Saturday, July 7, 2012

Friday the Filmteenth: Fear of Clowns

Fear of Clowns (2004)
Dir. and scr. Kevin Kangas
Feat. Jacqueline Reres, Mark Lassise, Rick Ganz, Frank Lama, Lauren Pellegrino, Carl Randolph, Andrew C. Schneider, Judith Furlow, Lisa Willis Brush

En bref: Coulrophobic artist deals with her issues by painting Baltimore's favorite clown pictures, as a musclebound clown stalks her with an axe. Fairly lavish for crap, but totally dreadful and invites hatred. Filmed near my old home turf.  

Here we are again, another Friday the Filmteenth on a Saturday. I do have a calendar with the days of the week on it. Multiple calendars. And they're all the same. Things are happening in the life around my writing machine that can keep a blogger a day late and a post short. For one, other projects. For another, I'm basically nocturnal these days, what with feline hijinks and a bedroom that's out of the air conditioning's reach (yes, I did in fact just blame global warming for my inverted sleep schedule), so my body seems to feel it's earlier than it is. But for a third, and in the main, it's the movie I insisted on for this week. I dipped into my stash of wretched self-reassurance movies, and thought it would be a good idea to write about Fear of Clowns. So I watched it again. That was Tuesday. I couldn't do anything else with it. Couldn't even. Which brings us to now.

As a preface, I could compare this to 13 Seconds from two weeks ago. Technically, Fear of Clowns is miles above it. This movie contains shots and actors who follow a script, which details a plot. Almost none of these elements are anything like good, but they're present. The image quality looks positively glamorous by comparison. There is a musical score. There are even one or two moments that approach tension. In other words, Fear of Clowns is not nearly as inept as 13 Seconds. Trouble is, the sharper focus makes the film's nasty, juvenile attitude and general unpleasantness all the more impossible to overlook. 

The Movie (here be spoilers)

Lynn Blodgett (Reres) is an artist and single mother, having just started divorce proceedings, who is housesitting for a few weeks. The script takes care to let us know, in no uncertain terms, that the house we see her in does not belong to her. This is some kind of effort on the part of director/writer Kangas to explain away the Mom's House Effect — every house in Fear of Clowns was the home of someone connected to the production. And does it ever show. I'd bet no movie before or since has featured so many young artists and wealthy professionals surrounded by pink siding, floral trim, country quilts and grandma decorations. Kangas tries to excuse it in Lynn's case. He won't bother with any of the other characters.

Lynn's an artist, and she's afraid of clowns, so naturally, clowns are the principal subject of her paintings. We find her waking up from a clown-based nightmare, in what is clearly a no-frills guest bed in a no-frills guest bedroom (don't housesitters get to sleep in the big-girl bed?), and hustling to get to her gallery opening in downtown Baltimore. But what's this? The whole family a couple of houses down has been murdered in the night! While they slept! This information is passed on to Lynn by Gale Wroten (Furlow), her immediate neighbor, who is introduced and named as if she'll matter in a second-tier way, and who never appears again; I only mention her because I'd like a clip of her performance to show to anyone who might not get what I mean by the phrase community theater casting. This actress has local production of Grease written all over her. But hey, she's probably a sweet lady, and I remembered her work, didn't I? By contrast, we're already noticing that Reres is actually giving a performance, as is Frank Lama as Peters, the detective on the case. I'd say they do commendable jobs, since the material they were given to work with has the depth and nuance of a single cold crêpe on a paper towel. 

As I'm feeling generous (and sleep-deprived), I'll even say the same for Rick Ganz, who shows up at the gallery as Tuck, a pretty-boy art collector and designer of rollercoasters (because Kevin Kangas knew a guy who designed rollercoasters and could film in his office, why else?), and strikes up a tepid seduction with Lynn. They make a pleasant enough couple, I guess. She's a smart-faced blonde, and he's like a more mature, somewhat doughier Taylor Lautner. Many of their scenes together will consist of her trying to figure him out; he's meant to be mysterious, enigmatic, even suspicious for a time. Doesn't work at all, however, since he's such a cute-faced bohunk. For my money, she should have done some flirting with Peters. Revisiting Fear of Clowns this week, I didn't remember Lama being so darn handsome. A younger Bruce Campbell comes to mind. I found him extremely attractive. But clearly, I have no taste, for I do not paint clowns. Nor do I, unlike Tuck, purchase paintings of clowns. He writes her a fat check for some tasteful clown art, and later that night, Lynn turns on the patio light to find Shivers the Clown (Lassise) peeping through the sliding glass door. Surprise! She passes out while calling the police. When they arrive, she's alone and unbeclowned. Peters is skeptical of her story, and handsome. 

Now, about this clown. I hope we can all agree that clowns are on a list of phenomena that could be removed from the world with no deleterious effect. Clowns are awful. I can't be in the room with a clown. My family loves the story of how I, at the tender age of twenty-eight or thereabouts, shuddered through my meal at a new salad restaurant that, for some unknown and unacceptable reason, had a goddamned clown to greet customers on opening day. Who does that? What scholar had the genius idea that a clown would be just the thing to draw in the crowds for chi-chi salads? That restaurant didn't last long, and I think we can all guess why, can't we? The salad clown was a specimen of the worst breed of clown in existence. Clownus spectralis horribilis. Red nose, rainbow hair, balloon animals, a jacket made of a fabric appropriate to an old man's wingback chair (you just know it'd smell like Pall Malls and lunchmeat). Shivers is not that kind of clown. I don't know what kind of clown you'd call him. Maybe a Red Shoe Diaries clown, if Zalman King had been without taste. Shaved bald, shirtless and muscular, clown pants and a ruff-bib-thing around his neck. Face paint designed by someone who's seen a few Clive Barker illustrations. Eyes solid black, like a shark's eyes, and sensitive to light, which will become important later on. He carries a battle axe. In other words, he's the perfect cover art for a piece of juggalo erotica. Anyway, he doesn't scare me particularly. I think it's the hair that's my clown trigger. Dirty, stinking rainbow hair. Shivers lives in some ghetto basement, practicing his chopping skills on wood, mumbling about "getting better", and taking orders from a speakerphone that may or may not be in his mind.


Lynn's a mite too busy to be tangling with a pec-tastic porn clown these days. Her incipient ex-husband Bert Tokyo (Randolph) is being ten kinds of asshole about their divorce. Yes, his last name is Tokyo. Meaning that until the divorce goes through, our heroine's actual legal name could well be Lynn Blodgett Tokyo. Moving on. Tuck is wooing Mrs. Tokyo with lunch at his luxurious pink house by the bay, with matching pink gingerbread storehouse-toolshed-whatever in the driveway, and a trip to take pictures at the abandoned Land of Myth amusement park. Marylanders might recognize this place as the remains of the Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City, and I have to say that as a scary location, a better movie could get serious mileage out of it. Shivers is lurking around the exhibits, hoping to introduce Lynn to his axe, but he can't get an opening. It's frustrating. So frustrating, he has to vent his anger by stalking and killing Amanda (Pellegrino), who works at the gallery and lives in another home decorated in Precious Moments Chic. It's this scene, by the way, that really begs you to hate Fear of Clowns. Begged me, at least. A shirtless man with big muscles brutalizing a fully nude woman, throwing her around the living room before taking an axe to her neck… such a scene has some unsavory subterranean business going on, especially when the movie's attitude of this is so friggin' awesome is apparent. We're also noticing that Kevin Kangas is slipping in some knowing (and clanging) homages to Halloween, with Shivers appearing unmoving in the background, through darkened windows, here and then gone. He does know what he's doing, though he's too ham-fisted to pull off early Carpenter. It's a shame he's also showing evidence of a fourteen-year-old's sniggering attitude. It ain't funny, movie. After this death, Peters finds clown paint on the window, and now believes Lynn about Shivers.

I'm getting bored, and tired. List time!

- Bert Tokyo has hired a hitman to whack Lynn and make it look like a mugging. But what's this? He also knows Shivers! As a patient, that is (he's Bert Tokyo, psychiatrist to the clown stars), and not wanting to risk having to give Lynn a scrap in the divorce, he's come up with a two-pronged alimony avoidance plan. He's convinced Shivers that to "get better", he must kill Lynn. Not a bad development, in fact. It deserves a better script.

- Shivers and the hitman converge on Lynn's sittin' house in a scene that lacks all tension, but does feature a godawful rainbow clown pinned to the lawn by a headless cop. 

- Tuck gets to be heroic, Lynn gets to use a gun, Peters gets to look concerned and handsome. Enjoy the shelf of clamshell VHS tapes visible during this scene. I hope the three of them snuggled up to watch The Lion King after the shooting.

- Shivers surprises Dr. Tokyo at home, relaxing in bed with a book. Dr. Tokyo's home is a vision of dusty rose paint, frou-frou wall paper and dried arrangements. It's just darling.

- the manager of the gallery (Schneider) gets it somewhere in here, too.

- I haven't even mentioned the creepy gentleman who commissions Lynn to paint a portrait of his father, a clown and a child molester. This plot point comes out of nowhere, leads right back to nowhere, and does nothing but spread a stench.

The last twenty-odd minutes find Lynn and Tuck enjoying a romantic evening in a movie theater, after hours and all alone (if I knew a theater manager like Kangas does, I'd milk that for a location, too). Shivers shows up for a box of Good-n-Plentys and some murder. There's another smidge of tension to be had here; since Dawn of the Dead, large deserted retail spaces are always good for a creep. Cueball the Sex Clown chases our couple up and down, in and out, hither and thither, hippity hoppity. If you've ever had an aching hunger to see into the projection room of a multiplex, bon appétit. Lynn's little boy, the one that you, me and the movie forgot she had, shows up in time to be a plot device. Could there be a use for blinding projector lights when dealing with a light-sensitive shark-eyed clown? Non-dramatic final confrontation! And we're done, until the sequel. There is a sequel. Haven't seen it yet. Don't know that I will, come to that.


Deep Thoughts, Or Not

First lesson learned: inept stupidity on film is preferable to stupidity that has enough competence and attitude to get out there and really make an assy spectacle of itself. I was talking recently with a friend about people with this problem. Would you rather deal with a plainly stupid person, or with an idiot who's smart enough to get grandiose ideas about his own intelligence? Fear of Clowns is like that. We've all known that guy who cannot, who will not take constructive criticism of any product of his creative mind. Whose ideas are untouchable bits of genius, even when they're not his. Who thinks his essay deserves an A for having been turned in on time, and printed on paper without visible stains. Can movies have attitude? This one does, and it's juvenile. I keep coming back to that word. Kevin Kangas has made a juvenile movie, in which homage counts as originality, clowns with axes are badass, and naked girls being violently killed is awesome. Now, I know you do see a lot of this in horror films. A whole lot of this. Sloppy buckets of this. But direct-to-video filmmaking has made it all so much worse. If anyone with a camera and the ability to raise a budget can make a movie and get it released on DVD, no other talent is required. No talent, no filters, and no arbiters of quality. Thirty or forty years ago, even an undoubted turd like the original Toolbox Murders (where the lady took a long, sensuous bubble bath and got done in with a nail gun) had to be made with a modicum of skill. It felt like a movie. Fear of Clowns, like 13 Seconds and countless others, feels like the class jerk wrote a movie in tenth-grade creative writing and got all his friends to be in it. In this case, the class jerk might be richer than average and have some connections at the local college's drama department, but backyard crap is still backyard crap. Dressing it up only brings out the stupid. Can you imagine how unbearable early John Waters films would have been if they'd had more money behind them? A glossy Pink Flamingos, rather than a grimy one? Instead of cheap, gross and shocking, you'd have slick, gross and boring.

Second lesson learned: watching a lot of horror movies is not, and never has been, adequate training for making your own. It's not enough to take shots from Halloween and sprinkle in a few cute references, if you don't have a handle on why those shots worked in the first place. Halloween is a perfect film, to my mind, perfect for what it is and what it succeeds in doing to the audience. So is Psycho. So is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Lifting from these movies means you're observant, not clever. If you have somebody get killed in the shower, congratulations, you have more than likely succeeded in making the audience think with longing of a brilliant movie in the middle of your toilet-bowl movie; Roger Ebert once mentioned thinking of Fargo in the middle of the awful movie he was reviewing, "as a drowning man will think of an inflatable whale". It's not enough to copy John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock or Tobe Hooper; if you're serious about modeling yourself after one of them, you have to study harder, find out what influenced them, learn why they made your favorite films the way they did, and look at the how, not the what. My creative-writing hangout in college had a piece by the program director on the wall, called "The ABCs of Enlightenment". A different helpful hint for every letter of the alphabet. One letter, I forget which, advised writers and literature students to find out the favorite authors of their favorite authors, and read them to make some wonderful discoveries. If you read Stephen King a lot, and you notice that his characters gush about Somerset Maugham or John Fowles, consider looking them up and reading them. If you hear that John Carpenter loved the films of Howard Hawks (not hard to miss, he talks about them a lot), watch them. You'll learn. If you're really a movie lover, this will not be hard labor. 

One could make the case for exceptions to this. Eli Roth has made a dandy little career for himself, making gruesome frat-boyish horror movies out of homage and gore. He does have a good eye for the bits he lifts from other movies, and he strings them together with enough energy that the final films hold together fine. Then again, he couldn't be Quentin Tarantino's protégé and not learn the value of seeing not just the movies that interest you at the moment, but every movie you can get your hands on. Follow the Tarantino model, absorb a little of that hyperactive Tarantino know-how, and you'll learn to make movies that work.

Third lesson learned: special features and filmmaker commentary can do much damage to a movie. As he presents himself on the DVD, Kevin Kangas comes off as a loud, abrasive, juvenile, self-impressed piece of work. Maybe he's a lovable sweetheart of a man in life. After listening to his chatter over the movie, I have my doubts. Yet I'm glad he's doing his part for the Maryland film industry. The unseen Fear of Clowns 2 even moved the operation to my former stomping grounds on the Eastern Shore, with most of the shoot taking place in and around Tuckahoe State Park. Frank Lama (handsome bastard) is also doing his bit for local movie culture. He lives in Easton, acting and directing for film and theater; his film after Fear of Clowns was Swarm of the Snakehead. Marylanders won't need any reminding about the snakehead, I think. 

Have to line up something good for this coming week. Something quality, something I won't have to shower off afterwards. I'll sleep on it.

Worth Your Time?

Since I've watched it for you, why bother? 


  1. Hey, nice review! I am in fact a super nice, lovable guy but I'll admit that FOC was a movie that got out of my grasp. Many of your complaints are valid but some comparisons aren't really valid(every movie you named in comparison, even Toolbox Murders, cost 10-50 times my budget, and were made at least 20 years ago)

    But believe me, I'm the first to admit FOC was a disaster. If you give FOC2 a chance, let me know. It's a much better movie and we had a little more money and time to work with.

    I give you big props for the phrase pec-tastic porn clown, and have posted a link to this review on the FOC Blog.

  2. Thank you for responding, sir! And thank you, too, for being such a good sport about my complaints, valid and otherwise. It's well appreciated.