For some, a town full of clowns would be a happy place. A fun place. A place full of laughter, where the air smells of grease and popcorn and every shoe is three times too big. Not for me. Oh hell no. No way. Keep me as far away from that town as possible. Too bad, fellow coulrophobics (fear of clowns), that I had to visit such a nightmarish place…
…Walking a tightrope between entertainment and nonsensical sleaze, director Minh Collins’ Clown Fear (aka Circus Road) takes my painted nightmares and splatters them on the screen in a cotton-candy colored mess of blood and carnival carnage. Written by Collins and star Sadie Katz, Clown Fear follows a runaway bride named Carlee (Katz) and her bridesmaids as they flee Vegas and hit the open road to escape Carlee’s d-bag fiancé, Thomas (Gianni Capaldi). A few bad jokes and some car problems later, and the girls find themselves stranded in Clown City, a place run by clowns, with very specific rules that offer punishments that are no laughing matter when broken.
Clown Fear opens with an introduction to Jebediah (Randy Wayne), the leader of Clown City, USA (a place I will never visit), as he and his gang of clowns bludgeon a woman to death while making Jebediah’s daughter, Kat (Courtney Akbar), watch. All of this to the tune of awkward jokes, line delivery that sounds like the actors are reading from an off-screen card, and a grimy atmosphere as sleazy and greasy as the paint on the unwashed faces of these clowns.
And people wonder why some of us hate clowns.
Collins’ isn’t clowning around when it comes to wanting Clown Fear to feel as sick, depraved and twisted as something like House of 1000 Corpses or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All three films depict a deranged family with a fucked up sense of morality, told through a dirty lens plastered with gore. But this is the poor clown’s version of both of those films. Clown Fear doesn’t come close to the masterful direction of Texas Chainsaw, and never quite feels depraved enough to be on the same level as House. But let’s be fair, few films are, and, hard as the actors may try to replicate someone like Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding, well, that’s a laughably futile endeavor.
As for our main cast of women, they’re all eye candy and not much else. The actresses are all having fun, and some, such as Augie Duke playing Mia, have an endearing quality about them that makes this group of women fun to watch, even if their characters have virtually zero qualities to separate themselves. Oh, except one wears glasses. So, there’s that.
Soon after escaping Carlee’s fiancé (who is hot on their tail), the women arrive at the “famous clown motel”, a place legendary for looking like Bozo the Clown pulled over while on a Vegas bend of hookers and cocaine and vomited a cheap motel. Clownish colors such as yellow, red and green scream at the audience, and a variety of clown figurines and portraits stare at the guests with their unfunny, dead eyes. It’s an unnerving setting, and makes it all the more disappointing that the film doesn’t match the creepy quality of the place.
Once at the motel, Carlee and friends are reduced to nothing more than clown cannon fodder, with frequent scenes of flashing, skinny dipping and sexy baths under the gaze of clown memorabilia. Hell, Carlee even decides to move on from Thomas by fucking the mechanic working on their car, who somehow turns her on with the fact that he is wearing GODDAMN CLOWN SHOES! Fashion statement, or clue as to where his loyalty lies? Either way, I guess clown shoes are hot now.
Of course, all of this seduction isn’t well liked by the people of Clown City. They may be ruthless killers who never bathe, but these people have beliefs, damnit. Beliefs! According to some hand-wavy legend told to our bride and her bridesmaids, the clowns of clown city have their own society, with rules that are unclear, and an unbridled hatred for “outsiders”, who, naturally, unknowingly break said rules the moment they enter town. Not good news for our promiscuous cast of gals, who become the targets of town folk who want to earn their clown shoes by killing them. No, really.
At its artery clogging, corndog core, Clown Fear is a great concept, with a lot of fun ideas from Collins and Katz, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. And I mean A LOT. “Scares” are often cheapened by a goofy approach, with clowns like Little (Douglas Farrell) sneaking behind people like Elmer Fudd approaching Bugs Bunny. Clowns appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, repeatedly. And a combination of sloppy camerawork and editing alleviate any tension that might’ve been had. To make matters worse, the film moves at the awkward pace of a drunken clown at a party where all of the kids are way too old for clowns, and everyone knows it.
Clown car of problems aside, Clown Fear does have one thing going for it outside of some excellent set design and fun kills, and that’s the fact that the film knows exactly what it is. Clown Fear doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a cheap, goofy, bloody homage to grindhouse films of the 80s. The audience isn’t always having the same laugh as the cast/crew, but that doesn’t mean Clown Fear isn’t without its moments.
At just under two hours, this blood-drenched carnival overstays its welcome by about thirty minutes, and good ideas are often wearing too little (or too much) makeup, but if you’re into the sort of low-budget horror with questionable taste, senseless nudity and the vague sensation of needing a shower, Clown Fear may just barely make the cut as something worth checking out. Otherwise, this is one circus you should just drive on past.
Clown Fear scares the peanuts out of coulrophobics on DVD, Digital and VOD February 18th, 2020 from Lionsgate.
By Matt Konopka