“Look! A clown!”
Am I the only one these days who can remember a time when clowns were funny and not the source of horror? Oh sure there have always been people who have been uneasy around clowns probably because when they were small they were little taken aback by these funny looking people with more energy than a 9-year old on Red Bull but it wasn’t until Stephen King’s IT was made in to a miniseries in 1990 that Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) became borderline pandemic. Yes it seems clowns must be evil these days and it was through this tinted lens that I recently viewed episode 27 of season 2 of One Step Beyond named “The Clown“. As a result I was expecting the titular clown to be some nefarious bad guy but to my surprise it was a little more complicated than that.
First off, if you’ve never seen One Step Beyond then all you need to know is that it is an anthology series of paranormal stories in the similar vein of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. It ran on ABC from January 1959 to July 1961 and was presented by John Newland, a prolific screenwriter and director of American television. One Step Beyond seems to exist on the cusp of popular culture but is overshadowed by the two more famous series. While I enjoy the series it is clear that the writing on the show didn’t have the same level of quality as Rod Serling’s work but that doesn’t mean it was bad. Just not as good.
“The Clown” aired on March 22nd 1960 and features the tale of a young woman, Nonnie, (Yvette Mimieux) and her jealous, obsessive older husband Tom (Christopher Dark). The two of them arrive in town and Nonnie is amused to see a clown entertaining people in the street from the nearby carnival. She responds with an almost childlike glee at the sight of the clown but Tom isn’t amused and manhandles her in to a cafe where the two of them end up in an argument fuelled by Tom’s jealousy. She ends up running off and meets the clown again who she discovers is mute and who motions her back to his trailer at the carnival upon which is emblazoned Pippo the Clown. He entertains her with his routine but Tom finds them and attacks them in a rage only to end up stabbing Nonnie with a pair of scissors. He runs off leaving the mute Pippo clutching her dead body and unable to explain to the people of the carnival he didn’t kill her. The owner of the carnival locks him in his trailer with Nonnie’s body while they wait for the police. Meanwhile, Tom is trying to make good his escape but everywhere he goes he catches glimpses of the mute clown pursuing him and looking for justice until finally he has his comeuppance but at whose hands after all Pippo was in the trailer the whole time?
This is definitely one of the stronger episodes of the show although it suffers from a few problems. Firstly, the scene where Pippo is just entertaining Nonnie in his trailer to cheer her up goes on way too long especially considering the episode has a 24 minute run time. Also, Pippo is quite scary-looking even if your viewpoint hasn’t been tainted by IT but looking at it again that may have been deliberate for the purposes of the ending. The harsh black/white recording only exacerbates the creepiness of his make up BUT the actor playing Pippo, Mickey Shaughnessy, manages to still evoke a childlike innocence about the clown (until the end of course). I got the feeling that as well as being mute, either Shaughnessy or the director wanted to make the audience think that Pippo had the mind of a child as well.
At first, Tom feels like a stereotypical jerk of a husband from a b-grade soap opera but as the story unfolds we get a bit of history about their relationship. Firstly, its clear that he has a serious hang-up about the age difference with his young wife and he can’t stand her looking or talking to younger men. We also learn that Nonnie is not what he made her out to be in his mind when they first met and that actually she is something of a disappointment. It is implied in dialogue that he thought she was a virgin when they met but he now knows that she has been with other men which no doubt only further fuels his paranoia. These things aren’t to justify his behaviour but it does give reason for his actions which is always important when trying to make a character feel like a real person and thus more engaging.
Finally, Nonnie. It’s never stated how old she is but I get the sense she is probably still supposed to be a teenager in the story (Mimieux was 18 when the episode aired). However, like Pippo she has the mind of a much younger person since she has a certain naivety about her. Her reaction to seeing Pippo in the beginning is very much how a young child would react and she is genuinely amused by his hijinks however this only serves to remind Tom of that age gap he seems to be embarrassed about. The paternal instincts in me kicked in more than once when seeing her interact with people and it was sad to see her die.
The ending is a head scratcher to say the least. At first it appears that Tom’s guilt is making him see Pippo chase him through the town until his end since we keep cutting back to Pippo in his trailer clutching Nonnie’s body. However, he appears in some kind of trance-like state indicating his mind at least, isn’t in the room. I never like to spoil the endings of these shows but what I will say is that just when things seem clear cut we get one last shred of evidence at the end that leaves you wondering just what the hell really is going on. One Step Beyond did this often and I think it’s much to the show’s detriment since you feel unfulfilled by the story. I feel like Rod Serling would have given us a more rounded story with a clear cut yet satisfying answer.
That said, I enjoyed it and if you are going to give One Step Beyond a go then this is definitely one to watch.