Inside Out notwithstanding, it’s been awhile since cinema attempted to make clowns scary again, or at least use them as the central focus of a horror piece. Cheap make-up, big shoes, colorful hair, and a frilly suit can’t be all that scary anymore, so why bother? After a three-and-a-half-year shelf life, Clown, the Eli Roth-produced directorial debut of Jon Watts — who went on to put out Cop Car before this film’s release and is currently shooting Spider-Man: Homecoming — has arrived with the full intention of rectifying that void and answering that question.

Following in the footsteps of a Grimm fairy tale, Clown tackles the ‘ancient Nordic myth’ of an evil spirit living inside a clown costume that has one goal: devouring children, one for each month of winter. To do so, someone must first don the costume, wherein they’ll begin to transform into a demonic clown, or Cloyne. While the concept sounds ridiculous — and it is, to a degree — Watts makes the arguably harder and smarter decision of playing it mostly straight. Blending elements from body-horror, slashers, and folklore, Clown has a mean bite and cruelly sharp wit that almost balances some of the less inspired decisions from a first-time director.

Clown follows Kent (Andy Powers), a real estate agent running late for his son’s birthday party, who just so happens to love clowns (seriously, the kid naps cuddling a clown doll). When he gets a call from his wife, Meg (Laura Allen) that the prearranged clown has fallen through — “who double-books a clown?’ — Kent has to find a quick alternative. Luckily, the house he just put on the market has a closet abundant with left-behind clothes. However, no average outfit off the racks will do. Instead, Kent finds a dusty trunk at the back of the closet with the perfect suit. Voila! He shows up fully garbed in colorful attire as Dummo the Clown, just in time to break up his son’s disheartened questions to his mother about Kent’s tardiness. In the morning, however, Kent cannot seem to remove any part of the outfit. What ensues is Kent’s unsettling and often gross transformation into something much worse than your average balloon-inflating, juggling jokester.

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Once the metamorphosis commences, the film quickly moves from a slow-burn, atmospheric body-horror mystery into a jump-scare-filled slasher, and the shift is somewhat earned. With aural rumblings and atmospheric vignettes followed by bloodshed, this seesawing of tone from disconcerting mood to more overt gore hints at the ramp-up of violence that awaits, which makes it easier to adjust to when it does. The mythological conceit — while done before in similar iterations, sure — is cleverly constructed in that it has a built-in reasoning behind the escalation, making it feel more natural. As the suit’s hold on Kent grows, so does his appetite for children. So, his questioning of what is happening to him — the body-horror, mystery aspect — shifts organically to him giving into his insatiable hunger, resulting in the slasher aspect.

Cleverly edited by Robert Ryang, he tries for some interesting cuts, including eye-line matches to slyly segue scenes as well as cutting on particularly apropos visual metaphors or tongue-in-cheek lines of dialogue. This doesn’t always work though, as some cuts become overbearing or just confusing. In tandem with Ryang is director Watts, whose confident directorial style shows promise in moments of true cinematic intelligence, with a firm grasp on visual language and blocking. However, these are weighed down by tired choices to plan scares and a few amateur visual setups. His locked-down compositions are often chilling — especially the use of extreme wides — but his application of steady, gliding arrangements feel less tailor-fitted to the atmosphere of the piece, as if it was a choice made between him and cinematographer Matthew Santo because they’d seen it work before, not because it necessarily fits. The tracking camera is the technical equivalent of the often less-than-effective jump scares that bog down some truly eerie scenes of atmosphere and tension.

Technical treatment aside, the story itself is mostly familiar turf, with all the go-to archetypes in line: the loving and brave wife, the disgruntled father-in-law, the bullied son, and the mysterious know-it-all (played by the always-watchable Peter Stormare, who seems to have two default modes: sleazy or scholarly). Some early storylines are left by the wayside, and Kent’s characterization — both his connection to his family and his own personality — could use some work. For instance, there’s very early implications by Kent’s father-in-law that he is known to be unreliable, a subtle sign of his distaste for Kent. Yet this thread is left loose, with no real payoff, even though the opportunity clearly presents itself. Similarly, a B-plot involving his son being bullied has a hurried, lazy establishment before being quickly resolved. These loose threads are narratively unsatisfying, leaving more to be desired as the film trudges along. On the other hand, Powers’ commitment to the terror of his discoveries and transformation does help the whole affair, and he is able to shine in a particularly creepy scene in a basement.

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At other times it feels like Watts is more concerned with the pay-off and parading of his practical effects — which it must be stated, are quite excellent — or the moody, low-key lighting, and just accepted the first take from his actors. Some deliveries, mostly from Allen or some of the back-up players, are quite stiff or fall flat. This is a shame, because Allen mostly does a bang-up job as the conflicted force trapped in the paradox of protecting her son and trying to reclaim her husband. Yet in the end it still feels as though she is a Menaced Woman Who Has To Fight Back, as opposed to a three-dimensional character, despite Allen’s best efforts. It makes one question whether or not this would be the case if Watts spent the type of care and focus on all his characters as he did his gore and make-up.

Before the rainbow blood stops spraying and the children’s screams have ceased, Clown gets in some truly memorable moments of terror, namely a sequence in a Chuck E. Cheese’s-esque family center that conjures up a new level of nightmare for parents, particularly in a tube slide. Having the focus be on menace against kids is a bold choice that pays off in the chills department, even when the film gets tripped up by cheaper, exploitative decisions to induce fear.

Clown is now in limited release and available on VOD.

Grade: C+

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