UK 2012 film Slasher House introduced the ultimate Final Girl trapped in an abandoned asylum with four serial killers. In the wake of that film, director MJ Dixon has set about creating prequel films for the killers, beginning with 2013’s Legacy of Thorn and now, 2015’s Cleaver: Rise of the Killer Clown.
Cleaver is the tale of a desperate man, resorting to performing as a clown at children’s parties to make ends meet, who snaps when he finds his wife with another man. The result is a double homicide…and the birth of Cleaver, the killer clown.
Now, years later, a murderer and child-abductor is terrorising a quiet little town in Oklahoma and Sheriff Hatcher (Jimi James) begins to suspect Cleaver is back, with a personal motivation for his rampage.
Where Legacy of Thorn included supernatural elements and showed Dixon experimenting somewhat, Cleaver is much more in the classic slasher vein. It is a clear Hallowe’en homage, right down to its main set-up involving a babysitter being stalked on Hallowe’en night. Dixon is completely open with this, opting to go for an 80s synth-heavy Carpenter-esque score to underline the influence.
The plot is streamlined, with less of the twists of the previous films. The pacing is more measured and conversations play out with a natural flow. There is an overall sense of greater maturity, but the result is a movie that is less fun and over-familiar.
Again, Dixon stretches a minuscule budget to breaking point. Most of the time, he works miracles. Some decisions however – such as using toy cars to substitute real ones – do not work at all. The commitment to garish gelled lighting remains, with Cleaver being soaked in orange and green with no natural colours ever visible. It gives the film a distinctive style, but other aspects of the cinematography, such as the low-angle lights and the almost complete lack of wider shots mean an overall sense of amateurishness lingers. This is exacerbated by some awkward shots where out-of-focus foreground objects occasionally obscure the main action deeper in frame – including one conversation where the speaking character’s face is actually covered by the back of the blurry head of the person they are talking to.
The editing is stronger, however, playing out tension well, even if a couple of scenes do struggle in the cutting (such as one escape by Cleaver from the police where he seems to just stroll out the door while two armed cops miss him from a couple of meters away and then don’t bother to follow).
The acting is a mixed bag, made worse by most of the actors (the leads aside) clearly faking their American accents. Fortunately, Stephanie Price as the terrorised babysitter Carly is rock solid and carries the film. She manages to evoke sympathy for her character’s plight and that keeps the movie pressing ahead.
Overall, Cleaver is a bit of a “one step forward, two steps back” situation for the Slasher House world. It takes itself more seriously than prior work, but the problems are greater. In aiming to be a classic slasher film, Cleaver: Rise of the Killer Clown falls into the trap of being something we have seen before many, many times. Without the high energy originality of Dixon’s previously movies, this is just a straightforward, micro-budget slasher like many others. A serviceable horror film, but not much more.