When the clown booked for her son’s birthday party cancels at the last minute, Meg (Laura Allen) calls her husband Kent (Andy Powers) to break the bad news. An estate agent, Kent searches his property’s basement in a desperate search for a solution, serendipitously happening across an old costume in the process. Having saved his son’s birthday, however, he finds that he cannot remove the suit or clean the make-up from his face.
Tracking down the brother (Peter Stormare) of the property’s late owner, Kent learns of an ancient curse that will see him transformed into a clown — not the wholesome, child-friendly entertainer of today but a demonic, child-killing creature of archaic Scandinavian mythology.
Killer clowns are nothing new, but even by the standards of the subgenre — including the likes of It and The Last Circus — the idea of a cursed costume resistant to knives and capable of transforming anyone who dons — or, er, consumes — it is about as preposterous as premises come, and yet the central conceit is dealt with so seriously that you can’t help but accept it at face value.
By not compromising on gore, director Jon Watts finds about as much horror as humour in the grotesque. The threat that Kent might completely lose control and consume his own son is very real indeed.
Watts knows that clowns are scary, intrinsically and unconditionally, for a relatively large number of people, and so doesn’t feel the need to rush his narrative along unnecessarily to get to the jumpy bits. This gives audiences an unusual amount of time with the family and helps to establish their relationships before the curse sets about tearing the household apart. Allen and Powers are great, and their scenes together at Jack’s party are full of warmth and familiarity. When the costume does start to take hold, however, the director doesn’t pull his punches.
You can usually count on children surviving even the worst atrocities the horror genre has to throw at them, but Clown isn’t going to let convention or even good taste stand in its way. A massacre at a children’s soft play area is as absurd as it is appalling, though the scenes that follow are even more unsettling to watch, as Kelly abducts a child in the hope of satisfying the demon and saving her husband before it’s too late. This, of course, being after he has killed four other kids.
Clown gets progressively darker as it goes on, opening with Kent trying unsuccessfully to hide his costume under a trench coat and hat, and ending with a laughless chase through the family home after a string of increasingly grisly murders — including one in front of an entire online gaming community. As the transformation enters its final stages, Kent turns into something truly terrifying, a creature only glimpsed previously through (judicious) found footage. The look, the sound, the behaviour of the creature is chilling enough, but the fact that Kelly is now fighting to save her own son (and her unborn child, too) ratchets up the tension to levels you couldn’t originally have predicted.
The film has paralleled abusive domestic relationships from the beginning, from Meg’s fathers’ suspiciousness of Kent to her increasingly convoluted attempts to cover up his crimes, giving the finale a surprising gravity. Clown might feel a little laboured, and it’s almost definitely too long, but it still makes for an entertaining watch.
It’s sometimes hard to separate a film from the experience of watching it, especially when the audience is as receptive as they often are at something like Glasgow Film Festival’s FrightFest weekend, but there is so much to admire and enjoy in Watts’ film that it’s likely to play well wherever it goes.