"What’s the matter, kid, don’t you like clowns?" snarls Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding as he terrorizes a child in Rob Zombie’s grindhouse sequel The Devil’s Rejects. "Ain’t we fuckin’ funny?" It’s this aggressive try-hard energy that characterizes the modern horror clown, and a well that Zombie would return to in his 31, in which a crew of carnival workers is kidnapped and brutalized by homicidal clowns, led by the sadistic Doom-Head (Richard Brake). But there’s nothing funny about any of these greasepaint ghouls.
Ditto Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise in IT, and Terrifier’s Art the Clown. The horror clown’s appeal traditionally lay in the distance between its friendly countenance and the brutalities that generally followed. But lately, there is no contrast.
Once a chilling subversion of a colorful sideshow personality, the horror clown has become a lazy scare tactic. Need to amp up the horror? Bring on the clowns: Art leering at his kebab-shop victims; Pennywise grinning from the sewer; and recently Twisted Metal’s Sweet Tooth. There’s no subversion, just an already creepy guy in overtly horrifying make-up.
This is all a far cry from the goofballs of Killer Klowns from Outer Space, or Cesar Romero’s surfboarding Joker. Ross Noble did the killer clown well in Stitches – as did Reece Shearsmith in Psychoville. But in both those cases, their explicit grotesqueness was a commentary on how far the movie clown has fallen, more associated these days with monstrous lawbreaking than the tragicomic circus attraction upon which the trope is based.
Following the release of 2017’s It, Clowns International representatives took to the airwaves to protest the bad rap the film gave the community. It is "a cheap Hollywood movie" that has "nothing to do with clowning", spokesclown Rob Bowker told ITV’s This Morning. Diluted through overexposure and about as edgelord as an Insane Clown Posse record (talking of bad raps…), the horror clown is now so commonplace that it’s lost all meaning.
Send in the clowns? It’s time for a moratorium instead. Or is it just me?