Nowadays, clowns are as synonymous with horror as vampires and zombies. These once-comical entertainers have influenced a new culture of fear. While Stephen King’s It is considered the originator of the clown’s newfound creepy status, indie filmmakers like Lawrence Fowler preserve the notion of clowns being scary. In the director’s second feature, The Jack in the Box, a museum is delivered what is thought to be a harmless antique. In truth, it’s a container for absolute evil.
A young history buff named Casey (Ethan Taylor) has returned from the United States after a personal tragedy. In the sleepy town of Hawthorne, he puts his knowledge to work at a local museum. Casey is immediately drawn to a recent acquisition—an elaborate, golden jack-in-the-box that even he doesn’t know anything about. Then, underneath his and his co-workers’ noses, anyone who comes in contact with the object disappears without a trace. The history of the box suggests a sinister force is at play, but no one believes Casey until it’s far too late.
“…a no-frills [horror] that hits the spot, if one is in a forgiving mood.
The legend at the heart of The Jack in the Box is inspired by actual old-world folktales. European cultures believed the toy was for trapping demons. Over the years, the scarier “jack” was replaced with more innocuous figures like clowns. In his movie, Fowler combines both motifs. He uses both the jack-in-the-box’s mythical origin and modern image to craft a functional, if not familiar, horror story.
The end result is a no-frills one that hits the spot, if one is in a forgiving mood. Raise a hand if you’ve heard this one before: a cursed and ancient curio finds its way to someone who so happens to have the talent to defeat the evil within. Indeed there is a lack of novelty here and viewers know it. Everything plays out just as one would expect it to. Strangely, that predictability is as comforting as it is disappointing.
From a visual standpoint, The Jack in the Box looks surprisingly sharp. It’s a clean-looking indie horror where muted colors influence a somber mood. Using quaint Northampton for the fictional Hawthorne was wise. Despite all the hidden terror ensuing inside the museum — really the Abington Park Museum — the outside world never stops. It’s a subtle note on folklore’s place in modern society. If there is one regret about the film’s production, though, it would be the abundance of music. Dialogue isn’t the most crisp or audible to begin with, but many moments are overtaken by an intrusive soundtrack. Music just can’t be substituted for actual tension and atmosphere in these scenes.
The Jack in the Box thrives whenever its ghastly namesake appears on screen to kill a disposable character. The Jackestemarra, or Jack, is definitely something worth seeing. From the wicked Cheshire grin, to the elevated makeup work, this monster is pretty horrifying to look at. He’s a bit on-the-nose as far as nightmarish clowns go, but this Jack is no average jester or run-of-the-mill carny. The detail work is impressive given the probable small budget.
Now, as frightening as the Jack looks, he turns out to be a one-trick demon. This is mainly because of the movie’s by-the-numbers nature. To pad the film’s runtime, the story includes a convenient rule of Jack having to take a specific amount of victims before he goes away. He appears at random, grabs and stabs, then finally crawls back into that accursed box. There’s just not a lot of variety in Jack‘s carnage, nor is there any energy to the chase sequences. All these people are dying in bloody ways, yes, but it’s an aimless design. And, in contrast to such an uncharacteristic foe, the film’s hero is agreeable. There is an attempt to make Casey seem real and not totally expendable. This is done by giving him a sorrowful backstory that really needed more explanation.
All in all, Lawrence Fowler’s movie is largely mechanical with only one trick up its sleeve—the demon is a ghoulish sight to behold. It otherwise looks fairly good, but The Jack in the Box winds up being a very been-there-done-that sort of movie that mimes more than innovates.
“…the demon is a ghoulish sight to behold […] but The Jack in the Box winds up being a very been-there-done-that sort of movie that mimes more than innovates.”
The Jack in the Box is available for both digital and physical purchase starting May 5. Share your thoughts on The Jack in the Box with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!