The Clown Act in Gory Irish Slasher ‘Stitches’ Is to Die For [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

Children’s birthdays hardly ever go as planned, but as one character states in the movie Stitches, “not every party ends with a dead clown.” An inept entertainer, this horror comedy’s namesake, suffers a setback on the job; the clown bites the dust during Tommy’s tenth birthday. To be more specific, the antics of six kids lead to Stitches (Ross Noble) tripping and falling face first on a knife. Six years later, the reanimated clown takes revenge on Tommy and his friends.

Not too long after that unfortunate birthday, ten-year-old Tommy (Ryan Burke) visits Stitches’ grave and spots a group of clowns performing a bizarre ritual with eggs in a nearby crypt. This eerie scene is inspired by a real-life practice where clowns daub their facial likeness onto ceramic eggs to informally copyright their image. In the movie, the painted eggs are the clowns’ source of power. McMahon found the actual process so fascinating, he tweaked it to explain Stitches’ resurrection and fuel his mission — a clown can never rest in peace if they die before finishing a party. As irreverent as Stitches is overall, director Connor McMahon takes a serious approach to the unique mythos that sets this film apart from other clown horrors.

Noble was cast without the director’s knowledge of his past; the enthusiastic comedian started out as a clown before moving to stand-up. So the movie became not only proof of McMahon’s growth as a director, but it was also a full-circle moment for Noble. The comic’s fiendish character delivers one-liners like Freddy Krueger and kills with Jason Voorhees’ precision. What Stitches lacks in texture and complexity, he makes up for in superb deadpan delivery and a total physical commitment to the gags. The murderous clown never reaches the heights of his homicidal peers only because the real star of the movie is a series of over-the-top deaths.

Well aware of It’s popularity and impact, McMahon felt his movie would be different because it was overtly humorous and driven by farcical butchery. From the get-go, the director is lancing Stitches’ face with a knife before having the clown splatter young Tommy with copious amounts of blood from his gash. Viewers have to wait a good forty minutes before someone else up and dies, but their patience is rewarded; the kill sequences only get gorier and more imaginative. The executions are as outlandish as they are creative — a head is kicked off, a skull is hollowed out with an ice cream scooper while another is skewered with an umbrella, and finally, someone’s noddle explodes like an overinflated balloon. As grisly and serious as that all sounds on paper, McMahon realized the best way to make the killings appear funny is to show them in their entirety. Humor has a way of healing after the violence destroys.

When deciding on the antagonist for his second movie, McMahon ultimately went with a clown. He had already set out to do a comedy after giving up writing a more serious script, and a clown’s routine facilitated the silly slayings he had in mind. What also helped was the clown’s modern, ill-famed reputation. From the mischievous and slapstick-wielding harlequins of commedia dell’arte, to the reviled and profane jesters of medieval times, clowns have a history of playing the villain long before pop culture declared them to be evil incarnate. Their overall popularity has diminished over the years, but clowns still appear in the spotlight, albeit not always a flattering one. Affable bozos and jokers alike received the unwilling transformation from harmless goof to malevolent trickster by the ’80s; they went from juggling balls to going straight for the jugular. Stephen King played a large role in the clown’s sinister makeover, yet these garish figures have always had a gift for getting under people’s skin. Bad Clowns author Benjamin Radford points out how clowns “were never ‘good’ to begin with.” He notes in his book: “If you take a broader look at the history of the clown, they have always been an ambiguous figure. Sometimes they’re laughing at themselves, sometimes they’re laughing at you — sometimes they’re the victim, sometimes you’re the victim.” In a certain sense, the creepy clown archetype of today is accurate when examining these colorful characters’ origins. 

Although McMahon does not personally find them to be scary, he understands the sway of a creepy clown these days. After all, horror has the power to stoke deep fears as well as nurture them, and clowns are a great example of the genre toying with human psychology and turning a subversion into widespread anxiety. Science says the uneasiness people feel toward clowns has a lot to do with their inscrutability; being unable to decipher their true feelings or visage can lead to confusion and apprehension. Of course, there are also the bad, formative memories that account for other aversions to clowns. Here, Tommy (Tommy Knight) and the six other kids at his birthday party — Kate (Gemma-Leah Devereux), Vinny (Shane Murray Corcoran), Bulger (Thommas Kane Byrne), Richie (Eoghan McQuinn), Sarah (Roisin Barron), and Paul (Hugh Mulhern)  — cope with their shared trauma through various yet familiar methods. Bulger finds relief in food, Vinny and Richie indulge in drugs, Sarah and Paul bully, and Tommy cowers if he even detects the presence or resemblance of a clown. Luckily, misery loves company; Kate offers cold comfort when she says they all “turned out odd” after witnessing Stitches’ death firsthand.

McMahon’s second film is covered in the sticky DNA of American slashers and adolescent comedies; one-dimensional youths are unapologetically horny and unpleasant, then slaughtered without remorse or reflection. The humor removes the chance for tension but adds merit elsewhere. Add on the impressive special effects and gratifyingly gory set pieces, and Stitches is a mash note to inane teen horror everywhere.

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