If news reports are to be believed, professional clowns are lamenting the imminent release of the IT remake later this fall. They argue that clowns too often are the victims of public enmity, subject to stereotypes that are perpetuated in popular cinema and the most horrific of true crime. Despite some validity to their argument, the guise of the clown has entrenched itself as a mainstay in popular horror and that doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. Between the fictional characters Pennywise and Twisty to real life killers like Pogo, something about their abstract appearance and unconventional antics stirs fear in the masses. Harness that fear, channel it into a narrative that is engaging, paint a pallet of menace and uncertainty at once both visceral and thrilling, you get a damned decent horror film in Clown.
In the opening minutes of the movie we see Kent (Andy Powers), a loving and dedicated father, presented with the problem of finding a replacement clown for his six year old son’s birthday party. Kent happens to discover a clown costume in the basement of a foreclosed house he is preparing for sale. Unwilling to disappoint his son, he dons the outfit and saves the day. The next day he finds that it cannot be removed and as time passes it begins to change him.
Co-written and directed by Jon Watts, the film is not a typical spin on the killer in a clown suit. Toss any expectation of circus style clownery (a la Pennywise) out the window. There are no clown cars, lethal pies or cotton candy guns. Instead, what we receive is a compelling and emotionally charged trip through a horrifying metamorphosis. As the costume assumes more and more authority over Kent’s mind and body, his wife Meg (Laura Allen) sets out in a desperate gambit to save him by uncovering its true nature. This focus and attention to their relationship injects a complexity into the the film, elevating the emotion and is essential to the success of the closing act.
Watts also handles the subject matter with a deft touch. The gruesome murder of children is certainly not uncommon in horror movies, and filmmakers will often inject dark humor to soften the impact of seeing a child ripped to shreds, but many films make the fatal mistake of crossing the line into exploitation. Inserting violence and gore for shock value, at the expense of story and character development. Watts seems to understand this, and while he gives the audience a significant amount of gore, it is always attune to the needs of the narrative.
Where the movie suffers a slight hiccup is in the murky and underdeveloped relationship between Kent and Meg’s family. There is a clear level of tension between them, and it’s obvious that Meg’s father does not approve of the marriage, or at the very least Kent, but it is explained well and feels like the result of the editing process. The opening also feels a tad rushed and introduction of the clown costume occurs very nearly before anyone else, even Kent. Fortunately, the film moves forward at brisk pace, sweeping the audience into Kent’s nightmare almost immediately, leaving little time to reflect on the introduction.
Indie (a.k.a. low-budget) horror is an extremely fickle beast. More often than not they appear promising, either due to the presence of an esteemed actor (looking at you Lance Henricksen) or a well cut trailer; yet, more often than not they flounder in a morass of poor storytelling, terrible acting and boredom.
Not Clown. This film is an exception. A strong exception. I will be adding to the rotation for horror movie night.