Watching Jon Watts’s 2014 film Clown was an especially disturbing experience for me because, not only did Eli Roth help produce it (which made my stomach churn preemptively) but I am also afflicted with coulrophobia—an irrational fear of clowns.
Truthfully, though, a clown itself is just an entertainer in specific makeup, not a supernatural entity rooted in evil. (Right???) There are different theories for why some people have aversions to them—I explored this specifically in a college documentary I produced that ended in immersion therapy gone wrong—with two major ideas being that their exaggerated humanoid features induce the uncanny valley effect, and the obvious induction clowns have had into the Horror Trope Hall of Fame.
And who do we know as one of the OG horror clowns? Stephen King’s infamous child-eater, Pennywise the Dancing Clown. This is as good a segue as any into Clown, because the plot is something like a Pennywise origin story. That is, if you disregard the one provided by King. But Watts, too, explores the concept of an evil clown with an appetite for children.
Don’t get me wrong though. Clown is an original story about an innocent game of dress-up that becomes more than that. It details how the mere character of a clown evolves—or devolves, depending on your perspective—into a sinister identity all its own.
Real estate agent and devoted husband/father Kent (Andy Powers) does his wife (Laura Allen) a solid during his son’s birthday party after the hired clown is a no-show. While rummaging through abandoned boxes in a property he’s selling, he comes across a vintage clown suit in perfect condition. Um, what?! What a happy coincidence. One might consider this discovery a little too on the (red) nose, but Kent is a Good Dad, and so he dons the costume without question and returns home, charming the partygoers, his son, and Meg.
The consequence of not looking a gift horse in the mouth is that Kent soon discovers he can’t get the damn suit off. At first he doesn’t think much of it and actually finds joy in his silly outfit. It makes his son (Christian Distefano) laugh and, in an incredibly cringey scene, he tries to seduce Meg and suggests they even “make little clown babies.” She is rightfully turned off by this.
The morning after, the shtick has gotten old. Kent is disturbed by his predicament but doesn’t have enough time to thoroughly investigate before getting to work. He tries to mask his costume with a hoodie, freaking out his contractors, and even attempts to saw it off with one of their construction tools, but injures himself in the process. It’s become clear that something is definitely wrong.
As the film progresses, Kent’s situation worsens. Not only will the costume refuse to budge but it begins to change—and so does Kent. The wig becomes his real hair. The nose becomes part of his flesh. His once-cheerful painted face takes on a warped, malevolent appearance. Worst of all, Kent begins to have a hankering for human meat.
Kent’s grip on his human form weakens and he’s forced to investigate the supernatural costume’s origins, leading him down a twisted and rather confusing path (for both Kent and the viewer). Peter Stormare (whom I immediately recognized from his, ironically, uncanny valley-like CGI presence in the video game Until Dawn) joins the story as the creepier-than-necessary previous owner of the suit whose intentions jerk between helpful and nefarious.
Things become rather unhinged by the third act, involving a gory climax in a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit, plenty of carnage to remind you of Roth’s involvement, and some messy folkloric explanations.
What I enjoyed about Clown was that, despite its titular subject matter, I interpreted the film as one about humanity and the choices we make that test its limits. For Kent, it started a simple decision to prove himself as a good father and becomes a battle between hunger and humanity. For Meg, it’s about how far she’s willing to go to trust her husband, before and after his transformation. Saving him could come at a menacing price that questions just how human she is, too.