I really thought I was going to hate this movie.
For one thing, it had Eli Roth’s name smeared all over it like dog shit smeared all over a nice shoe.
But that was misleading, as Roth had nothing to do with directing or writing this movie. He’s listed under the increasingly ambiguous title of producer. Aside from allowing his name to be plastered all over the promotional material, and unnecessarily taking on the role of ‘Frowny the Clown’ in the later stages of the film, his further involvement in the film appears to be rather minimal.
And thank fuck for that. Hey, Jon Watts, in retrospect, maybe that cheeky trailer you uploaded on youtube to get him on board wasn’t such a great idea? Maybe more people would have checked this out if you hadn’t associated yourselves with the King of Crap? I guess it got you the cash though, so who knows. Certainly seems to be part of the reason the studio tried to bury this movie. Oh that and the child murdering. But more on that later.
I bit the bullet on this one, not realising how little Roth actually had to do with the production, I tried to approach Clown with an open mind. And I was pleasantly surprised by it in many ways.
At it’s core Clown is a smart little demon possession story, here utilising a demonic clown suit which once donned, cannot be removed and leads to child cannibalism. Kent McCoy, loving family man and contractor, unwittingly dons the demonic suit when a replacement clown is required at his kids party at the last minute.
While the premise of this film might sound amusing, it is not played for laughs. We’re encouraged to get over our amusement at the predicament very early in the film, when Kent’s ‘clown nose’ is forcibly ripped off his face by his wife. This isn’t slapstick. The pain and blood seems very real.
Kent’s frustration at his situation is realistic. And his wife’s response to his suffering is heartfelt and believable. Just for once, the characters act in a believable way. Meg supports her husband and accepts the truth of her own eyes, even while those around her insist she give up on the ‘deadbeat.’ Her father is a particularly odious and overbearing idiot, who despises his son in law and takes every opportunity to demean him in front of his family. His grisly demise, when it finally arrived, received a celebratory fist-bump from me. Am I a monster? Quite possibly, but not for that. It’s a movie and this was a rare cathartic moment.
Kent is likable, we really feel for him and that makes his slow transformation into a monster even more believable. It’s mirrored by the attempted corruption of his wife. The demon tries to convince Meg to offer up a child to free her husband, or he will kill their son, Jack instead.
And there’s the problem. The issue that critics and audiences cringe at. The victims of this movie are, for the most part, children. Even worse, with one exception, they’re likable children. There is an incongruity of tone around the deaths of the Clown’s first two victims. The first, at a motel room, is sad – but in its ridiculous setup almost pitches into slapstick. The second is the gory death of a young bully, which the film wavers over, are we invited to celebrate this event or not? Had I cared more about the whiny Jack, or had the bully been worse, I would have been inclined to feel more strongly. But honestly, I felt very little at this moment.
Had the characters been adults, there would be no unease at all. While I can see a strong argument for not diluting the power of a child’s death in fiction, equally I can see an argument for not desensitizing us to any human suffering. Personally, I think it is up to the individual film to create impact. In The Green Mile for instance, one death left me sobbing for an hour. Here, I felt a bit sad for Kent and possibly the cereal kid. My point being – just because a child is killed, should we automatically feel outrage? What about the dog that gets killed? Isn’t it context, in addition to content, that creates resonance?
All fictions is manipulation to some extent – we don’t care about the deaths of ‘bad’ people, we may feel (in the safe space of film) that they got what they deserved. That doesn’t mean that in reality we want bad people to suffer. It’s cathartic – not representative. But ultimately, Clown chickens out on these issues, and attempts to throw in some soft-sell moralising at the finish, to make us all feel better. It fails. And the makers look like sell outs. With no balls.
At it’s best, the film invites us to question ourselves. Would we sacrifice someone who was dying? A bully? A child? At the center of this film is a demon, and it’s a really nasty one. It just wants to hurt and kill. It wants to play games. Whatever happens, the suit is coming off – but the little bastard wants to cause as much pain and suffering on the way as possible. So this is a story about evil and how evil corrupts everything. Kent is a brave man, only appreciated by his wife and son, but that’s clearly all he cares about. He tries, at all times, to do the right thing, but the suit is too evil and too corrupt. Even his attempts at suicide are thwarted.
It’s a sad fact that the characters we really care about in horror almost inevitably die, or suffer a fate worse than death. Rarely are we presented with truly likable characters in situations which lack moral ambiguity. Frankly, they’re fucking with us. They only give us the good stuff to make that sucker punch hurt even more when it inevitably comes.
It’s hard not to root for Kent, even after he goes kill crazy at Chuck-e-Cheese. For the most part, there is no shallow moralising over his actions – because it isn’t Kent. It’s the demon. Towards the end of the film the moral ambiguity gets fluffed as the demon insists Meg finds a child or he’ll kill Jack – which ultimately leads to Kent being decapitated. This unfortunate moment comes after Jack states that his father is no longer there – he can only see the demon and this convinces Meg to kill the monster. This ignores everything she knows about the demon up to this point – and how killing one more child would have freed her husband from the cursed suit. Having been asked to question how far we would go to save or protect our loved ones, the film sidesteps this issue with a very unsatisfactory and fudged ending. In much the same way that the fuck up the ending by casting Eli Roth as the clown for no damn reason at all. Fuck you guys.
Clown is scary, but not just because the creepy clown affects are impressive (and they are). It’s scary in the way The Fly or An American Werewolf in London are scary. It’s the story of losing control and transforming into something other and terrifying. Kent is bewildered when he wakes to discover himself covered in blood. He doesn’t know what’s happening to him. He doesn’t understand why he can’t take the suit off. And we watch as it slowly corrupts and destroys him.
For all it’s failings and lack of balls, Clown is a touching movie, full of great characters and convincing writing with a strong central concept. Peter Stormare is excellent as the former owner of the suit, desperately trying to prevent more bloodshed. Laura Allen is sensitive and convincing as a woman trying to save her family. Andy Powers is fantastically believable as a man losing control and desperate to save himself, but even more, to save those around him. Even the child actors are generally very good.
It’s really sad then that the second half devolves, for the most part, into a gory mess, with Eli fucking Roth hijacking the role of the evil clown. Apparently no one sent Eli the memo that this wasn’t his usual brand of gross-out gore fest, and was actually a movie with a heart and a point. This could have been a much better movie, if only we could wipe Eli Roth’s influence away.