A group of friends get stranded in a seemingly abandoned town and find themselves stalked by a gang of violent psychopaths dressed as clowns.
September 30, 2016 Theatrical, October 4, 2016 VOD
Brian Nagel as Brad
Lauren Compton as Sarah
Andrew Staton as Mike
Katie Keene as Jill
Welcome to ClownTown. Population: Dropping. How’s that for a tagline? But seriously, I enjoyed this little excursion into “demented prankster land” a lot more than I thought I would. There’s not a single original bone in its body, but the execution is solid enough. At least I wasn’t bored. A group of friends get stranded in a small, apparently deserted town. They soon find themselves terrorized by a group of marauding psychopaths dressed up as, well… I’ll give you one guess.
First off, let’s talk about cell phones. Those little buggers are the bane of all modern horror films. Horror writers have to jump through hoops to explain why their characters can’t just call for help when shit hits the fan. Nowadays everybody has a cell phone, so the excuses have multiplied to an absurd level. Hilariously, in ClownTown the explanation is the entire state of Ohio. “Everywhere you go the reception is spotty,” someone conveniently says at the beginning. Hey, I’ve heard worse.
Directed by Tom Nagel and written by Jeff Miller, ClownTown is one of those slasher films where the people are just meat, pure and simple. They’re all stock characters, made up of the straight white male, his blonde hottie girlfriend, her brunette bestie, and a Kevin Smith lookalike that cracks jokes. They have no three-dimensional traits beyond that, (I think maybe the comic relief guy flunked out of college or something). But it doesn’t matter. They scream convincingly.
So we might as well get the performances out of the way. Some of them work, some of them don’t. Brian Nagel, (the brother of the director), is physically handsome as Brad, the de facto leader of the group. But he lacks the charisma needed to carry the part, often coming off as bland as his character’s name. Lauren Elise and Katie Keene have a little bit more personality in their respective roles. Keene in particular gets to “scream queen” it up like nobody’s business near the end. But the real standouts are the clowns.
David Greathouse plays the leader of the evil clowns. He’s the real dynamo of the film. He gives a completely silent performance. His mouth, (smeared with red grease paint), looks like it could swallow your entire head. When he emerges from the shadows with his machete, his weapon of choice, it’s pure nightmare fuel yanked directly from a child’s first trip to the circus. Beki Ingram is another standout as the female clown, a kind of proto Harley Quinn. Sadly, her scenes are all too brief. But Ingram does get to torture the hell out of Katie Keene, as she “dresses her up like a doll”. The other clowns offer a foreboding presence, though not as memorable.
The movie feels like it was assembled in two parts. The first half is considerably more tedious and workmanlike than the second. It opens on a babysitter in a suburban house looking after two kids, one of whom is partial to dressing up like a clown. It’s rote and disconnected from the rest of the story, but the visuals offer a certain mood.
The second half is where the director really gets to use the biggest asset ClownTown has going for it, the town itself. Clinton, Ohio is a bitchin’ location. Tom Negal and cinematographer Ken Stachnik “use every part of the animal” so to speak. There’s not a warehouse, train station, or junkyard they don’t transform into a dystopian netherworld.
Cinematographer Stachnik smartly borrows from the John Carpenter playbook. Night scenes with large patches of darkness, spotted with yellow, blue, and red light. All high-contrast and chiaroscuro, like the characters are lost in Satan’s company town. This heightens the middle “run and hide” portion of the story, though the pretty shots can’t keep it from feeling repetitive.
In the end, too much is explained and not enough. The clowns took over the town because of an economic downturn. A lot of recent American horror films seem preoccupied with the death of the Midwest, the loss of industry and prosperity. In ClownTown, this part of the story feels like a missed opportunity. Clinton isn’t really abandoned. The citizens just don’t go outside out of fear. That seems a bit ridiculous. It would’ve been better if Clinton had dried up completely into a ghost town, leaving only the worst of the worst to exercise their primitive desires.
Most disappointing of all, there is no explanation as to why the psychos choose clowns. A mysterious woman, (Maryanne Nagel), gives some backstory. Her performance is pure Vincent Price histrionics. I enjoyed it on that level; however, the connect-the-dots she gives crumble under the smallest featherweight of logic. That can be forgiven to a certain extent. Clowns are freaking scary, man.
I would think the only reason a psycho would want to dress up as a clown would be because he found it funny. The Joker obviously has a jolly good time in Batman stories, lobing puns and one-liners as he slaughters. The fact that none of these clowns cracks a joke, not even a physical gag, also feels like a missed opportunity. Though for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what those jokes would be. Probably Knock-Knock.
ClownTown will be released in October 2016. For the most part, the practical effects and technical design compensate for shaky performances and an illogical story. It’s a harmless diversion for the coulrophobic, (fear of clowns), among us. But it won’t be challenging the preeminent Pennywise any time soon.