Clue” (1985) is famous for being based on a board game yet somehow not being awful, and also for having alternate endings. Long before alternate endings were juicy bonus features on DVDs, and even longer before everyone stopped caring about bonus features – or DVDs for that matter – “Clue” featured three endings. If you saw it in the theater, you saw one of three revelations of distinct killer(s). Then for the VHS release (and any screening you watch now, such as Vudu’s current free-with-ads offering), the three endings are stitched together.
Written by Jonathan Lynn and John Landis, with Lynn directing, “Clue” blends genres, but what’s remarkable is how well they all fit together once the story gets rolling. The predominant tone is comedic, but it doesn’t exactly start that way. Spurred by mailed invitations, seven guests arrive at a mansion unambiguously patterned after Hill House from “The Haunting of Hill House” – although “Clue” isn’t remotely a horror film. There’s a slight whodunit quality, although honestly I didn’t dig much beneath the laughs to try to figure out the mystery’s solution.
The writers and actors do a good job of making characters – or at least entertaining caricatures — out of game pieces. Shepherding the guests together is the butler, Wadsworth (Tim Curry). Humor seeps into the 1954-set film through absurdities like maid Yvette’s (Colleen Camp) unavoidable cleavage and the guests slurping their soup.
Simultaneously, we learn why everyone has been gathered here. Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving) is blackmailing everybody, as they all have connections to government secrets in some way. Wadsworth, himself with a grudge against his employer, hopes one of the guests will kill Mr. Boddy. Or so he claims. Suffice it to say there are more twists.
“Clue” doesn’t connect on every gag. Some don’t do much for me, like the inevitable line about “Mr. Boddy’s body.” But the sequence where the guests pretend to make out with the corpses in order to fool a visiting cop is a classic piece of morbid humor. Nothing is so off-point to take me out of the flow.
While somewhat racy and edgy, there’s also a 1985-ish innocence to the comedy. Sometimes it’s in the “Naked Gun” style, like when Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull) takes Miss Scarlet’s (Lesley Ann Warren) “Search me” comment as an invitation. At other times it leans toward Mel Brooks-style gags, like when Mr. Green (Michael McKean) is caught as an unwitting musical-chairs loser when the group repairs to the study.
Broadly, “Clue” makes fun of proper British mysteries, such as Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” where the murderers are polite and the corpses are bloodless. The tone is consistently so short of seriousness that the movie actually gets funnier as the bodies stack up; in fact, the moving and stacking of the bodies is itself funny.
“Clue” clocks in at slightly more than 90 minutes even with two false endings before the real one, and the pacing is quick enough that the smile rarely left my face. There’s always a danger that romps like this will run off the rails, with the filmmakers having more fun than the audience. For many years the elite board-game-based-movie (until “Ouija: Origin of Evil” came along), “Clue” knows what it’s doing, and it makes sure the viewer is buckled in for the whole ride.