It seems safe to assume that clowns became “scary” in the mid-1970s, when John Wayne Gacy, branded “The Killer Clown,” murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men. 35-plus years later, director and co-writer Conor McMahon makes them funny again in Stitches, a horror-comedy about a grease-painted balloon folder who returns from the dead to exact revenge on the kids whose taunting inadvertently caused his death six years before.
Aiming for a gruesomely silly vibe that plays like equal parts American Pie and Evil Dead 2, Stitches preys on teenage foibles and clown clichés alike, offering mostly solid if not quite cult-classic-level fun.
Ross Noble plays Stitches, a drunken lout who dies in a bloody kitchen accident after kids at a birthday party decide they don’t like the performance he’s giving. Some six years later, birthday boy Tom (Tommy Knight) still cowers in fear at the prospect of seeing anyone in clown make-up, but decides at the behest of his obnoxious friends to throw a party in the hopes that his estranged sweetheart Kate (Gemma-Leah Devereux) will attend. But as Tom’s house fills with schoolmate friends and enemies alike, Stitches pulls himself out of a shallow grave and makes his way to the party for an encore performance that he hopes will literally slay his audience.
Fun horror movies are in short supply these days, so it’s almost always a welcome change of pace for a filmmaker to work in the genre and tell a story that doesn’t feel as excruciating to watch as it is for the characters to endure. But in an age where ironic and genuine enjoyment are indistinguishable from one another, Stitches seems destined to thrive, even if “fun” doesn’t necessarily mean "good:" The concept is one-dimensional, the technique used to make it feels rudimentary, and the overall execution is only sloppily effective. That said, even for nonbelievers in so-bad-it’s-goodness, it’s undeniable that McMahon’s movie follows through on what it promises, and in that regard fully works.
Where McMahon enjoys his greatest success is in recontextualizing aspects of Stitches’ birthday-party routine for each of his kills – using one teenager’s intestines to make balloon animals, for example. That sort of cohesiveness is a depressingly rare sign of real forethought, obvious though it may be, in horror movies (okay, in all movies) these days. Moreover, the filmmaker’s affection for over-over-the-top gore, which includes disturbingly protracted close-ups of body parts being dismembered, demonstrates a gleeful sort of acknowledgment that this is all meant to be laughed at. Where genres like torture porn went to an early grave thanks to self-seriousness, a tongue planted firmly in the storytellers’ cheek makes a timeless convention out of copious bloodletting served over a smorgasbord of severed limbs, and it remains delightfully effective here.
But gimmicky horror films are still mostly that, and Stitches hardly transcends its idea; although it introduces the possibility of a deeper mythology, McMahon and his co-writer David O’Brien barely scratch at the surface of what could be a pretty interesting franchise. (Can clowns kill anyone other than the attendees at whatever party they never finished? How many undead clowns are there? How many can fit inside a tiny, evil car? These are all questions I’d genuinely like answers to.) And while the teen actors do a fairly good job of distinguishing their character types, those we’re supposed to want to see killed are far more successful at doing their jobs than the ones we aren’t, leaving audiences with relatively little sympathy for the folks we’re supposed to want to survive.
Nevertheless, there are some terrific sight gags; just watching a clown on a tricycle chase down two kids on bikes is worth the price of admission. But whether or not this becomes a staple of one’s horror library is up to how funny it is, particularly in the context of the truly great horror comedies, Evil Dead 2, Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive, Shaun of the Dead, etc. Ultimately, Stitches probably lives up to its name better as a comedy than a horror film. Either way, the title is emblematic of virtually any genre effort these days – a cobbled-together composite of boilerplate conventions from benchmark predecessors whose success depends on how much you love those parts, and then how well you feel like the filmmaker puts them all together.