I’ve only been away from Oxford for a week. I’ve only spent a week in isolation at home with my parents. But a week is long enough. Long enough to unpack, fuss over my dog, locate and devour the best that the kitchen cupboards have to offer, enjoy a lie in, read the first few chapters of a book, ravage Netflix and try to catch my parents attention over the burrrrr of BBC news by doing handstands in front of the TV. Long enough to check Facebook, wash the dog (who’s smell, rather than excitement, now seems her defining quality), lose my Mum and Dad indefinitely to the 24 hour news channel, have another lie in (because why bother getting up), check Facebook again, throw the phone, slam the door, let out a little scream and, finally, finally, resort to board games.
As is so often the case in moments of mild domestic distress (power cuts, Christmas once food and conversation are spent) board games appear like a shining light in this time of confinement, glowing through the gap between the doors of their dusty cupboard. They promise a laugh or two, an argument or two; connection despite social isolation. Mum turns off the news and we settle on Cluedo. As I unfold the board and glance over ‘the dining room’, ‘the study’ and ‘the lounge’, thumbing the tiny metal dagger and rope, I can’t help but wonder if over the coming months of quarantine the walls of my house might begin to feel just as impenetrable as the boundaries of the board; whether I too might be stuck in an endless loop, dragged from room to room, never venturing outdoors.
I stop in my tracks. There’s an image in my head that I can’t seem to shake. Miss Scarlet, Professor Plumb, Mrs Peacock and co. come to life and stuck in a house together. Wasn’t there a film, based on the game Cluedo that I loved when I was really young? A quick Amazon Prime search later and I have both my answer and its opening credits on my screen.
Clue (1985) is a riot of a film; an ensemble black comedy; a who-dunnit which doubles as a parody of the genre; a farce, choc-full of slapstick humour and endlessly quotable, campy one liners. Double entendres, daft wordplay and all sorts of other silly nonsense surge at unnerving speeds. The film has me at “Monkey’s brains”.
Today Clue is considered a cult classic, but the road to cult appreciation has been a long one. Upon its release the film was a big, fat flop, both financially and critically. Released with three endings, viewers would see a different one depending on what theatre they attended. This ‘gimmick’ was ridiculed by critics who found the film to be laboured and downright silly, joking about the unlikelihood of audiences paying full admission three times to catch three different endings, none of which, alone, felt satisfying. So how did Clue come to received its overdue acknowledgement as a proper movie and not just a cheap gimmick? Well credit is due, at least in part, to run-off from the Rocky Horror/Tim Curry midnight movie circuit. Curry, again, proves himself to be a one-of-a-kind actor playing Wadsworth, the butler who narrates the action (and there is a heck of a lot of it). He acts as the game night host, as it were. Indeed, the film starts out much like a game of Cluedo might in real life. Just as my family members, one-by-one, took a seat around the dinner table to play, each member of Clue’s stellar cast arrives at the door of the mysterious mansion, is assigned a colourful character alias and is shown to their seat at the dining room table by Wadsworth. Cluedo further permeates its film adaptation. Important elements, such as the dead body and myriad possibilities of who killed whom, in what room, and with what weapon, are preserved throughout.
Whilst I love Clue and have come here, mainly, to sing its praises, it must be said that the opening few minutes of the film are pretty dire. Much of this is owed to the challenges inherent to both whodunits and farces: they need a lot of windup before the Jack jumps out of the box. There is a gallery of characters to be established and motives to be assigned. The various rooms whose doors will be slamming need to be mapped out with precision. Whodunits and farces are unforgiving plot machines because they need to be complicated in order to fool their audience down the line, and setting up all the dominos that will cascade in act three can be tedious. Thankfully director Jonathan Lynn and his cast make relatively quick work of it. Once the board is set, with characters, period clothing and an exquisitely detailed, gothic murder house all in place, things begin to fall apart in the loudest, most vibrant and brilliantly melodramatic way possible.
So relentlessly and deliberately convoluted is the plot (which I will not even attempt to relay in this review) that no viewer will likely able to make heads or tails of the film’s central questions: whom, where, why, and with what. One could probably say the same of the actor’s onscreen. This is part of the film’s fun. The bodies just keep piling up as the cast frantically scurry about the house. Like any good farce, events escalate until the escalation itself becomes the central joke, and characters are left delirious and breathless, improvising their way through an increasingly quick, increasingly bizarre plot.
Watching Clue today it strikes me that the film is pretty racy for its PG rating. No wonder I loved it as a kid; it was an early exposure to transgression with no traumatic repercussions. There is murder but no blood, sex but no nudity, tons of screaming but not a single expletive. The movie offers up a buffet of offenses, from murder to blackmail to infidelity to (gasp) socialism, without paying any thought to their often unpleasant complexities. Clue only ever delivers the thrill of the infraction. Perhaps this is what irks so many critics, what leads them to accuse the film of being ‘all show and no substance’. Perhaps this is why some consider Clue as a ‘fast food’ film; instantly gratifying, all adrenaline rush, more akin to a roller coaster than a real movie, a ‘nourishing’ movie.
I couldn’t disagree more. What the film may lack in terms of nuanced storyline, it more than makes up for with its nuanced treatment of language and the cast’s nuanced performances (Tim Curry’s intonation on the word “No” has become a favourite gag within the films committed fanbase). Clue’s ‘show’; its bravado, its clash and clamour, its back and forth, its puns, its facial expressions are its essence, its ‘substance’. Patched together like Frankenstein’s Monster – part boardgame, part farce, three endings – it stomps around in an ungainly fashion, bothering critics. How great!
So, if, over the coming weeks, you’re secluded at home, if Netflix, books and even board games are no longer doing it for you, if you find yourself reaching for the lead pipe, ready to smash in the TV on hearing the word ‘coronavirus’ one more time, I recommend you take a trip to a different secluded house, one with thunder clouds clapping above and a murder waiting to happen inside.