I never thought clowns were scary, but I love seeing them in movies. It’s almost as if they were made for movies. (See: Álex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus, possibly the greatest use of clowns in a movie ever.) Hell, I kind of like mimes, too, so maybe there’s something wrong with me.
Anyway, you remember that part in Parenthood in which Steve Martin has to dress up as a clown for his son’s birthday party? Imagine if he discovered the costume wouldn’t come off. Then, as his frustrations mounted, he developed urges to murder innocent children. That’s the premise behind Clown, a remarkably deadpan horror-comedy written by a couple of filmmakers who got Eli Roth to produce after they made a proof of concept trailer.
So Kent McCoy, a real estate agent, is stuck in the old clown costume he found. All attempts to take it off—which have involved razor blades, hemostats, and power tools—have only injured him. The costume is apparently fusing to his body. Like Jack Nicholson’s version of the Joker, it’s his skin itself that’s white so he has to put on flesh-colored makeup to pass in public. Unfortunately, it’s clear he’ll never look normal again and his appearance is only devolving into something hideous, never improving.
While researching the origins of the costume, Kent meets a man played by Fargo’s Peter Stormare. Stormare’s character reveals the costume’s not made out of fabric at all, but it’s actually the skin and hair of an ancient demon. Ridiculous, right? Wisely, the film plays it all with a straight face and never elbows you for a laugh. I laughed quite a bit anyway. I think the reason the idea of getting trapped in a clown costume is actually scary is because it would be as embarrassing as accidentally showing up somewhere without any pants on.
The demon the skin belonged to was known for killing and eating children, an urge which slowly infects Kent himself. The filmmakers leverage that aspect of the plot into a moral quandary that comes into play towards the end of the movie. Without giving too much away, people often say they would do absolutely anything for their children. Clown explores the darker implications of an otherwise innocent statement like that.
Moviegoers often debate about which kind of horror is more effective—showing it all verses implying it—and that’s as silly as arguing which color is best for works of art. I appreciate a horror film that includes colors from the full palette. While Clown’s promotional material suggests it might assault you with buckets of gore, it neither wants to push the envelope or shy away. It implies more than it shows, yet it makes effective but sparing use of body horror. Whereas Eli Roth repeatedly hits you over the head with the horror elements in his own movies, these guys sneak that stuff into your blind spots and by the time it’s in your peripheral vision it’s too late.
I really liked this movie, which is bizarre and subtle at the same time. I was often reminded of that shocking reveal at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, which is the worst thing that could happen to its lead character and somehow kind of amusing at the same time. The acting in Clown is much better than you expect and the characters seem real and grounded. They don’t even do anything stupid, like walk into a room that obviously has danger in it, or make excuses for why they don’t call the police.
If you ever wondered why I’m a big Eli Roth fan, it’s because of his involvement in movies like this. We need more cheerleaders for the smaller voices in genre fiction and Roth’s genuine enthusiasm for this kind of stuff is infectious. I know I keep pointing this out, but horror is in a renaissance after the intellectually and aesthetically diluted crap of the 2000s almost killed it. I couldn’t be happier.