The eighties were the last gasp for the Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries in the popular psyche. The airwaves were ruled by Murder She Wrote, The Father Dowling Mysteries, Matlock, and the frequent Perry Mason made-for-tv films. In 90 minutes or less, you got a victim, a murderer, and the omniscient sleuth deducing the whole sordid plot with time for a snarky closing line. What better time to torpedo the whole genre?
Clue strikes at the achilles heel of Murder Mysteries: it really doesn’t matter who the killer was. Writers often confess to picking out the murderer and motive at random from their characters. The clues are often scant, hardly definitive, and take huge flights of guesswork from the detective to piece together. The more labyrinthine and complex the plot, the better.
Clue had three (actually four) endings filmed, and each theater in town given a random one to screen with. Under this strategy people stayed at home, critics yawned, and the film flopped. For home video and television all the endings were shown together, separated by interstitials like “that’s how it could have happened” and then the cult began to grow.
In Agatha Christie fashion, all of the characters deserve being placed in harm. The film makes clear that they are all being blackmailed for betraying their country and morals during the red scare of the 1950s. The obligatory dinner sequence establishes that the whole lot of them are barely smart enough to justify ever being let into positions of power in the first place. Any fate to befall them would be simply poetic justice.
Director Jonathan Lynn fills out his cast with established comedic actors, with the occasional punk rock singer thrown in for good measure. He builds a fantastic mansion with the requisite hidden passageways and environmental hazards that keep all of the guests in the house when the obvious impulse would be to run away immediately.
In a neat twist, none of the deserving characters are offed during the meat of the film. The mansion proves more fatal to the seemingly unrelated people who find themselves in need of the phone line.