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The Undeniable Reason ‘Clue’ Became a Cult Classic

The 1985 comedy didn't score big at the box office, but here's why its still matters

The board game “Clue” goes all the way back to the 1940s when it was branded “Cluedo” oversees and presented stateside by Parker Brothers.

Today, Hasbro owns “Clue” (they purchased the Parker Brothers outfit in the 1980s) and, over the years, the product has undergone creative spinoffs.

  • A short-lived TV show
  • Variations on the old model (notably the all-“Simpsons” version)
  • Even a well-remembered VCR version during the videocassette era

To this day, my Mother-in-Law has an unbeatable strategy to “Clue” that she won’t share with anyone. She guesses correctly every single time anyone has played with her. I digress…but seriously, Dawn, what the heck is your secret?

“Clue” has become, along with “Monopoly,” “Cranium,” “Life,” “Sorry!” and “Mouse Trap” (as well as junior mainstays like “Candyland” and “Chutes and Ladders”), a durable, generations-spanning game.

It was only a matter of time before someone suggested “Clue: The Movie.”

Tim Curry stars as Wadsworth, an unflappable and quick-on-his-feet butler who oversees a dinner party of a peculiar nature. As the guests arrive, no one knows why they’ve been invited, who the host is or even what the real names are of the people they’re dining with.

Set in New England, 1954, the party guests all reveal themselves to be bureaucrats of some kind and are introduced with names like “Colonel Mustard” and “Miss Peacock” to remain anonymous to one another (a nice way to address the character names form the source).

Deadpan, energetically performed and, for a piece that seems best suited for the stage, “Clue: The Movie” is always very entertaining. The dialog is flush with puns, wordplay, “Who’s on First”-like tongue twisters, genuinely biting lines and lowbrow, knowingly dumb bits.

In addition to the aforementioned character names, the screenplay cleverly creates a narrative for the board game, including the setting, rules and weapons presented in an unforced manner.

John Morris’ hearty score and some nice “dark and stormy night” visuals get “Clue: The Movie” off to a great start. There’s a great Albert Whitlock matte painting of the mansion setting, along with some easy laughs earned by carefully timed reaction shots from a cluster of attentive guard dogs.

Clue (1/9) Movie CLIP - Over His Dead Body (1985) HD

“Clue: The Movie” sported three endings which were randomly shown at different theaters. It was a radical, William Castle-worthy gimmick.

It also might have been its downfall.

How do you assess whether a movie is any good if you have to see it three times to see the whole thing? What if one ending were better than the rest? Wouldn’t a lesser final act make it less appealing for those who are supposed to be motivated to return to theaters and catch the other endings?

Having all three endings on the subsequent video release and later available versions (where they were presented consecutively) made the bold concept more digestible. Instead of audiences feeling left out, it gave the film’s instant-cult a chance to debate which wrap-up is the strongest.

My pick remains the third, final variant.

Reportedly, a fourth ending was filmed and discarded. Despite the film’s healthy cult following, ending no. four as never been seen outside of the film’s post-production phase. If any of the multiple endings present don’t work outright, it’s no. two which has a funny one-liner about J. Edgar Hoover but is otherwise pretty limp.

A more likely culprit to the box office failure of “Clue” was opening it up against the star-studded, highly anticipated “The Jewel of the Nile,” as well as the second week of “Spies Like Us” and other holiday heavy-hitters like “Rocky IV.”

Also, the film’s send-up of an un-hip style of comedy in post-“Ghostbusters” 1985 is another reason; “Clue The Movie” blends door-slamming French farce, British comedies like “Fawlty Towers” and “Not Only…But Also,” as well as big budget, all-star Agatha Christie adaptations, like the original “Murder on the Orient Express.”

If the cast is doing the kind of on-the-run, slam-the-doors, drop-another-entendre comedy that French and English farceurs can do with one hand behind their backs, at least everyone here is in great form.

It’s not a stylish film (as Lynn has never been that kind of director) but a performance piece, filled out with great turns from the ensemble.

Clue (6/9) Movie CLIP - One Plus Two Plus Two Plus One (1985) HD

The MVP is Curry, who is marvelous and sets the vocal metronome. During the third act, in which Wadsworth provides a recap of the entire movie (literally), Curry gives a tour de force that swiftly carries this to the wrap-up.

Lynn and Landis saddled Curry with pages and pages of dialogue, interspersed with flashbacks, reaction shots and the cast running from one set to another. The effort to end on a strong note was clearly taken by all involved.

Eileen Brennan, fresh off her Oscar-nominated work in “Private Benjamin,” is quirky and wonderful as Mrs. Peacock. Ditto the late, extraordinary Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White. The role isn’t as juicy as anything she’s done for Mel Brooks but her best moments are throwaway bits that she mines into comic gold.

Character actor and comedian Martin Mull found his best work not in movies but on television (in standout roles in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Roseanne”). Nevertheless, he’s very good here, particularly in the hysterical bits where his Colonel Mustard reveals he’s always a few steps behind everyone else in grasping the plot.

As Miss Scarlett, Lesley Anne Warren is the only cast member to match the manic intensity of Curry’s work. 

In contrast, Christopher Lloyd (as Prof. Plum) seems oddly miscast and Michael McKean, sporting a few energized moments, but still not getting enough focus as Mr. Green.

Clue (2/9) Movie CLIP - I Didn't Do It! (1985) HD

I liked the supporting contributions from Colleen Camp (making the most of a one-note role) and Lee Ving, of the punk rock band Fear, cast as Mr. Boddy. While a limited actor, Ving always stood out in character roles like this, due to his commanding presence.

The project was initially suggested by John Landis, who co-wrote the screenplay with English filmmaker Lynn. Jon Peters and Peter Guber were among the producers, along with frequent John Carpenter collaborator Debra Hill and others.

Despite an untested director and an odd assortment of producers (Peters and Guber were known to meddle and make “necessary” changes on many films sporting their participation), it never feels like a product or a compromise.

If anything, Lynn’s staunchly straight forward staging and Landis’s injections of comedic spice make it breezy but, even in 1985, rather quaint. Moments of sexism and innuendo aside, this is especially restrained for a PG-rated 80s comedy.

“Clue: The Movie” is superior to Neil Simon’s murder mystery send-up, the groan-inducing “Murder by Death” (1976). Lynn went on to make the low-key, extremely quotable “My Cousin Vinny” and the unsteady but has-its-moments Eddie Murphy vehicle, “The Distinguished Gentleman” (both in 1992).

My Cousin Vinny | #TBT Trailer | 20th Century FOX

His body of work is hit and miss, though the 2000 farce “The Whole Nine Yards” holds up better than most remember (I’ll admit that I loved his 1990 “Nuns on the Run” when I saw it as an in-flight movie and haven’t seen it since).

Landis’ touch is all over the screenplay, which has lots of sharp one-liners and character moments but carries over a hit-and-miss quality from even his best movies: the laugh lines often come with a pause, so that the audience can have a moment to laugh and not miss the next line of dialogue.

This sort of pacing (pause, hold for laughs, continue, repeat) works fine for sitcoms and when the wordplay really crackles. It also emphasizes the so-so lines and can drag out the moment, especially if the scene isn’t working.

Landis’ best films are comedy classics, but even hall-of-famers like “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “Coming to America” sport these all-too-noticeable dialog breaks. Sometimes it’s best to just drop the big jokes and trust the audience to catch the follow-up line or hope they’ll come back and see the movie again.

“Clue: The Movie” has the edge over the only other (to date) major motion picture ever based on a board game: “Battleship” (2011), originally from Milton Bradley (coincidentally, now also owned by Hasbro).

Battleship (1/10) Movie CLIP - You Sunk My Battleship (2012) HD

Whereas “Battleship” (either a sublime guilty pleasure or the lowest cinema can sink, depending on your pain tolerance) tried to dress up and make trendy what was always a game about calling out letters numbers, like a game of Bingo on the eve of WWIII, “Clue: The Movie” stuck to the source.

Oddly enough, it’s this quality that actually makes the film version of “Clue” similar to the most beloved comic book movies and vastly better than the mammoth “Battleship” fiasco. The filmmakers remained faithful to the boardgame’s essence and didn’t tinker with a working blueprint.

“Clue: The Movie” is as fun to watch as it is to play. With all due respect, the same cannot be said of “Battleship.”

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2 Comments

  1. It’s funny how these kind of old-fashioned slapstick farce comedies keep becoming cult classics, despite never being big hits – Clue, Oscar, Noises Off, etc. I go back to them again and again on DVD over the years, and they always make me bust a gut. And they seem eminently more good-natured than what passes for comedy in the 21st century.

  2. The 80s was sort of the end of an era for good-natured comedies, as the 90s seemed more about being ironic and hip. Many of the silly John Candy comedies are also good-natured, and seem now to come from a simpler time.

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