Before Battleship or the rumoured upcoming Candy Land, the movie-based-on-a-board-game genre was dominated by Clue. The film, which stars an ensemble of comedy greats led by Tim Curry, is inspired by the murder-mystery game of the same name (better known as Cluedo in the UK). Though its 1985 theatrical run was a financial disappointment, the film’s subsequent popularity on home media has ensured that Clue, a silly, likeable comedy, enjoys a healthy afterlife.
The story takes place in the space of a single evening in a New England mansion, where six colourfully named strangers – Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlett, etc – have been invited to a dinner that ends with the death of their host instead of dessert. These guests, locked in the house with the murderer, must then determine which of them is the killer before they all become victims.
The concept is not wholly innovative; the same plot, a murder-mystery cliché, was spoofed years earlier in 1976’s Murder by Death, a lampoon of detective archetypes and the whodunit genre as a whole. What distinguishes Clue from its predecessors then is the great pleasure it takes in paying homage to its board game inspiration, in which players must guess not only the murderer’s identity but also the crime scene and the murder weapon. Was it Mrs Peacock in the kitchen with the candlestick? Mr Green with the revolver in the conservatory? The result is a whodunit that’s also a where-dunit and a with-what-dunit, one whose solution changes with every game played.
In the case of Clue, the film is loyal to its source to a fault: its fatal flaw during its theatrical run was Paramount’s decision to release three alternate endings, with three different solutions to the mystery, which were then randomly distributed to theatres. This strategic ploy to get theatre-goers to see the film three times backfired when it instead discouraged potential audiences from seeing the film at all – with three to choose from, why risk seeing an inferior ending? Clue’s release on VHS, and later on DVD, allowed the film to be shown with all three endings in a row, the explanations delivered with manic enthusiasm by an increasingly breathless Curry as the mansion’s butler, and a successful cult film was born.
Critics at the time of its release also found Clue gimmicky and slow to build up. They’re not wrong; the opening, which sets up the elaborateness of the house and introduces its characters, crawls rather than leaps, meticulously laying comedic traps to be sprung later.
But the payoff is worth it, with strong performances from Clue’s cast, which includes Eileen Brennan and Christopher Lloyd. Their rapid-fire dialogue is one of Clue’s chief appeals. “What are you afraid of?” asks Lloyd in one scene, “A fate worse than death?” To which Brennan replies: “No, just death, isn’t that enough?” The brilliant Madeleine Kahn, perhaps best known for her work in Mel Brooks’ comedies such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, is a standout as the serial widow Mrs White. Ironically dressed in all black, Kahn delivers her lines with legendary comedic timing, including the famously improvised ‘flames on the side of my face’ speech.
Though ‘based on the Parker Brothers game’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘based on a true story,’ it is the absurdity of Clue that has retained the affection of audiences after the fact. It is a comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Repeated attempts at a remake have been put on hold, so in the meantime, fans can enjoy the original until the inevitable gritty reboot finally arrives.