“ClownTown” opens with the by now almost inevitable (and just as predictably meaningless) claim that it is “inspired by true events.” Actually, there have been some real-life events of late fit to inspire a horror film of this particular stripe: Multiple communities along the East Coast have reported scary-clown sightings at the edge of forests and in other isolated areas. The phenom has been understandably ominous to local residents, and widespread enough to attract national media attention. Authorities’ failure thus far to apprehend any perps has raised suspicions that the whole thing might be a publicity stunt — perhaps for Rob Zombie’s imminent killer-clown-athon “31,” some speculate.
However that creepy current cultural footnote resolves itself, the very thought of suddenly spying some Insane Clown Posse wannabe lurking on the far side of a parking lot or empty schoolyard is more chilling than anything in “ClownTown.” This regional slasher offers nothing recognizably based on a “true event,” but it certainly does borrow heavily from a lexicon of elemental genre clichés, with inspiration nowhere in sight. Indeed, the greasepaint-by-numbers terror is often so laughably rote, not to mention so poorly written and acted, that some viewers will find considerable entertainment value here — albeit very little of the intentional kind.
Fifteen years after a prologue in which a babysitter (Kaitlyn Sapp) meets the fate of many a screen predecessor, four youths head to a concert in Columbus, Ohio. They have character names, but for the sake of expediency, and to capture the script’s level of nuance, let’s just call them Generic Protagonist (Brian Nagel), Blonde Girlfriend (Lauren Elise), Comedy Relief Guy (Andrew Staton), and Brunette Girlfriend (Katie Keene). At a diner stop, the locals warn them away from alleged highway construction, recommending a detour through small towns. They end up stranded in Clinton (a fictive name choice hard to shrug off this election year), whose regular inhabitants are nowhere to be seen, and where some very bad clowns are soon chasing them around with various sharp and/or blunt instruments.
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Why clowns? Jeff Miller’s script doesn’t explain that, and the tiny, fragmentary backstory it does provide manages to be both vague and ridiculous. There’s also the basic issue of why a town supposedly abandoned for years looks more like its residents just wandered off a few minutes ago, let alone how an entire populace could get offed over the years without, y’know, authorities taking notice. Of course, you don’t go to a movie like “ClownTown” for its gritty realism. You go for the scares, atmospherics, and hopefully a novel idea or two, even if only in the means-of-grisly-death department.
Alas, these are all areas in which “ClownTown” provides next to nada. It’s one thing to pay homage to famous prior horror films in various ways, as this one does (lifting a character name from “Halloween,” and so forth). It’s another to listlessly duplicate their effects, then string them together in scenes whose choppiness is further underlined by frequently ending in blackouts. Even the clowns feel like retreads: There’s the one that kinda looks like Marilyn Manson (David H. Greathouse as Baseball Clown), another like a “Clockwork Orange” droog (Ryan Pilz’s Crowbar Clown), and a third that appears to be a wrestler in whiteface (erstwhile WWF wrestler Chris Hahn as Machete Clown). They’re not terribly diabolical; they just smirk, hit people, then smirk some more. Two surviving older residents (Greg Violand and Maryann Nagel) briefly surface to deliver “crazy coot” turns that would not necessarily pass muster at more selective community theater auditions.
There are many Nagels involved here both behind and in front of the camera. While such family industry is to be applauded in theory, on the evidence given it is safe to say that a knack for suspense, the horror genre, and what passes for acting are not among their collective strong suits. Directing his first feature, Tom Nagel manages some packaging basics with a competence that the rest of “ClownTown” lacks: As editor, his pacing is brisk enough, and Ken Stachnik’s decent widescreen lensing provides the little atmosphere here with some decent lighting effects.
Those virtues are hardly enough to compensate for the scare-free proceedings’ general clumsiness. On-the-nose lines and their hapless readings often get unsought laughs. This is the kind of movie in which you soon realize the filmmakers were savvy enough to exploit their leading lady’s buxom figure. But they weren’t bright enough to realize that as costumed and shot, her frequent running-while-screaming would automatically turn into a cheesecake sight gag right out of “The Benny Hill Show.”