Sunday, November 20, 2016

It's Clown's illusions I recall

I had a heck of a time doing my best Judy Collins/Joni Mitchell impersonation on Friday night as we were about to pop in the movie Clown, which I had purchased from iTunes as a 99-cent rental but which never got watched during Halloween season.

Swooping around my living room like an excessively earnest flower child, I sang:

"I've looked at Clown from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's Clown's illusions I recall
I really don't know Clown at all."

For those of you who aren't ancient like I am, that's a riff on the song "Both Sides, Now," which Mitchell wrote but Collins first recorded in 1967. It's Collins' version I first fell for back in college, though Mitchell herself did record it a few years later. The word in the original is not "clown," of course, but "clouds," probably leading most people to think the song is called "Clouds" rather than "Both Sides, Now." (Though Mitchell did actually choose Clouds as the name of the 1969 album on which she recorded the song.)

Anyway, I gave myself a laugh, something that's been in short supply the last ten days. My wife laughed too, so it was actually sort of funny, not just an insane delusion on my part.

After having a heck of a time with my dramatic and silly rendition of the song, I then had a heck of a time with the movie.

This was unexpected.

Unexpected because the movie looked, just from the poster above that was staring out at us forebodingly from my iTunes, like a grotesque exercise in anarchic horror, the kind of movie whose only goal is to scar you. I like a movie like that sometimes, but I would never recommend it to another person, like my wife, who might like a thing like that from time to time, but generally not.

So when the movie started with sort of a comedic tone -- but figured to eventually feature that rotting clown countenance in the poster -- I sat up and took notice. My wife did too, though she had already mapped out a different plan for her Friday night viewing and decided not to deviate from it. She later told me she wished she'd found a time to fit it in before the 24-hour rental window expired.

As well she should have. It was a hoot.

The movie is definitely violent and does go to some dark places, but in a mastery of tone, it stays light. It's not a comedy -- there are none of what you would actually call jokes -- but the movie has an overriding "good-time vibe." That's not to say it really celebrates what happens either, just that it keeps it in the realm of absurdity, rather than tragedy.

Oh, and if you need a further enticement: It's about a real estate agent who puts on a clown suit he finds in the home of a deceased client, needing to serve as an emergency fill-in for a clown who doesn't show at his son's birthday party. He then cannot take it off. And ... other stuff starts to happen.

Clown has really good performances from a cast that is largely unknown, and one of the best-ever uses of a delightfully unhinged Peter Stormare. Terrific camera work also by Matthew Santo, who has no other interesting credits to his name but should get plenty of work going forward if there's any justice.

But the real triumph here is that tone, which seems to have become a specialty of the movie's producer, Eli Roth. The tone is very similar to the tone in Roth's Knock Knock, which I also kind of loved. I suppose there's also something divisive about this tone, as both Clown and Knock Knock have their vocal detractors. But horror movies that flirt with the comedic and push taboo buttons are always going to piss some people off.

The film's other surprise was how it redeemed its director, Jon Watts. Watts actually got quite good notices from the film he made last year, Cop Car, which is technically a more recent film than Clown, as Clown had a very staggered release after first materializing in Italy in 2014. (In this case, staggered = dumped, probably.) However, I didn't like Cop Car at all -- in fact, it was in my bottom ten of last year, out of 143 movies I'd seen at the time of my ranking deadline. I didn't get what the affection was all about, so I was probably also a bit aghast that Watts was tapped to direct the Spider-Man reboot, a piece of information I processed when it was first announced and promptly forgot about. Well, now Watts is in my good graces, and I'm really interested to see what he brings to a movie whose existence otherwise leaves me non-plussed.

I guess the lesson is, when it comes to horror movies -- when it comes to any movies, really -- you can't always judge a book by its cover.

You have to look at Clown from both sides, now.

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