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“Something Terrible Has Happened Here”: The Crazy Story Of How “Clue” Went From Forgotten Flop To Cult Triumph

When I was 11 or 12, I stumbled upon a mystery that has stayed with me my entire life. It was the early 1990s. I was idly channel-flipping while hanging with friends on a lazy summer evening. At some point, I came across a movie set inside an old-fashioned New England mansion packed with adults in fancy party clothes racing around and screaming at each other. One was dressed in a tuxedo and speaking with a rapid singsong British accent so instantly amusing, I put the remote down just to see what the heck was going on.

After maybe five minutes of madcap banter and murderous revelations, someone in the room said, "Wait, I think this is based on Clue? Like, the board game?"

We were all entranced. The very idea that someone could make a movie based on a board game was just so tremendously silly that even though we barely understood what was going on, we could not tear our eyes away from it. What was this movie? And how was it possible we never had heard of it?

When we got to the movie's three different endings — each resolving the whodunit murder in different, increasingly loopy ways — we all knew we had just seen something unlike anything we'd seen before, and we had to watch the whole thing, immediately. One emergency trip to Blockbuster later, and a lifelong love affair with Clue was born.

I am far from alone, but as is the case for so many movies with devoted cult followings, you either get Clue or you don't. For 20 years, whenever I have declared the film as one of my favorites in mixed company, one of two things happens: One, the conversation is seized with a mutual recounting of favorite lines and exchanges written by first-time writer-director Jonathan Lynn, matched with breathless impersonations of Tim Curry as

the officious butler Wadsworth; Michael McKean as the closeted State Department employee Mr. Green; Madeline Kahn as the possibly mariticidal widow Mrs. White; Christopher Lloyd as the horndog psychiatrist Professor Plum; Lesley Ann Warren as the Washington, D.C. madam Miss Scarlet; Martin Mull as the blowhard war profiteer Colonel Mustard; Eileen Brennan as the batty senator's wife Mrs. Peacock; and Colleen Camp as the buxom French maid Yvette.

Or, two, I am greeted with a gaze akin to if I had proclaimed monkey's brains to be my favorite recipe: Really. You love that ?

To be fair, when Clue opened in theaters on Dec. 13, 1985, it was an unambiguous flop, ultimately grossing just $14.6 million (or $31.8 million adjusted for inflation). It was also massacred by most critics, many of whom were dismayed by the then unprecedented — and, for the time, scandalously crass — notion of basing a feature film on a popular family board game. "Fun, I must say, is in short supply," sniffed Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. while Janet Maslin of The New York Times bemoaned. "there is so little genuine wit to be found in Clue ." Not helping matters: those multiple endings. While they play back-to-back now on cable and home video, they were separated out for the movie's theatrical run — one theater had ending "A," another ending "B," and so forth — a marketing gimmick that became the most common target of critics' scorn.

Yet today, Clue is a true cult sensation, a prime example of how a discarded scrap of Hollywood commerce can, through the transubstantiation of time and word-of-mouth, become one of the most beloved films of the 1980s. But why. I rounded up as many of the movie's main players as possible to unravel the mystery of Clue .

I'm going to tell you how it was all done.

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