Kent (Andy Powers), a real estate agent, has a happy family life with his wife Meg (Laura Allen) and young son, Jack. Jack’s birthday party is already underway when the clown they hired calls and cancels at the last minute. What does Kent do? He digs up an old clown costume from one of his properties and jumps in to save the day. The next morning, he discovers that the suit, nose and wig have fused themselves to his skin. But that’s not all – he soon starts exhibiting violent tendencies and cravings for the flesh of human children.
Clown is the surprising feature debut of TV-movie director Jon Watts and his frequent cowriter Christopher D. Ford. I have to hand it to them for giving us something we haven’t seen before. Killer clowns themselves are nothing new, but they often appear in films of a farcical (see Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Stitches) or surrealist (see It) nature. The film strikes a serious tone and isn’t played for laughs per se, although those viewers with pitch-black sensibilities may find a few things to smirk at. Overall, it’s not as ridiculous as the promotional material or plot summaries would suggest.
Speaking of promotional material, you may have seen the posters or trailers for the film, proudly presenting it as a creation of “The Master of Horror Eli Roth”. I don’t know when this became a thing people started saying, but I can remember a time when Roth’s own film, Hostel, was billed as “Quentin Tarantino Presents”, so maybe this is just part of the circle (one might say downward spiral) of life. Roth’s involvement is, actually, a bit of a funny story. Back in 2010, Watts and Ford posted a fake trailer for a prototypical Clown on YouTube, presenting it as an admittedly plausible production of Roth’s. Well, the master himself stumbled upon the clip and admired the duo’s chutzpah so much that he agreed to produce the real thing. He even gave a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance. Now, I have to admire the guy for lending his name and support to genre newcomers (see the Soskas), but let’s give credit where it’s due by remembering whose movie this is.
Watts and Ford take their interesting clown-metamorphosis idea and end up with a film that is far better than I expected it to be. Roth compares it to The Fly, but I wouldn’t go that far. The first act is fast-paced, loaded with satisfying plot points and characters who behave somewhat reasonably. The gradual transformation continues as we are exposed to the invented Nordic folklore of the “Clöyne”, complete with fake medieval illustrations – fitting, for two filmmakers who have no qualms about manufacturing their own reality. The story gets a boost from Karlsson (Peter Stormare), an expert in the mythology of this particular clown suit. Indeed, I half expected Clown to fizzle out after a busy 45 minutes and devolve into cheap sight gags, as is the case with many other carny slashers. Not so; the movie fills its runtime with plenty of unfortunate events and some striking visuals. If anything, I could accuse it of being a bit busy.
The script and actors deftly handle the potentially explosive subject of child murder that is so indispensable to the story. These scenes are always staged and shown carefully, if not quite sensitively. Laura Allen impresses as she tests the lengths to which she will go to save her child, revealing an unexpected depth in her character. Unfortunately, she makes some of the supporting cast look even weaker by comparison.
This is the point in the review where I will admit to not really “getting” scary clowns. While I understand that the irony of fearing something that’s intended to bring joy could be widely appealing, that doesn’t quite explain the ubiquity of murderous clowns in popular culture, nor the glut of coulrophobic films since It. One can’t help but think clowns are terrible at their only job; a study from the University of Sheffield claimed that clowns were “universally disliked by children”, who find them “frightening and unknowable”. Perhaps too many people have bad memories from early childhood of painted people ruining perfectly good birthday parties or trips to McDonald’s? Adults may find the aesthetics or behaviour of clowns unsettling, but then the same could be said of other figures from children’s entertainment. Why do clowns, in particular, deserve to be the objects of such repulsion? I think this is partly a case of art imitating life imitating art… The eponymous villain will recall, of course, real-life serial killer and clown John Wayne Gacy, the two sides of his identity having grown inseparable in the public’s mind, not that I can blame them.
All in all, it’s not the kind of subgenre I tend to go for, but the film is pleasantly surprising and, really, could have been far worse. It’s also fairly light on gore, at least by contemporary standards, if that is a consideration for you. Clown premiered in Italy during November 2014 before making its way to the 2015 Glasgow FrightFest last weekend. It was released on DVD in the UK on the 2nd of March. It is set to open in Japan later this month, but so far no North American release has been announced.
Next time, just go to a costume shop.