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The importance of not being expressive

Movie clowns can be terrifyingas long as they aren't too chatty

A still from ‘It’.
A still from ‘It’.

“What kind of scary-ass clowns came to YOUR birthday?" Chandler caustically asks Joey in a F.R.I.E.N.D.S episode, as the live audience guffaws. It’s the punchline for a scene where the dim-witted Joey seems to be under the impression that clowns don’t have heads. But it’s also one of the rare times when I haven’t found one of Chandler’s ripostes funny.

Because, well, what’s so odd about suggesting that a clown might be scary? As a child I was terrified by a man in baggy pants and whiteface, holding out a balloon at a party—and this was years before I had encountered any horror films or books about predatory clowns (on that occasion, I stayed convinced that the clown was meant to be part of a fright-game, like a haunted-house ride at an entertainment park). Later, the cover illustrations on Enid Blyton’s circus books gave me the chills, and so did the mysterious clown in the classic Cecil B. DeMille film The Greatest Show On Earth—never mind that one of the most genial of actors, James Stewart, was under the costume.

Given all this, it was a surprise that I was underwhelmed by the new adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth novel It. The film, which released earlier this month, is wonderfully performed by a cast of young adolescents—as small-town children in the late 1980s, confronting unthinkable evil—but I just didn’t find its main antagonist, Pennywise the clown, scary. Even though plenty of menace and atmosphere is injected into his first appearance: he peers out of a sewer on a rainy day, speaks cajolingly to a little boy who has lost his paper boat—and then, baring multiple rows of serrated teeth, chomps the child’s arm off before pulling him into the drain.

That scene is gruesome all right, in the best King style, and it has a visceral effect, but for me the film’s creepiest moment didn’t involve the hyperactive Pennywise; it came when one of the children finds himself alone in a room, surrounded by regular clown figures—plastic toys, stuffed dolls with faces frozen into immobile grins.

At this point the penny, so to speak, dropped. The problem wasn’t that I had suddenly lost my fear of clowns. It was that Pennywise was too expressive, too talkative—and therefore, too close to seeming human, the grotesque make-up notwithstanding. His lips move, he snarls and dances and chortles, and even if he does these things exaggeratedly, at least he seems relatable.

In a recent article titled “A Theory Of Creepiness", David Livingstone Smith refers to the hypothesis of the Uncanny Valley—put in very simple terms, this is the idea that close replicas of human beings can produce intense feelings of discomfort in us, because they stand on the border between familiarity and weirdness; our brains aren’t quite sure what to make of them.

A still from ‘Dead Of Night’.

Any horror-movie buff would understand. Throughout its history, the genre has made extensive use of both the replica and the human-like creature whose behaviour is somewhat off—from the sallow-faced sleepwalker in the silent classic The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari to the ventriloquist’s sinister dummy in the chilling anthology film Dead Of Night to the countless slasher movies about possessed dolls. Not to mention the antagonistic clowns and jokers with painted smiles (the new It film even makes a fleeting reference to the 1989 Batman, in which Jack Nicholson played The Joker).

But as Smith also observes, one of the most terrifying uncertainties involves the question of whether something is animate or inanimate. This put me in mind of the creepy waxworks in the 1933 film The Mystery Of The Wax Museum and its 1953 remake House Of Wax, about sculptors who create wax statues out of murdered people. The madmen played in those films by Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price, respectively (not to mention a similar character played by Sunil Dutt, of all people, in the 1974 Geeta Mera Naam!) could glower or psycho-laugh all they wanted, but there was no ambiguity about their nature. On the other hand, the blank-faced wax figures were truly unsettling—a case of the victims being creepier than the villains who had knocked them off.

Thinking further, could the animate-inanimate phenomenon be linked to actors who are so inept that they barely seem like real people? Might every Suniel Shetty film be subtextually a horror film too? Less flippantly, there certainly have been cases in very low-budget horror movies where terrible acting has made the project more otherworldly—and therefore creepier—than anyone could have intended it to be. For one among many examples, check out the underground classic Shaitani Dracula on YouTube, especially the scene where the portly and harmless-looking actor-director Harinam Singh looks straight at the camera and introduces himself as the titular villain.

While leaving these matters for you to ponder over, I should mention my one truly creepy experience on the night I watched It. Returning from the multiplex very late, I had to pass a McDonald’s restaurant in a deserted community centre. Watching old Ronald sitting there on his bench out of a corner of my eye, I thought again for the umpteenth time how odd it is that children line up to have photos taken with this silent fiend. And how I would rather have the gregarious Pennywise walking and chattering alongside me than a clown just sitting a distance away, regarding me with an unblinking, plastic grin.

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