February 01, 2008

Dead Clowns: Cinematic Pie in the Face

Real horror hounds know that there is a taxonomy of horror flicks, and one of the subgenres is the "evil clown" movie. The vast number species in the taxon have low overall fitness, but it still exists based largely on the one or two better movies in the group — particularly the cult classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a bizarre and creative specimen that played for laughs. And that's the thing; if you're making a movie about evil clowns, especially a low-budget one, there must be a sense of humor at work somewhere in the mix.

Enter Steve Sessions' Dead Clowns. It's an exceptionally straight-forward story. In 1954, a train car full of clown crashes off a bridge and gets buried in silt at the bottom of a bay. Years later, a hurricane comes along and, for some reason, the zombie-clowns attack a nearby town in revenge for their failure to convict a tugboat skipper who damaged the bridge and caused the crash. We learn this in the first fifteen or so minutes; the rest of the movie is shot after shot of zombie clowns eating people. Of 95 minutes, a good 70 are nothing but these shots; the rest is stock footage of hurricanes.

In fact, there's not even any dialog the first part of the movie. People don't even scream when being eaten by the dead clowns. Instead, we get amplified munching noises. We can hear the clowns chewing, and that, the sound of wind, and calliope music are nearly the entire soundtrack of Dead Clowns.

There is no lighting in this film. I understand the constraints posed by a low budget, but if the budget is so low that it can't accommodate any lights at all, just don't make the movie. Video is a visual medium, after all, and you lose everything when the viewer can't see what's going on. More than half of Dead Clowns is so dark that by the time the viewer has squinted and strained to figure out what the image on the screen is, the scene has changed to something else that can't quite be made out. There may be a practical reason for this, however. The effects makeup seems to consist of two stiff rubber zombie masks that appear over and over. By not lighting the scenes, the viewer is partly prevented from seeing this fact for himself. The director uses the same couple of masks over and over again in conjunction with a variety of brightly-colored clown costumes to attempt creating the appearance of numerous ghouls. That brings up another problem, though — either the costumes were rented or else purchased and returned. Either way, they're kept spotless throughout the movie. Here we have these dead clowns who have arisen from a silt tomb at the bottom of a body of water and are wandering through a hurricane and they manage to never get wet, let alone muddy. When we see a clown costume, it looks like it has been freshly removed from a plastic package. The creases in the clothing are perfect. It doesn't work; these Dead Clowns might just have been out and about for an evening's trick-or-treating.

So the flick plods along through scene after scene of a zombie clown with one of two faces eating various parts of victims about whom we know nothing, with the exception of seminal scream queen Brinke Stevens' character, Lillian, who dies with an unceremonious whack of a hammer early in the movie. It all seems pretty random, making for something more like footage than it does a movie. After 90 minutes of this, the movie simply ends. The zombie clowns aren't defeated. In fact, hardly anyone even puts up a fight. People get eaten and then the movie is over and the credits start rolling.

There's no humor at all. There's no plot. There's nothing but cheap-looking masks and plodding oversized clown shoes and some poor gore spewing from characters who can barely be bothered to whimper as they're being chewed upon in the shadows, and then it's all over.

Take my advice on this one; if someone gives you a copy of the Dead Clowns DVD, use it as a coaster. It will do better preventing stains on your furniture than it does as entertainment.

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