Some concepts simply sell themselves. If someone were to tell you of a great new splatter film entitled Zombie Strippers, wouldn't you be first in line come opening day? Or better yet, what if you ran across a DVD labeled Toddler Serial Killer in your local brick and mortar? It's almost impossible to believe that, as a dyed in the wool fear fan, one would pass up a chance to see a baby going Voorhees on the populace. While these previous two titles have yet to find a place in the movie macabre pantheon, something entitled Dead Clowns has finally arrived. That's right Dead...Clowns. Dead Clowns. Clowns that are dead. Dead...mofoing...Clowns. The name alone conjures up images of blood smeared baggy pants, oversized gloves caked in clots of human gore, and literal fright wigs adorning rotting corpse heads festooned with greasepaint. In fact, in the grand scheme of monsters and mayhem, this may be the perfect combination of concepts. After all, most people find clowns creepy. Making them members of the living dead can only add to their eeriness, right? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. For all its intrinsic possibilities, this indie effort is not the kitschy canni-ball, the name suggests. No, oddly enough, this is a semi-solemn take on such silly subject matter.
For the people of Port Emmett, a hurricane is no big deal. Living along the Gulf Coast, one gets used to such storm season threats. But along with the damaging winds and flooding rains, another menace looms over the tiny town. Fifty years before, a barge accident caused the collapse of a local bridge, sending a circus train full of performers plunging into the raging river below. Thanks to the shifting currents and tropical force gales, a rescue was impossible. Everyone on board - mostly the show's numerous funnymen - were buried alive. Now, with a new maelstrom on the horizon, the harlequins have risen from the dead - and they want a lot more than an explanation. As they seek their payback for being left to die, these reanimated comics want to murder - and munch on - everyone responsible for their fate. While some citizens prepare for the worse, a couple on a crime spree runs directly into the creatures' path. They soon learn that there's nothing funny about Dead Clowns...nothing funny at all.
Okay, let's get this out of the way right up front. Dead Clowns is not as bad as you think it is, nor is it as good as it could have been. When you start out a movie with a premise as promising as evil harlequins of hate rising up from the grave to put the supernatural smack down on the town that did them wrong, it requires a lot of incompetence to mess it up. Luckily, writer/director Steve Sessions is some kind of schlock movie savant. On the outside, his efforts seem mired in hopelessly amateurish elements, most dictated by budgetary and talent constraints. But on the inside, when viewed against dozens of equally unproven homemade horror maestros, he presents a pretty good show. Dead Clowns deserves some attention for all the conventions its breaks. It also demands to be kicked in the nuts for all the campy creepshow potential it squanders. After all, there is no idea more sickeningly sensational than having zombie bozos running around snacking on the citizenry. Just the thought of the undead stumbling around in floppy shoes, outrageous outfits, and fright mask make-up sends your scary movie short hairs into a tizzy. Unlike their alien Killer counterparts from the '80s, these clowns should be both dopey and disgusting.
But Sessions subverts our expectations, asking us to accept a more serious approach to his subject matter. Indeed, using John Carpenter's The Fog as an obvious stepping stone, he wants to make the story behind the murderous mimes into some manner of myth. Sure, we're still talking about reanimated jesters here, but the narrative places their presence in a far more ominous light. This is underscored by legendary b-movie actress Brinke Stevens' role in the film. Since there is very little dialogue overall, every single sentence counts, and the old school scream queen does her best to sell the tale of how our greasepaint comics came to meet their watery fate. Throughout this long passage of foundational exposition, Stevens' really emphasizes the real world elements of this otherwise goofy fable, and the use of a hurricane (via well employed stock footage) as a backdrop amplifies the gravitas in the tale. Of course, once we see the skull headed corpses in their clown get up, the mood is more or less destroyed, but for a while, Sessions cements our belief in old horrors coming back to haunt. Indeed, all throughout his pre-slasher set-up, we get lots of ominous portents of potential evil - both natural and paranormal.
It's in the execution where this film stumbles a bit. Deciding that conversation and killing don't quite mix, there are probably 10 pages of scripted lines, overall, in this 90 minute movie. Characters have establishing talks with friends and family, a pair of spree killing Goth kids discuss their latest crime, and an alderwoman explains why the restless rubes are back for revenge. But after these minor discussions, Sessions goes into silent movie mode. Turning up the sinister score to set the tone and atmosphere, and relying on motion picture maneuvers to explain what's going on, he does a good job of visually establishing dread. Sadly, this means that some of his cast becomes mute witnesses to the terror around them. This is especially true of dynamic b-movie Miss, Debbie Rochon. A fine actress in her own right, here she has to sell everything with her exquisitely expressive eyes. Similarly, outsider icon Eric Spudic plays a cripple who, after a couple of phone calls, ends up playing all his scenes via hampered physicality. Even some of the kills come off as haphazard without the aural set up to shock us. Granted, there is some juicy gore involved - especially near the end - and one particular picador with half his head missing makes for a fine movie monster. But when you're working with a title like Dead Clowns, you should be offering more than ersatz success. That's all Steve Sessions has for us, unfortunately.
Shot on what looks like direct to digital technology, Lionsgate really legitimizes the visual elements of Dead Clowns with their transfer. The movie has a professional polish, and the 2.00:1 letterboxed presentation is perfectly acceptable (sorry, no 16x9 option, anamorphic fans). For a movie mired in deep shadows and stormy night sequences, the image is exceptionally good. There is some minor grain in places, and a few of the flashbacks look optically out of place (reshoots, perhaps???), but overall, this DVD looks very good.
On the sound side, we are treated to a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that really tries to toss in the horrific ambient atmosphere. The channels occasionally come alive with spatial and directional elements, but in general, the aural aspects of this release are reserved for distant noises and hurricane histrionics. Additionally, Sessions' score (the writer/director handled the music as well) is interesting, if overused. There's barely a moment of silence in the entire film.
Sadly, Lionsgate lets us down in this department. Aside from a series of trailers, there is no other added content.
Sure, the ending is a little odd, relying on something symbolic to save a town being terrorized by real flesh eating funsters. Yes, writer/director Steven Sessions misses many opportunities for turning his tightly wound slice and dice into a real frightmare farce. Granted, for the amount of money he had to work with and the logistically limits placed on his production by same, the results are rather impressive. And no one will fault his clever cast for failing to fulfill their duty, performance wise. Yet Dead Clowns should have been better. It had the potential to be a macabre melding of two of the most terrifying effigies in all of cinema - the zombie fiend and the funnyman. Still, for what he manages here, Sessions and his film deserve a rating of Recommended. Horror buffs will appreciate his efforts, and those looking for something more substantive amongst all the half-baked bottom of the barrel boos out there will get a kick out of this movie's mannered approach. The mind reels at the inherent possibilities of a movie made about dead clowns. Here's hoping the eventual release (oh, you know someone will make them) of Zombie Strippers and Toddler Serial Killer take advantage of their prospective payoffs. Such subject matter definitely deserves it.
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