Monday, September 5, 2016

Clown (USA, 2014)

Less than five minutes into this movie, a relatively minor character named Denise (Elizabeth Whitmere, of The Watch [2008 / trailer]) states, "I hate clowns." We feel pretty much the same way. We don't suffer from coulrophobia, but nevertheless we have never found them the melancholy- or happy-looking creatures that populate the paintings of Camille Bombois, Walter — excuse us: Margaret — Keane, or the forgotten Chuck Oberstein (buy his work while you still can). We've usually found clowns to be scary and unnerving, maybe demonic or psychotic, like those found in movies as diverse as Spawn (1997), Zombieland (2009), Camp Blood (1999), Killjoy (2000), and Rob Zombie's filmic duet, House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devils Rejects (2005 / trailer). (And that despite having known some professional clowns, all of whom worked primarily in terminal wards. Seriously.) Clowns simply make us feel uncomfortable — which is why the minute we stumbled upon the trailer above a few weeks ago, we knew we had to see the movie.
Much like, say, Tooth Fairy (2006 / trailer) and Darkness Falls (2003 / trailer), or even more so like Santa's Slay (2005 / trailer), Saint (2010 / trailer) and Rare Exports (2010 / trailer), Clown takes an icon and converts it into a horror movie. (We're still waiting for someone to tackle reinterpreting the Easter Bunny.) Here, we learn that the clown of today is a bastardization of an ancient demon known as the "Klein" (said "clean"), a cave-dwelling creature that ate children in the winter months. Yep, Clown is one of those rare horror films in which kids die — in this case, not just one, but many. (Reason enough to pop this baby in the DVD player the next time your siblings bring their obnoxious kids with them when they come to visit.)
Clown is also one of a sub-genre of horror flicks that is popularly referred to as “body horror”, a term that some claim was coined by the University of Glasgow's film journal Screen in Vol. 27, No. 1, Jan–Feb 1986, an issue devoted to the topic. (Less gullible and older folks might remember that the term "body horror” was already being used to refer to the early movies of David Cronenberg — his classics Shivers (1975 / trailer) and Rabid (1977 / trailer), among others — way back in the late 1970s.) Basically, such films deal with the uncontrollable, unwanted, and unstoppable mutation of one's own body by an invading outside force (vs., say, an outside force simply chopping one's head off with a machete). In such movies, the main character usually remains sympathetic and an object of pity up until the conversion is total (see, among many, any given version of The Wolf Man (1941 / trailer), From Beyond (1986 / trailer), Slither (2006 / trailer), Leviathan  (1989), or the classic bad film The Incredible Melting Man [1977 / trailer]), or death occurs (see, for example, Splinter [2007] or Thinner [1996]). Clown is no different, in both senses.
Here, the successful real estate agent but hapless dad Kent (Andy Powers) wants nothing more than make his son Jack (Christian Distefano of Cut Bank [2014 / trailer]), a clown fan, happy. When the scheduled hired clown can't show up, Jack takes advantage of a found clown suit to spring in and ensure Jack's clown-themed birthday party is a success. But the clown suit is not a suit: it is the skin of the demon "Klein", and not only does it no longer come off, but the demon slowly but surely possesses the milquetoast daddy. And daddy is hungry...
What sounds like a joke of a plot works primarily because it is played straight. True, the movie initially has the feeling and flavor of a black comedy, but even before the death of the first child the laughs start getting caught in one's throat. Kent's spiral downwards and loss of self, though initially good for a smirk or guffaw here and there, soon turns tragic, and the bodies begin to multiply.
If the narrative is not truly new or completely unexpected (to give credit: at least two scenes — both occurring in the motel room Kent takes refuge in — were unexpected to us), it is told linearly and economically, without unnecessary frills or cinematic excesses, but more than enough blood and, often enough, dry humor or unsettling horror. Indeed, a few disturbing scenes and interludes leave a nasty after-taste, despite being anything but gratuitous. How far would you go, for example, to save your husband and father of both your son and unborn child? Wife Meg (Laura Allen of From Within [2008 / trailer] and Hysteria [2010 / trailer]) is confronted with this question, in an interlude that is surprisingly uncomfortable on a psychological level. Indeed, though both Kent and Meg are basically one-note characters, they manage to illicit remarkable sympathy from the viewer, which makes the transpiring events all the more tragic and terrible as the movie progresses.
Clown is an effective and professionally made horror thriller that takes a slightly ridiculous idea and evolves from a drily humorous black comedy to an occasionally disturbing if not involving horror film built around the death and destruction Kent’s conversion causes. By the movie’s end, the not totally ridiculous plot offers everything one wants in a horror movie (suspense, fear, shocks, laughs, blood, etc.) and, of course, room for a sequel. We liked Clown, but then, we hate clowns.
Interestingly enough, Clown is one of a small amount of movies that had their origin in the faux trailer fad that followed the release of Rodriguez and Tarentino's Grindhouse (2007 / trailer) double feature (featuring Tarentino's snooze-a-thon Death Proof and Rodriguez's great Planet Terror). A select group, to say the least, as the only others we know of are Machete (2010 / trailer) and Hobo with a Shotgun (2011 / trailer) — though we are sure there're more. Supposedly, in 2010 filmmakers Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford uploaded their fake trailer for Clown (found at the bottom of this review) with the blurb "From the Master of Horror, Eli Roth", a joke that tickled Mr. Roth's fancy so much that he ended up actually producing a real movie based on the trailer, this flick here. And while we do admit we used to sort of find Mr. Roth bonkable, we're not a fan of his movies (indeed, we hated Hostel [2005 / trailer] so much that we actually haven't bothered ever to watch another of his movies). To put it bluntly: thanks to Clown, we might finally give his other films a chance now — both Cabin Fever (2002 / trailer)* and The Green Inferno (2015 / trailer) do suddenly sound promising again.
Original, fake trailer
for Clown (2010):
* Still, can someone tell me again: for what reason, other than greed, is a film remade after only 14 years? (Cabin Fever, 2016, trailer.) What's next? Reservoir Dogs (1992 / trailer)? It's at least older and features a few dead actors...

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