’s one way I could end this article. But it could be that I want to label it a cult film meant to be experienced with those who love film and can afford a newbie the proper viewing experience. But really, the point I’m trying to make is that Clue is an overlooked movie, well worth a Saturday afternoon watch to see something that’s over the top without losing perspective, funny but full of mystery, and perhaps the best example of an adaptation from an unlikely source.