Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
In October of 2010, a trailer appeared on YouTube for a horror film named Clown – expressly, as the title card at the end showed, “An Eli Roth Production”, directed by Roth himself. All this was in fact a cunningly plausible fake, engineered by TV director Jon Watts and his fellow writer/co-conspirator Christopher D. Ford. But much like the demonic clown suit that the trailer’s loving father finds himself unable to take off after donning it for his son’s birthday party, the idea outlined in the trailer proved hard to shake, eventually attracting the attention of Roth himself, who ended up producing this feature-length version for real (he also cameos as “Frowny the Clown”).
“That is a very traditional old costume from the Nordic regions. It wasn’t until years later it became a silly character. The original clown – he was not funny at all.” So says Herbert Karlsson (Peter Stormare) in an extended piece of exposition that lays out explicitly not just the backstory, but the laugh-free vibe of Clown.
Although much of the mythic origin tale that Herbert has to tell is intrinsically preposterous, Watts avoids the overt postmodernism of other faux-trailers-turned-features like 2009’s Dead Hooker in a Trunk, 2010’s Machete, and 2011’s Hobo With A Shotgun, let alone the zany hilarity of clownish horror comedies like 1988’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space, preferring instead to tap into the terror that clowns can inspire. Once happily married father Kent (Andy Powers) puts on the ‘Clöyne’ costume, its rather subdued colours set the straight-faced tone of a production that eschews easy camp.
As his loving wife Meg (Laura Allen) looks on with increased concern, Kent starts to grow into the suit and wig that he cannot remove, and to acquire, or perhaps just manifest, a rather unsavoury interest in young boys that evokes John Wayne Gacy as much as ancient child-devouring devils. It’s this merger of supernatural and psychological frameworks for Kent’s tragic downfall that propels the film’s tensions, as Karlsson’s otherworldly explanations clash with Kent’s rather more realistically grounded and (up to a point) recognisably predatory behaviours.
On the one hand, Clown dramatises the conflicts of a realtor who, under immense pressures from both his work and his domestic life, comes apart at the seams, and then struggles in vain to resist his emerging paedophilic and homicidal tendencies, even as his seven-year-old son starts to exhibit signs of similar aggressive psychopathies to those of his “fag dad”, leaving Meg to try to keep together her rapidly unraveling family. On the other hand, it’s a slasher with an all-new (if ancient) monster at its core.
Either way, the clown costume serves as a guise for unspeakable appetites and acts, while the film’s focus on very young children in extreme peril ensures some truly agonising tensions. For all the surface clowning, no one here comes out smiling.