MARCH 30, 2013
Early on in HMAD, I had a dream of finding a really good slasher with a clown killer, only to be disappointed over and over and figuring it would never get better than Clownhouse (which is hard to defend because of all the ickiness surrounding it). The best until now has been 100 Tears, which is entertaining but in the same ballpark as "so bad it's good" territory, not actually something I'd recommend to those looking for a solid modern slasher film. Thus, it's fitting that the penultimate HMAD is Stitches, which is indeed the great clown slasher I've been looking for for the past six years. If I WASN'T "retiring" tomorrow, I'd come across a bad one a few months down the road and think "I shoulda just quit when I saw Stitches."
Indeed, I only have one minor complaint about the movie - it takes a while for our title character to be reborn. This is a supernatural revenge type of slasher; our party clown is killed when the bratty kids who he's trying to entertain accidentally trip him, landing face first on the business end of the big knife used to cut the cake, and 6 years later he crawls from the grave to exact revenge at the now teenaged kid's house party. There's a lot of setup, and all that is fine, but I wish he coulda been reborn maybe 10 minutes earlier - there's only one kill in the first 50 minutes, something you can get away with if there's a lot of stalking, but apart from a not entirely successful attempt at misleading us (a kid comes to the party dressed as the clown in order to play a prank on our hero), the horror is kept at bay for a bit longer than I'd like. Maybe one of the kids could have gone to Stitches' grave and gotten killed moments after he was reborn, so we didn't have to wait until he got to the party for the fun to start.
But once he gets there, oh man. Ross Noble plays the clown, and I love the choice for him to retain the droll demeanor he had when he was alive, rather than overact and go overboard with the puns and such. On the commentary the director says he was influenced by 80s slashers and namechecks Nightmare On Elm Street, but he seems to be more of a Dream Warriors fan than the more jokey/cartoonish Dream Master/Child entries (and if you have any doubt, look for a very cool little nod to that 3rd Elm Street - first to spot it and leave a comment wins a no-prize!), where Freddy had some dark jokes but was still scary. I likened the film to Dr. Giggles on Twitter, but I was referring more to his implements and MO, not so much his dialogue and acting.
As Giggles used medical instruments for each and every kill, all of the murders here are based around familiar clown tricks - when he reaches behind your ear, he doesn't pull out a quarter, but your actual ear. A guy gets a bunny pulled out of his throat, and another is turned into a human balloon animal. And even better - they're all practical FX! You would think - especially in this day and age - that a head being expanded, with eyes bulging out and such before exploding would be created almost entirely digitally, but no - a series of fake heads were applied over the actor's, allowing him to keep moving naturally and even talking while we in the audience get to enjoy a terrific, flesh and blood creation. On the commentary, director Conor McMahon (who also made the enjoyable Dead Meat) explains that there was one effect that they were going to do with a computer, and after a month of trying and not getting satisfactory results, they opted to do a practical effect that took a few hours (and looks great). I recently got into a Twitter discussion with a movie producer (one I'm friendly with, this wasn't a FIGHT) who claimed that low budget productions such as the ones he makes often don't have time for real FX on the set, and "have" to go CGI, and my argument was that you'd end up spending that much time later anyway, so I'm glad I have this sort of evidence to back me up the next time the subject arises. Make the time to do it right - it should be part of whatever planning you do to figure out the shooting schedule in the first place, ESPECIALLY for a slasher movie.
But more than the kills, they really dive headfirst into the idea and legacy of donning a red nose and white facepaint, as Stitches is resurrected by a sort of clown cult that is never fully explained (sequels?), just that a clown who doesn't finish a party can never be at rest. And the backstory just modifies a factual thing in which a clown's face is painted on an egg, which encapsulates his spirit or something (in reality it's also done to protect their copyright). So he's got Crow-like healing powers, and the only way to stop him is to break this egg, which is thankfully stored nearby in a crypt with a bunch of others. You also get to feel a bit sorry for Stitches; even though he's introduced as a typical movie clown (why are they ALWAYS having sex with floozies while wearing the makeup?), the kids are way more rotten to him than he deserves.
I should stress they're only all jerks when they're young - the older versions are mostly likeable and realistic. One thing I really liked is that they all haven't remained close - how many kids from your 10th or 11th birthday party were invited to your 16th? So two of them are kind of antagonists to the others, and one has mostly abandoned them for a different group, and that sort of thing. Plus the timeframe (six years) is compressed enough for it to be believable that they're all still in town - it's goofy when it's like "Twenty years later" and everyone is still around AND hanging out all the time. Stitches ONLY goes after the kids who were at the birthday party, even when he has an opportunity to grab another victim along the way (which leads to one odd moment where a female character one of the targets is hooking up with just completely disappears - I even rewound part of the movie to see if I missed something to explain her absence but found nothing), so I was pleased that they found a realistic way to keep them all together without making it too much of a stretch that all of his intended victims would be in one place.
Also: male lead in a slasher! There's a love interest of course, but like Hatchet, it's nice to see what a me-like guy can/would do when placed at the center of a mad murderer film, since they're my favorite genre but usually the guy I'd identify with ends up dead pretty early on. And he's got a best pal that's likely to die, allowing for more suspense than you usually get in this sort of thing, which would normally focus on the girl and MAYBE let her male love interest live. And I like that he's not very popular; kids just come to his party for the booze and what not - no one besides his actual friends show him any respect. There's a hilarious bit where he's outside, shouting at a window trying to warn his pal to get out of the house, and some jerks just crowd around him and mock him the entire time. That's another thing I liked - it takes a while for Stitches to scare off everyone that he's not interested in, forcing him to be a bit more stealthy and also keeping suspension of disbelief at bay, unlike say Scream where everyone not involved just happens to want to leave at the same time.
The young actors are the focus of the 20 minute making of, as they discuss their favorite horror movies (or why they don't like them), working together, etc. Noble also offers some insight, as does McMahon (who cameos in the film as a wallflower student), but it's mostly promotional fluff that I had little interest in (though not ACTUAL promotion as it includes some spoilers). Same goes for the blooper reel, as most of it seems like "You had to be there" stuff and the best goofs (like Noble catching his umbrella on the boom mic) are played over the end credits anyway (awesome titles by the way). The trailer's fine, but really the only bonus feature of real value is the commentary by Noble and McMahon, which is a perfect blend of set anecdotes (apparently the house owner inspected the mess they were making every night, confused why they were leaving it), nuts and bolts stuff about the FX, and Noble displaying his terrifically dry sense of humor (he gets exasperated trying to find something to say about the end credits, eventually thanking Dolby for existing). He also talks about some of the challenges the makeup presented, such as his lack of depth perception as one eye is permanently closed.
Now here's the ironic kicker - it's the sort of movie I'd usually end the review by saying "I'd love to see this with a crowd!" but I actually had to pass up the opportunity to do so, as it's showing in LA on April 1st - my first "day off" from watching horror movies in over six years. As much as I've been dying to see this (it's been on my radar since last year's Cannes festival), I had to put my foot down - if it was April 2nd, fine, but goddammit I've been looking forward to going a whole day WITHOUT having to watch something and review it later, so I wasn't going to back down now. So I watched by myself on a (pretty spectacular looking) Blu-ray - hopefully someday down the road there will be another screening so I can do it right, but since I've already seen tomorrow's final movie, I'm glad my final "discovery" is the sort of thing that made sifting through all those bad ones worthwhile.
What say you?