Written by: Christopher D. Ford & Jon Watts
Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Andy Powers, Laura Allen, Peter Stormare
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
They're as terrifying as you think.
Clowns seem to be our nation’s leading source of kindertrauma, and while they never did much to traumatize me (Pennywise excluded, obviously), I totally get it. There’s something weirdly nightmarish about a clown, primarily because it’s not supposed to be: no matter how cheery they seem, something off-putting and creepy lurks below. (This is actually why Tim Curry’s Pennywise is especially effective—he isn’t obviously evil at first glance.) Jon Watts’s Clown dives headlong into this, almost to the point of turning it inside-out: as it turns out, you should be afraid of clowns because they’re representations of an actual, ancient demon that literally wants to swallow children. That’s a hell of a hook.
I’m a sucker for this sort of thing anyway, and Watts mines it for all its fucked-up potential here. Part body horror, part monster movie, part slasher, Clown has no compunctions about confronting and breaking taboos, and it reveals as much in a hurry. When a clown is forced to cancel an appearance at his son’s birthday party, real estate agent Kent McCoy (Andy Powers) improvises: by sheer luck, the abandoned estate he’s in just happens to have an old, dusty clown costume. Without hesitating, he dons the costume, much to the delight of his son; unfortunately for him, he has trouble peeling the costume off the next day. Somehow, the wig has become affixed to his head, and even the oversized nose won’t come off.
It turns out he’s in a whole heap of shit, and much of Clown is dedicated to putting Kent through hell. His physical suffering obviously provides plenty of squirm-inducing moments (just try not to cringe when his wife forcefully removes that nose), but there’s an existential component as well: slowly but surely, Kent is forced to reckon with the fact that his transformation into a bloodthirsty demon is inevitable. Only two options offer an escape: commit suicide, or let the demon consume five children to satisfy its bloodlust. Neither is very appealing, and Watts doesn’t shy away from either possibility—in fact, the moment that cements Clown’s credentials as a delightfully wrong-headed effort involves both. It’s one of the most devious, twisted bait-and-switch jolts I’ve seen in recent years.
But what else do you expect from a premise that earned Eli Roth’s endorsement as producer? Even in this capacity, his name carries certain connotations and expectations, and Clown delivers on them well enough. Watts is especially attuned to Roth’s brand of infusing dark comedy into such bleak proceedings—not only is Clown just downright wrong, it knows it’s wrong. You can practically hear the giggles whenever the film takes one of these delightfully dark turns, which is pretty often. As weird as it is to say this about a film where multiple children are dismembered and eaten (down to the scraps of their bones), the playfulness is a hoot, and Watts finds a happy medium between taking a silly premise seriously and slightly indulging said silliness.
That said, the glib tone does somewhat undercut the seriousness, particularly as it pertains to the agonizing body horror stuff. Essentially The Fly but with a clown suit, the film understandably wants viewers to sympathize with Kent’s plight. His wife (Laura Allen) is positioned as an audience surrogate (and Geena Davis analogue, I suppose), as much of the film is actually pitched through her eyes instead of Kent’s. While their relationship hits the expected beats (distrust leads to estrangement leads to horrified pity), it never feels like Watts is thoroughly invested in what is ultimately a pretty awful tragedy.
When I say Clown doesn’t shy away from much of anything, it’s not empty hype: on paper, its climax involves one of the most traumatic encounters imaginable, but because it arrives after a series of darkly comic moments, it doesn’t quite have the impact you’d expect. Even though the performances are fine (we don’t even get to see much of McCoy’s pre-clown turn—this thing moves that quickly), it doesn’t quite land among the body horror pantheon in terms of coaxing a sense of existential angst. As gross and visceral as it is, there’s not a profound sense of dehumanization. Maybe it’s because a guy’s being turned into a damn clown. I don’t know.
What can’t be disputed is that Watts clearly has chops for the other horror stuff. Sure, Clown might not inspire some deeply unsettling anxiety, but it sure is fun to watch unfold. Not only does he indulge the premise for all its gory potential, but he also crafts some pretty slick suspenseful bits. Rather than dive right into the gore, Watts often teases it out before shocking the audience with the gory aftermath. A scene where Kent targets his son’s bully brings just the right amount of uneasy laughter before delivering a disgusting pile of viscera —you know this kid is fucked, yet you still can’t help but gasp at the fact that the film goes there. Naturally, the same can be said about a well-staged stalk-and-slash sequence set inside a damn Chuck-E-Cheese. Talk about twisting a childhood plaything into pure nightmare fuel—as if ball pits and claustrophobic tunnel slides didn’t seem awful enough, imagine what it looks like with kids being dragged away by an unseen clown demon.
I can’t help but respect (if not admire) the sort of demented mind that dreams something like this up, and it’s even more impressive to see it backed up by actual talent. When given an opportunity to actually make a movie based off of their fake trailer, Watts and co-writer Christopher D. Ford make the most of it by just going for it at every turn. Hell, they even managed to wrangle in Peter Stormare as the guy who reveals the truth behind the clown costume (even better—he’s obviously having a blast and sticks around for most of the movie). Their commitment to what was essentially a joke is laudable; others (like Robert Rodriguez and anyone else who does a faux-grindhouse movie) should take note.
Hollywood has obviously taken note of Watts (especially after Cop Car), as he’s currently helming the next Spider-Man movie, a fact that I can’t help but chuckle at. Somehow, somewhere, someone at Marvel likely saw Clown some point during the decision-making process and was like, “sure, this guy’s perfect for Spider-Man.” For whatever reason, Dimension (yeah, shocker*) didn’t have as much faith, as Clown has been on the shelf for over two years. Don’t assume that’s any insight into its quality (or lack thereof): Clown is sick, twisted fun.
*Five years later, and I’m still waiting to see Livide again.
Clown arrives on DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay; a 6-minute making-of supplement featuring Roth serves as an extra.
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