I wasn’t expecting Clown to be a good film. In fact, I picked it specifically because I thought it would be a bad one, a blood-soaked romp that I could watch whilst doing something else. I’d run out of more-standard slasher films, and wanted something tense, but not too serious, and not likely to have me jumping at shadows.
I didn’t get my trashy-yet-entertaining extravaganza of hunting down hapless teens. Instead, I found Clown to be an altogether more thoughtful, better-constructed film than I had expected.
When a hired clown fails to show up to his son’s birthday party, Kent dresses up in an old costume he finds in the attic of an empty house. The problem is solved, the party is a success, and then it comes time to take the suit off.
It won’t move – the suit seems fixed on with some kind of powerful adhesive, the wig is indistinguishable from his real hair. Nothing – not even power tools – can remove the suit. And worse than all of this, Kent is suddenly, constantly, and overpoweringly hungry.
Clown is a film about transformation, about slowly giving into temptation and half-understood urges. The meat of the film is Kent trying to solve his suit problem, while the suit binds closer and closer to him, changing not just his appearance but his fundamental nature.
For a lot of the film, it doesn’t feel like horror – it’s only certain scenes that are trying to scare you, or even build a sense of menace. The major emotion inspired by Clown is sadness. The film is primarily presented from the perspectives of Kent and his wife, both of whom are in hopeless situations, and quickly come to realise this.
From there, it is a slow slide into despair, as Kent struggles not to succumb to his new instincts, and his wife comes to grips with her only possible course of action. It’s miserable – Kent keeps most of his humanity throughout, even as he becomes more and more monstrous, even as he kills to feed his hunger. You feel genuinely sorry for him, trapped in a situation that he can’t solve, that he didn’t deserve. With every step he takes to deal with his hunger, a hidden caveat drags him straight back in, giving him no option but to weaken and eventually fall. In that sense, it isn’t really a horror film at all – it’s a tragedy, a story without a moral that shows bad things happening to good people with no hope of recourse.
At other points though, the weaker points, the film seems to remember what genre it is being marketed as – that’s when the violence gets more explicit, the monster gets more bestial, and the scares get cheaper – rapid camera changes, obvious sound cues, over-the-top action. It would be stronger without such scenes – they’re cheap, and don’t really need to be there at all; there’s an entire subplot with a dog which adds nothing to the narrative, just makes the tone inconsistent.
Overall, the violence is restrained – I was a little trepidatious when Eli Roth’s name appeared in the opening credits – I’m not a fan of needless gore or shocking cinema – but the film is aware of how to best present itself. Acts of violence do definitely occur, but the actual moment of dismemberment or death is takes place off screen – we get a spray of blood on a wall, or a fade-to-black that’s layer supported by a chunk of gristle on the floor. That’s definitely a positive – it’s a rare film that can walk the narrow line between subtlety and looking low-budget.
The film’s mythology seems, as far as I’m aware, to be entirely constructed of whole cloth – the clown isn’t creepy because it’s a clown, or because of anything normally related to clowns. Instead, “clown” is a corruption of “cloyne”, a child-killing monster that once lived in the mountains. The idea, though it’s not developed much, is that slowly the cloyne’s legend was adapted and changed until clowns bore almost no resemblance to the originator – only the bone white face and red nose.
That perhaps explains why Clown doesn’t really do much with its titular monster’s trappings. It’s a film that would work equally well with a werewolf, or a vampire, or an evil tree; the necessary element is the transformation into a monster, not the monster itself. So there are no dark puns, no lethal slapstick. The clown kills with jaws, not balloons or silver pompoms. It’s a feral, savage, animalistic thing.
And that strikes me as odd – the strength of clowns as horror antagonists, surely, is not the violence, but the creepiness – they don’t leap on your from above, but wave at you slowly from the end of a hallway that they shouldn’t be in. “We all float down here” isn’t a raging battlecry, it’s an obscene and smug smiling promise. The film features clowns, and is named for clowns, but doesn’t use them to full advantage.
On a personal level, I dislike children in films. In the vast majority of cases, children tend to be poorly written, poorly cast, and nothing more than an impediment to the plot. This problem is even worse in horror films – children are written in as liabilities, things that have to be protected and thus make the real character vulnerable.
This made it hard for me to feel fully invested in Kent’s inner turmoil, or to see the monster as a problem – all the victims, it struck me, were no great loss to the world. That’s probably not a criticism of the film; I’m aware that I take a harder line against child actors than most, and it wouldn’t be fair to judge the film based on that preference. It’s just an observation on my own subjective enjoyment.
Clown is not a film that you enjoy. It isn’t a happy film, and it lacks the entertaining, ostentatious cachet of horror films normally. There is no catharsis, no sense of relief or release as the film ends.
It is an interesting film – a more thoughtful look at an old idea, and a more sensitive portrayal of a monster that makes you empathise with the killer far more than with its victims. It’s worth watching just for that – it won’t scare you much, and it occasionally drops the ball, but it’s a more complicated take on the genre than most, and one that will affect you – just not in the way most horror films will.