You can always assume a horror movie’s quality based on how many cardinal genre sins are broken before the credits roll. Tom Nagel’s ClownTown has no trouble racking up the offenses in this particular case, especially because a good eight minutes pass before any title flashes. In that time, a lonely babysitter ignores obvious warning signs, gets naked on camera for no added reason (only two minutes in) and dies a generic, horrid death – three strikes in record time. Sadly, it never gets much better from there, as a town is seemingly taken over by psychotic clowns who rule by Marshall law – because why the hell not? It’s a little The Devil’s Rejects, a bit Psycho and unfortunately way too much of Rob Zombie’s 31. Talk about bad timing…
Jeff Miller’s story is rather simple. Four weary travelers attempt to reach their concert vacation destination a bit quicker by taking a shortcut, but instead end up stranded in an empty town overrun by murderous clowns. Brad (Brian Nagel) sticks by his girlfriend Sarah (Lauren Compton), while Mike (Andrew Staton) tries to find his lady, Jill (Katie Keene). Once night falls, the psychotic clowns make their presence known by slaughtering the innocent. No lawmen, no rules. Just a frantic survival escape from this carnival nightmare.
I guess you can call ClownTown a dystopian horror film where vagrants rule, except they only come out at night? We’re supposed to fear the dark and fall into horror conformity, because when the moon rises, the worst in people comes out. Townsfolk board up their doors, while a group of unsuspecting post-teens wander aimlessly as they’re hunted by maniac killers done-up in clown makeup. Honestly, it all rings back to a funky little horror flick I saw last year called The Funhouse Massacre, except that movie was a freakin’ blast – and this one, well it’s more of a detour.
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Little thought is put into the mythology behind Miller’s terror takeover, as “a town filled with clowns!” stands as the best plot explanation. There’s a mother arc where she protects her babies (the clowns), and a very Texas Chainsaw relationship with family bonds that aren’t always blood relatives. Each clown respects the other, and they hunt as a pack – but, again, why? How can a few axe-swinging, hobo-painted clowns overtake an entire town with no police presence? Because this is a generic horror film that latches onto an admittedly fun-sounding concept, but never strives to expand upon its one-sentence pitch.
That said, the clowns at least appear in ghastly forms. You’ve got the overall-clad, bulky simpleton clown, a more dapperly-dressed mime-lookin’ clown, the fat top-hatted clown, and a slender Javier Botet wannabe who resembles as an actual ghoul. They walk around like Michael or Jason might, never running, always lumbering behind their hopeful victims. This means the film’s only scares come from costume design and sick smiles, never from actual tension or suspense.
Nagel (the directing one) goes for a throwback slasher vibe, but he’s never able to elevate kills enough, so some of the lesser acting and unexplained plot devices are overshadowed by genre goodness. Kills are weightless, clowns rarely shock and no one can shut either lead actress up as they scream their way through every single scene – horror by way of generic expectations, not a healthy investment in genre appreciation.
There’s nothing worth writing home about by way of performances, as girls are typical hotties and guys are aggressive protectors. A small emotional tie is attempted through Brad’s engagement plans, but a bathroom conversation between bros never truly culminates into something sweet. Opening character introductions are lame and cheesy, destined to be forgotten once clowns start attacking. Cue the “characters we don’t care about fighting for lives we’re not invested in” complaint, and we’ve come full circle on an indie horror film that defines the dismissive stereotpyes general audiences have about indie horror films.
ClownTown is a rough watch, especially with 31 coming out oh-so soon. Not saying I liked 31 any better – I barely did, if even – but at least Rob Zombie has a grungy style and his own vision. Can’t say the same for Tom Nagel, whose backwoods-y thriller looks like a billion other derelict horror films with the same dark tone. Hell, there’s even a bathroom scene that’s all-too reminiscent of something you’ll see in 31, only driving the Zombie comparison like a stake through the heart of this blood-smeared VOD corpse. Unfortunately for everyone involved, this is very much a laughing matter – not the clown-heavy horror experienced you’d hope for.
Even those who are deathly afraid of clowns will have trouble finding enjoyable bouts of horror in this survival thriller.