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Non-Review Review: Stitches

This movie was seen as part of Movie Fest, which was as much of a joy this year as it was last year. If not moreso.

Stitches is an interesting little Irish film. Featuring an interesting set up to parody the conventions of the supernatural slasher film, the movie finds itself falling prey to them just a little bit too often. Irish writer and director Conor McMahon creates a credible gory teenage bloodbath, but doesn’t really find a narrative hook to engage the audience. Never entirely sure how ironic it is trying to be, Stitches is a solid effort, albeit one far from greatness.

Not clowning around…

There’s always been something creepy about clowns. Part of me wonders why parents take children to the circus or hire a clown to entertain at a kid’s birthday party. Don’t parents know how down right freaky that pasty white skin is? Or how unnerving those grotesquely exaggerated nose or feet are? Or how unsettling the black marks for definition are, suggesting a face frozen and warped into one expression for eternity? Even before John Wayne Gacy provided a real-life example, horror has been wary of the men who laugh.

Which makes it hard to tell just how serious Conor McMahon intends Stitches to be. On the one hand, it seems like it could be serious. Think It meets a A Nightmare on Elm Street, with a psychotic reanimated party entertainer hunting down those who caused his death all those years ago. The monster has a taste for the theatrical, and so he’s drawn to that most tempting of horror movie occasions – a teenage part fuelled by angst, booze and teenage sex. The kids might as well have printed “kill me” t-shirts.

On yer bike…

However, the movie embraces the ridiculous. Visiting the clown’s grave, our lead character stumbles across a surreal funeral procession run by the local clowns. Apparently the area has seen enough clown deaths that the profession merits its own grim mausoleum. “Remember,” the head of this grim affair advises the young boy, “a clown who does not finish a show cannot rest happy. And the joke is never as funny the second time around!”

Later on, we discover the lead has a grim obsession. Like so many horror movie protagonists, he has gone delving into the archives to determine the roots of the sinister evil plaguing the land. It’s a scene that plays as genuinely well-observed parody, as he makes wonderfully obvious observations about clowns that would be played serious in any other horror film. The movie even manages to put a sinister spin on the act of painting a clown’s face on an egg. The movie suggests that this weird professional quick imbues clowns with a magical mystical energy.

No laughing matter…

Of course, the reality of the situation is much more mundane. We’re told that clowns have “always” done it, but the tradition actually dates back to 1946. It’s actually used as a way of keeping track of the unique facial make-up designs, to keep clowns from ripping one another off. Still, that’s much less exciting and ridiculous than a sinister cabal of ridiculous clowns with magical and mystical powers to return from the grave to put on one final show. It seems like Stitches is having a bit of fun with one of the most basic of horror movie scenes – the “secret history” sequence, where we discover that the evil facing our heroes has the most ancient of roots.

Ross Noble’s actually pretty great as Stitches, the psychopathic clown. It helps that Stitches is a delightfully unfunny character – whether alive or dead. He’s incredibly crass and petty, which makes the absurdity of the situation so much more effective. He isn’t Freddie or Jason who relish their homicidal activities, he’s just a vindictive murderer with a knack for truly atrocious puns. And I know from atrocious puns. Noble’s performance injects life and vitality into the film, and McMahon’s direction of the scenes featuring Stitches is top-notch.

Talk about corpsing…

In fact, the film works best during the more effective death scenes, as Stitches constructs them as elaborate spectacles, with a theatricality that would make other horror villains jealous. Although the character himself is petty, brutal, tasteless and ridiculous, his executions have the slightest touch of sideshow panache, horror movie murder as performance heart. Whether he’s constructing balloon animals from a victims’ anatomy or pulling off a blood-splattered umbrella gag crowned with the perfectly-timed opening of the umbrella, McMahon takes a fiendish amount of glee in putting those sequences together.

The problem arises with the movie around Stitches. Once you venture away from the ridiculousness of the clown, you’re left with a film that isn’t nearly as witty as it wants to be. Rather than playing with familiar horror movie conventions, McMahon’s script executes them by-the-numbers. The teenage characters are little more than archetypes – there’s the fat one, the pervy one, the horny one, the almost-girlfriend, the “slut”, the aggressive jock. Barring a bit of fun transposing the “jock” archetype to a more Irish “culchie” stereotype (with “ATB” standing for “all the boys”), none of the rest of these archetypes are subverted or explored as McMahon transposes them from the United States to the Irish countryside. There’s no wit or flair in how these characters are constructed.

A bumper horror film?

To be fair, that might be intentional. Most of the cast are, after all, lambs to the slaughter. So, arguably, one could understand why the writer and director might not want to waste time or energy developing them. However, the problem is that we spend far too much time with them, watching them do stereotypical teenage nonsense, so it feels like that time is wasted. Either spend the time with the characters developing them, or don’t spend the time with them at all. It feels like the script is just going through the motions with its cast of potential victims, and it’s immensely frustrating.

It doesn’t help that most of the teenage cast are absolutely diabolical. To be fair, the script doesn’t give them much, but none of the cast manage to make their characters feel in any way real. In fact, most find themselves trapped within their horror movie archetype, rather than using it to their advantage. There’s no real chemistry among the bunch, and most struggle a bit with their comic timing – the exception being Roisín Barron, who also manages to get the movie’s best death sequence.

Stitches just died at that party…

Stitches feels like a movie that ended up being quite a bit less than it could have been. The special effects by Bowsie Workshop all look spectacular, but the movie itself feels somewhat lacking. Ross Noble makes a convincing killer clown, but we’ve no reason to care – one way or the other – about his potential victims.

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