JUNE 19, 2016
I knew Clown had been on the shelf for a while, but I hadn't realized how long until the credits were reaching their end, and I noticed a 2013 copyright date (plus the MPAA number was 48,000-something - they're in the 50,000's now). Since then director Jon Watts has made another feature (Cop Car) and landed the plum gig of directing the Spider-Man reboot we are actually excited about this time thanks to the new Marvel deal (and star Tom Holland winning us over in Civil War), and Dimension has probably put another half dozen movies in their vaults for TBA release. Indeed, when the Dimension logo flashed at the beginning I tried to remember the last time I had seen it theatrically, realizing it was probably also 2013 (Dark Skies!). Three years is a long goddamn time, and while I'm sure they're relieved its finally out there in its native US, they can't be thrilled about the weird release it got.
I mean, the number of screens is nothing unusual - it's about the same that Aftershock got a few years back, which was another Dimension/Radius movie that Eli Roth produced. But that one, if memory serves, ran at normal screening times - Clown was bizarrely restricted to a maximum of two shows per day at every one of its Los Angeles screens (about a dozen of them), and all at the same times, more or less 5pm and 10pm (or later). No early matinees for folks like me who prefer to get their movies out of the way around noon (i.e. when the kid is napping), no 7:30-8pm slots that would be the most crowded. Nope, just the weird "too early, I'm not out of work yet" and "It's too late" slots most don't go to, as if the theaters wanted to assure the movie had poor attendance. I don't get it, and if anything I was kind of stunned to see eight other people in the theater for this 9:55 showing - I figured I had a shot of having the place to myself, since it was also available on iTunes and, as always, Dimension didn't do any real advertising.
So does the movie deserve this tossed-off fate? Most certainly not. I wouldn't dub it a classic or anything, but I quite liked how it played its goofy premise - about a man who can't take a clown costume off - totally straight, giving the movie more of a body horror flavor than the Dr. Giggles-esque slasher I was sort of expecting (as usual, I barely knew anything about the movie going in, so I'm sure that information isn't as surprising to most of you). And I loved how it wasted no time on getting going - our tragic hero puts the suit on pretty much in his first scene (after his wife - Laura Allen of Awake non-fame because NBC canceled it too soon because they're jerkheads - calls him to tell him that the clown they've hired for their son's birthday party has canceled on them), and realizes something is wrong not too long after that. Watts and his writers tease out his plight for a bit - he keeps the costume on for the whole party because the kid knows it's him anyway (and thus he doesn't have to take it off to show up as dad), passes out on the couch after the party, then wakes up late and has to rush out the door to get the kid to school... it's like 16-20 hours before he even gets a CHANCE to try to take the damn thing off.
This leads to the movie's first of many gore gags, in which he tries to remove the shirt by slicing at the fabric with a box cutter, only to slash his wrist in the process (Watts then keeps us cringing when he grabs an even stronger weapon to try to cut the neck area of the clown suit). As he learns shortly thereafter, the suit isn't just a regular old thing - it's the actual skin of a demon (and original, pre-kid friendly clown - think Krampus/Rare Exports re: Santa) and it has now fused to his own, with only way to get it off - death, or the sacrifice of five children. Naturally, this being an R-rated movie produced by Eli Roth, the suspense doesn't stem from whether or not he will kill a kid but whether he will that all important fifth kid, giving the movie a rare taboo thrust that a. you don't see anymore and b. usually would upset me too much now that I have a child of my own. Luckily, the supernatural element, along with the fact that our very young murder victims are all but anonymous (meaning we don't meet them much earlier than their deaths, most of which are wholly off-screen), kept me from getting all over-sensitive - I cringed a bit at one of them but was otherwise on board for the deranged ride.
Speaking of deranged, the movie's obligatory "I know what's going on and how to stop it" character is played by Peter Stormare, automatically making the movie worth my and your time (between this, Dark Summer, and Bad Milo, I quite like this period of his career, showing up and having a ball in genre films) in his few scenes as the brother of the man who owned the suit (he died, which is why our real estate hero had access to his belongings). At first you think he's the grand villain, but he's actually quite noble and just driven mad by the responsibility of trying to keep the suit from hurting anyone else. It couldn't be destroyed, they couldn't risk just throwing it out or burying it somewhere, so they kept it under lock and key - unearthed only because a man was frantically trying to keep his son happy. Since today was Father's Day, I couldn't help but feel more than the usual amount of kinship with the man, as I'd probably do the same thing even if I KNEW the consequences if it meant ensuring my son had a good birthday (I'd then kill five random kids at my earliest convenience to get back to him!).
Alas, that's one area that the movie ultimately falls a bit short of greatness, because it's a tragic, Fly-esque story of a man who we didn't get to know much before he got infected and don't really spend a lot of time with afterwards. Big chunks of the movie focus on Laura Allen's character, and then the kill scenes switch to a full blown slasher movie mode where he's kind of in the shadows and the camera stays with our would-be/will-be victim. He's basically a zombie by like the 40 minute mark, so while his final form is quite monstrous, it lacks that tragic element that The Fly and some of these others had, as we didn't get to really experience his gradual disintegration as well as we should, or even get into his head all that much - he's mute during many of these scenes. The strange premise is even kind of played for laughs at first (he has to go to work with his clown suit on; the doctor thinks he's just some weirdo, etc.) so that also keeps us at arm's length - when Allen finds herself in a position that she might have to kill him at the end, I didn't feel the devastation that I felt for Geena Davis' character in Cronenberg's masterpiece.
Ordinarily this is where I'd say "I wish there was more of" this or that, but if anything the movie's other issue is that it needed some tightening. Again, whenever he's about to kill a kid, the movie becomes a slasher (particularly in the Chuck E. Cheese segment late in the film), leaving him in the dark and us wondering where he might pop out as our random kid makes his way through the tunnels of the arcade's giant maze thing - the scenes are fine bits of stalk n' slash on their own, but they don't quite fit in this movie of a man being turned into a monster, and that time coulda/shoulda been spent on his POV, fighting (or not) the urges that he could not control (someone suggested the movie might even be an allegory for pedophiles, which is fascinating and makes me want to watch it again under that impression), instead of just instantly turning him into Jason Voorhees. Shaving a few of the movie's supporting characters might have helped, too - Allen has a friend and her father who both kind of serve the same purpose, so weeding one of them out might have helped as well.
But, you know, it's a full length movie based on a joke trailer. Hobo With A Shotgun is fun but ultimately a bit exhausting, and Machete is damn near unwatchable (I never bothered with the sequel) - this isn't exactly a sub-genre overflowing with masterpieces, and your expectations should be set accordingly. Those with Coulrophobia will find plenty to disturb them (the movie dives into trying to unsettle you with an opening sequence populated by closeups of various clown memorabilia) and the body horror element, while not always successful, is certainly an inspired way to go about a killer clown tale. I wish it was a little better, but not as much as I wish it hadn't been effectively buried - it's a pretty good movie that deserves the audience that would enjoy it if they knew it was (finally!) out there.
What say you?