Seriously, how is it possible for a horror director to screw up the scary clown? It's a fail-safe, creepy concept that sells itself! A bona fide villain guaranteed to send shivers down your sissy spine! Yet John Simpson manages to pull off the unthinkable, toying with the audience for far too long in Amusement's signature sequence--one of many scenes here that proves he has no idea how to build, much less sustain, suspense.
Instead, he extends the gag to such an absurd degree, draining what little tension there was as he beats us with an obnoxious overkill stick. I present Exhibit A: The comedic standoff between babysitter Tabitha and the creepy life-size clown. Despite being spooked--and getting a few not-so-subtle clues that the clown could be real--Tabitha ignores her impulses, eventually turning around (with her back to the clown!) to take off her clothes. Later, she falls asleep--her back to the clown again! That's after a series of fake-outs that will test your patience, turning what should be a blood-curdling standoff into an exercise in eye-rolling tedium.
By the time the clown's head actually moves, you'll have thought of a million other films that have used clowns and their ventriloquist brethren way better: The House on Sorority Row, It, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Poltergeist, Seinfeld (crazy Joe Davola!), House of 1,000 Corpses, Clownhouse, Saw, Dead Silence, Batman, Bozo...
But wait! Simpson hasn't bled the sequence dry just yet, so he gives us an anticlimactic phone conversation between Tabitha and her aunt:
Tabitha: "Look, I love your new house, but the clown in my room...no offense, but I hate it."
Aunt Grace: "Oh God, which one now?"
Tabitha: "The big one."
Aunt Grace: "Which one?"
Tabitha: "You know, the really big one."
Aunt Grace: "I'm not sure which one you mean..."
Tabitha: "The one that sits in the chair. You know, it's life-size. The really, really big one. You have him propped up in that rocking chair."
Aunt Grace: "Tab, what are you talking about?"
Tabitha: "In the guest bedroom, with all the other clowns. The one bigger than me."
Aunt Grace: "We don't own anything like that..."
Tabitha: "Yeah you do...I'm looking right at it..."
Cut to an empty chair, cut to the phone receiver falling to the floor, cut to a long shot of Tabitha isolated in the hallway. Hackneyed, thy name is Amusement! I knew we were in trouble during the opening title sequence--the film is too lazy to actually have a story, so it gives you the bullet points in text: Three popular high school friends will be stalked by a dangerous classmate with behavioral problems.
From there, we're treated to an excruciating hour as the exact same short story plays out three times in a row with the demented man stalking and capturing the three women. The final 20 minutes--where the victims wake up in The Laugh's liar (yes, he's called "The Laugh"...kind of like The Shape, only not)--have no unique sequences, revelations or kills.
Shelby (Laura Breckenridge) is first--she's the "most likely to shine", whatever the hell that means (did the writer really run out of superlatives that fast?). She's accompanied by her boyfriend (Tad Hilgenbrink) on a late-night drive to Cincinnati. Rob is a little weird, not just because he wants to go to Cincinnati, but because he loves a good convoy--a word that makes me laugh because it conjures up memories of Homer Simpson singing (remember "Radio Bart"?). And since the word is used in a handful of lines ("You picked the wrong convoy, buddy!"), I got a handful of (unintended) laughs out of the film's first section.
The couple and the convoy stop at a gas station, where they run into a fellow follower and the lead trucker--who we discover has a women in distress locked up in his cabin. She soon jumps out onto Rob's windshield, setting up a series of nonsensical events that lead to Shelby's capture (you'll have about 10 good questions that won't get answered, including "Why did the trucker stalk him?" and "Why am I still watching this crap?").
The next segment has "most likely to succeed" Tabitha (Katheryn Winnick) arriving to babysit her little cousins, a devilish duo who don't seem to care that their previous babysitter disappeared just hours before. I'll overlook the odd tag-team babysitting concept and jump right to Tabitha's whip-smart decision to not call the police--and then open the door on a dark rainy night to talk to a mysterious hooded man she doesn't know and can't even see. But that's nothing compared to her drawn out clown fight with Krusty!
If you can make it past the requisite childhood flashback that follows (featuring a shot of a tortured squirrel, one of only a few bloody moments in this goreless affair) and the brief interrogation of Tabitha by an "on-site trauma counselor" (my apologies to Rena Owen; I thought for sure she was "The Laugh" in drag), you get to witness the film's worst section. That's when "most likely to be famous" Lisa (Jessica Lucas) searches for her missing roommate as her annoying boyfriend tags along (sound familiar?).
This segment highlights everything that's awful about Amusement. It's like the film takes place in a dream, because there's no logic, no common sense--and apparently no police or any other human beings in existence. Convinced her roommate is hooking up with a guy in a clearly abandoned hotel that looks like Arkham Asylum, Lisa forces boyfriend Dan (Reid Scott) to go inside: "Don't you find it strange that for a full hotel, we haven't seen one person come or go in over two hours?" Yes, Lisa...yes I do. But stupid Dan doesn't care, and even though the place is clearly deserted and the doorman is clearly psychotic, he decides to chill out with his host and ogle over (get this!) a Victrola.
Cut to about 10 hours later, Lisa is still outside (!), where it's now nighttime. Instead of calling the police, she keeps calling Dan's cell. Then she sneaks inside and heads to the attic, a giant room filled with beds that looks like an abandoned World War II clinic (her question "Where is everyone?!" is something you'll ask yourself the entire movie). She soon runs into a deaf henchman (guess who!) straight out of some tasteless Farrelly Brothers movie. Suddenly convinced she's in danger, she follows Igor's suggestion to hide. And by hide, I mean she lies on a bed and lets the stranger put up a bed sheet as a makeshift wall. You'll be shocked to learn that she gets captured, too.
So, to recap, we're an hour into Amusement--just 20 minutes left!--and we've watched the same stupid 20-minute story three times over. The conclusion is an afterthought, a tacked-on chase without an ounce of inspiration. It doesn't even try to be clever, ending with some silly narration that fill in the blanks for those too stupid to "get it".
Writer Jake Wade Wall doesn't have much experience with originality, and it shows. He penned the When a Stranger Calls remake screenplay in 2006, and was one of three writers on The Hitcher remake a year later. You can see bits of both of those films here, along with other thrillers like Joy Ride. There's a huge list of other "influences", from torture titles like Hostel and Saw (one set piece looks like it came right out of those films) to slashers like Terror Train and April Fool's Day to otherworldly affairs like Poltergeist (clowns and TV fuzz in one scene alone!) and Phantasm (hello, spikes!).
The film languished in development hell for a few years, hoping for a theatrical release. Amusement was initially described as an anthology, but it has clearly gone through many changes and cuts, leaving it a confused, incomplete mess. Despite my distaste, the movie looks gorgeous and is technically very theatrical, a far cry from the video quality of most DTV titles. Filmed in Hungary, the sets and art direction are top-notch, and the camerawork is solid. And a lot of individual shots and visuals show solid composition and flair--they would be effective if there was a coherent story. That makes it all the more painful, knowing such huge potential went to waste.
Amusement isn't so much a film as it is a collection of second-rate tributes strung together with Elmer's glue. It's a house of cards without a premise, and was clearly developed from a one-page script (wide-ruled paper, not college). Huge chunks of the film go by with no words (those segments are much easier to sit through), the characters are stupid, the situations make no sense and there's no relation to the real world. It's like a Twilight Zone episode without a punch line, a bad dream sequence the viewer never wakes up from.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is strong but not spectacular; the film is frequently dark and gritty, bathed in dull for a lot of the action. There's enough detail and color in some of the brighter scenes. Overall it manages to balance its budget with the technology to produce the most professional looking product it could hope for. A full-screen option is also available.
The 5.1 track is sharp enough, although very focused on front channels. Considering much of the film goes by without dialogue, it would have been nice to get more surround action. Subtitles are provided in English and Spanish.
You'll be shocked to learn that absolutely nothing, not even the film's trailer, is included--unless an online code to download a digital Windows Media copy of the film floats your boat (you can get frustrated with the movie again!). But there is a really long, annoying video game commercial to make up for it.
I find the film's taglines appropriate: "His pleasure is your pain" sums it up best. Despite gorgeous sets and art direction (and some technical skill behind the camera), nothing can save this unfocused mess--there's a reason it hasn't seen the light of day for years. Unoriginal, repetitive and nonsensical to an unforgivable degree, it's an 80-minute exercise in tedium--a bunch of build-up without a punch line. I'm not amused, and you won't be either. Skip It.