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How Not to Horror: Evil Clown Edition

My love for the “evil clown” trope (or “motif,” if you prefer) runs deep. I have written before, on more than one occasion, about my thoughts regarding the taxonomy of evil clowns. I would encourage you to read my previous thoughts on the subject because I want to emphasize how broad and omnivorous my hunger for evil clown stories is. Hell, I have even penned one myself: “auguste,” which was featured in the 2019 anthology Deadman Humour: 13 Fears of a Clown. From Ramsey Campbell’s claustrophobic (and coulrophobic) The Grin of the Dark to every incarnation of Stephen King’s It to 2014’s modern classic Clown, I love the vast majority of them. I even have a lizard-brain appreciation of questionable offerings like the Chiodo Brothers’ 1988 “classic” Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

I’m willing to forgive a lot – I have, after all, watched and enjoyed Stitches multiple times. Even my lifelong love of malign tricksters turns out to have its limits, however, and I encountered one such limit when getting to know Art the Clown.

For the uninitiated, Art is a villain featured in two movies: All Hallows Eve in which Art’s exploits unfold as mystery-tape vignettes, and Terrifier, which is entirely about him (it’s worth noting that Art was invented in short films starting in 2008). He is a well-known brand among horror nerds, many of whom seem to get a kick out of the extremes to which the “evil clown” trope has been taken by Damian Leone (the director) and Mike Giannelli and David Howard Thornton (the two actors who have portrayed Art).

Here’s the problem: Leone’s films are terrible. Art is a poorly written and pretty loathsome character, and the incoherent mess of quasi-supernatural sadism that is the result is deeply, violently misogynistic. This is the evil clown stripped of context or character or very much that makes the archetype interesting to begin with. Sure, Art looks creepy – and I won’t deny that Thornton’s mime work is, well, terrifying – but he’s all face-paint and prosthetics and fleshy torture, all surface and no substance. It feels cheap, it looks cheap, and it’s not very much fun to watch.

All Hallows Eve is a “forbidden VHS tape” film, a genre that is best exemplified by the V/H/S films, any of which I would recommend over Leone’s movies. Terrifier is just a mess, and doesn’t have much of a plot to analyze – it just acts as a string of “scares” that are more gross than frightening, like a ghost train ride through a butcher’s shop. Actually, that sounds like something I’d much rather participate in than anything involving Art the Clown.

Those of us who love evil clowns deserve better than Art. 2017 and 2019 brought us two scoops of Bill Skarsgård’s delightful and unsettling Pennywise, not to mention 2016’s Satanic Rob Zombie clown movie 31. None of those are perfect films, but they are all far superior to All Hallows Eve or Terrifier. In fact, I’d argue that Richard Brake’s Doom-Head belongs on the Mount Rushmore of evil clowns. He was so good in 31 that I entertained a brief fantasy of what Joker might have been like if the concept had been given to Rob Zombie. (Not that I didn’t love Joker – I reviewed it at Salt City Sinner, if you’re curious what my thoughts were.)

No criticism will matter as long as Art’s adventures continue to turn a profit, and they have, so far. Terrifier 2 is slated for release in 2020, and I’m confident that it will be as dumb and awful as its predecessors. Far be it from me to tell a director to hang it up and try gardening or Warhammer 40K, but honestly, Damian Leone has accomplished the rare feat of turning me against an evil clown. Art is gross and not particularly scary or compelling – he belongs on the ash heap of Big Top history.

4 thoughts on “How Not to Horror: Evil Clown Edition

  1. Just finished reading 13 Fears of Clown…(hoping to post up a review by next week).

    1. I would be overjoyed if you’d drop a link to your review once it’s up (: evil clown stories are something of a passion of mine, and I love writing, reading, and watching them

      1. I love clowns…I grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and even worked for this fellow for a while who spent his honeymoon on JoMar (he’s restoring JoMar and operates a restaurant out of one of his other pullman train cars.)

  2. …the “Bloody Red Nose” one…will check out the other anthology soon!

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