The current era of straight to VOD horror pictures might be too varied & too widespread to command any particular unified aesthetic, but that wasn’t true when horror cheapies were going straight to VHS. The (thankfully hands-off) Eli Roth production Clown seems to call back to a very specific time in 90s VHS horror filmmaking when names like Clive Barker, Lloyd Kaufman, and Charles Band ruled the less than prestigious landscape. Without any intentional maneuvers in its fashion, music, or narrative, Clown effortlessly taps into a current trend of reflective 90s nostalgia by lovingly recreating the horror cheapies of that era. It does so by striking a very uncomfortable balance between horror comedy & gruesome misanthropy, forging a truly cruel sense of humor in a heartless, blood-soaked gore fest featuring a killer clown & his tiny tyke victims. You’d have to change very few details of Clown to convince me that it was actually a Full Moon Features release made twenty years ago. Besides small details like cell-phone usage and the inclusion of “That guy!” character actor Peter Stormare, the only noticeable difference is that, unlike most Full Moon “classics”, it’s a genuinely great product.
One of Clown’s greatest attributes is its patience in slowly ratcheting up the insanity levels of its over-the-top horror premise. Set in an alternate universe where children in the 2010s get super excited about birthday clowns, a selfish business dad attempts to make good by dressing as a clown for his child’s birthday party once the hired entertainment drops out. His fatal mistake is in donning a cursed clown costume with thousands of years of demonic baggage (it could happen to anyone) that completely ruins his fun, spontaneous act of self-effacing generosity by morphing him into a reluctant serial murderer . . . of children. His transformation from milquetoast real estate agent to voracious, child-eating demon is gradual, manifesting in distinct stages. At first, he cannot remove the clown uniform he wears to the child’s party, with even the false nose & wig not budging with the help of power tools. Next he falls ill, coughing up projectile vomit, and becoming as pale as clown makeup. Finally, he transforms into his true self: a gigantic, child-eating beast tied to an ancient legend that requires him to eat a very specific number of children to break the curse. This slow rollout of body horror recalls past transformation pictures like Cronenberg’s The Fly & James Gunn’s Slither, except with a much cheaper budget for its Rick Baker-reverent effects & hideous, child-destroying gore.
I’m emphasizing the horrifically young age of Clown’s victims here, because it really is a big deal. Many horror films will tease children in peril for easy shock value, but few actually dare to go there, since it’s such a sensitive subject. Think, for instance, of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The film’s villain, Freddy Krueger, is explained to be a child molester & murderer, but in the actual movies he kills teenagers instead of children, which is a much easier age range of slasher victims for audiences to stomach. Clown gleefully crosses that line, leaving a disturbing aftertaste as it seems to find delight in its titular monster devouring young tykes for sustenance. This not only affords the film a kind of odd, transgressive edge; it also adds a real sense of danger to scenarios where the clown is lurking in a playground ball pit or telling young child, “I wanna see my #1 birthday boy.” In any other horror film you’d expect a relief in the promise that the film will likely let the kid off the hook. Here, the danger is not only made to feel real, it’s also made to be humorous, which is all the more disturbing.
There are a few hyperbolic ways to describe Clown that might oversell its charms. I could comfortably say it’s a lowkey retooling of Cronenberg’s The Fly or that its titular demon makes Pennywise look like Ronald McDonald, but I feel like those takes would be slightly misrepresentative of its basic aesthetic. There’s an essential cheapness to Clown that recalls projects the Masters of Horror anthology series or maybe late era Hellraiser sequels and you have to be at least somewhat down with that production level as a genre fan to get on the film’s wavelength. That being said, I do feel like Clown has undeniable flashes of brilliance, especially noticeable in the scenes where our poor, repentant, child killing clown attempts & fails to commit suicide in increasingly ridiculous ways to stop the horror (attempts that only end in goofy colors of blood splatter) and in an opening credits sequence where children’s birthday party screams are overlaid on top of otherwise innocuous cartoon clown imagery. The film is smart & incredibly uncomfortable, but houses its horror film thrills in a very specific era of nontheatrical genre trash, so it’s easy see how its better attributes might be readily dismissed by those not in tune with its particular aesthetic.
If you like trashy, throwaway horror pictures that mix black soul cruelty with incongruous humor, you might fall in love with the oddly campy discomfort Clown commands. Otherwise, maybe stick to the year’s artier horror offerings like The Neon Demon or The Witch. There have been enough great examples of those that you don’t need to catch this one if you’re not interested in its very specific, flippantly grotesque humor & tone.