A group of friends get stranded in a seemingly deserted small town and find themselves stalked by a violent gang of psychopaths dressed as clowns
Clowns are like the special sauce of the horror genre. No matter how undercooked the storyline or overbaked the performances, a generous, heaping helping of crazy, killer clowns will cover up all manner of cinematic sin.
Just consider ClownTown, if you will.
Shot in various locations around Ohio in the spring of 2015, director Tom Nagel’s feature debut is full of plot holes, poor dialogue, and unimpressive performances, but once those crazy, evil clowns show up, ClownTown actually becomes a satisfyingly effective little horror film.
The ClownTown plot—if that word even applies here—is pretty straightforward. A group of friends are traveling through small-town Ohio on their way to a big country music concert (so, yes, they deserve what they get), when a coincidental case of this-leads-to-that gets them off track and lands them in what appears to be a small, abandoned town. It just may be, however, that all is not exactly as it seems. Not only are their circumstances not so coincidental, but the town isn’t all that abandoned, either. Turns out that a homicidal pack of crazy, feral clowns occupy the town, and when Brad, Sarah, Mike, and Jill crawl into their web, the clowns unleash a night of terror and murder on the unsuspecting travelers. Welcome to ClownTown.
Early on, ClownTown wants very much to put the viewer into a Halloween state of mind. With its opening image lingering briefly on a mailbox that says “Strode”—the name of Jamie Lee Curtis’ cursed babysitter in the Halloween franchise—to the pan over to a lonely suburban house and then the creepy young boy dressed for the circus: ClownTown may unfold in rural Ohio, but its spirit come straight out of Haddonfield, Illinois. And, like Halloween, the opening set-piece murder gives way to a flash-forward—fifteen years later, coincidentally—when the main action of the movie takes place.
For the most part, though, that is where the parallels to Halloween end and where ClownTown becomes a fairly brainless but still effectively creepy and atmospheric horror romp.
No matter whether the blame ultimately falls to the director or the writer or the actors themselves, the non-clown members of the cast do the film no favors.
As Brad, Brian Nagel—the director’s brother and ostensible lead of ClownTown—delivers a flat, bland performance that significantly undermines the film’s emotional stakes, and co-stars Lauren Elise as Sarah and Katie Keene as Jill don’t fare much better. Likewise, Jeff Denton and director Tom Nagel himself don’t make much of an impression as a couple of locals who get caught up in the massacre, though Greg Violand has a bit of fun but ultimately creates a character best described as Old Prospector meets The Pilo Family Circus.
Of the original four ill-fated travelers, only Andrew Staton as Mike stands out, though that very well may constitute damning with faint praise. If nothing else, he remains marginally interesting from start to finish, and he gets full marks for giving it all he’s got. Staton has a bunch of shorts to his credit and provides voice work for the animated TV series Flagon, but he has the look and demeanor to carve out a niche both in and out of the horror genre.
The good news is that none of these actors are really asked to do all that much. The bad news is that, with the exception of Staton, they are barely up to the task.
By contrast, the clown cast is asked to do even less, but they are uniformly effective, across the board.
David C. Greathouse—who is a well-credentialed special makeup effects artist with credits that include The Usual Suspects, John Dies at the End, and Tusk—appears here as the Master Clown, a long, snarling demon with ties to the movie’s opening scene and a relentless drive for murder and mayhem. Along with Ryan Pilz, pro-wrestler Chris Hahn, and Beki Ingram, Greathouse mostly has to pose and hiss and swing a weapon, but he and his fellow killer clowns do so with fiendish enthusiasm and wicked panache.
Whatever success that ClownTown ultimately has in fulfilling its nightmare vision, much of the credit must go to the largely inexperienced actors underneath the makeup and the artists and designers who brought them to life.
Though ClownTown represents director Tom Nagel’s feature film debut, writer/producer Jeff Miller has a handful of horror features to his credit, including Hellblock 13, Head Cheerleader Dead Cheerleader, and Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan. With ClownTown, the two have teamed up to deliver a technically sound film that comes up well short on plot, dialogue, and performance, but does manage to deliver a handful of jolts, an pervasive sense of dread, and a sinister clan of killer clowns that will linger in your imagination after the final credits roll.
So to all those filmmakers out there who aren’t sure if their movie measures up, just remember the secret sauce of the effective horror recipe:
When in doubt, send in the clowns.