By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Ethan Taylor, Lucy-Jane Quinlan and Philip Ridout
Written and directed by Lawrence Fowler
There’s always room for a new scary clown, and makeup effects creator Isabella Larter merits kudos for her creepy design and execution of the villain in the British production THE JACK IN THE BOX. Too bad that everything that happens in the movie around him is as inevitable as the jack popping out of the box at the end of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
That’s partially because writer/director Lawrence Fowler opens with a prologue that pretty much reveals all of the title demon’s m.o.: Middle-aged Norman (Philip Ridout) discovers a large buried box while metal-detectoring around a field and takes it home, whereupon the clawed, evil-smiling Jack emerges and drags away his wife. Cut to 12 years later (according to an onscreen title) or 15 (according to Norman later), and the scene switches to the small-town Hawthorne Museum, where the box has wound up in the storeroom. Newly arrived from America, seeking “a change of scenery, a fresh start,” is Casey Reynolds (Ethan Taylor, a UK actor not always hiding his accent), who takes a job there and befriends fellow employee Lisa (Lucy-Jane Quinlan). As they get to know each other, they discover that he’s still reeling from a tragic death and she’s troubled by an impending one, and both situations will come in handy narratively later as reasons for the two of them not to make themselves scarce when things start getting scary.
Once Casey makes the mistake of playing the box until the little clown puppet jumps up, inadvertently releasing its 6-foot, murderous counterpart, everything that ensues follows formula. A few one-scene supporting players show up at the museum to provide early fodder for Jack. An art expert arrives to examine the box and provide exposition about the “darker purposes” of jack-in-the-boxes in past centuries; since this is a Brit film, it’s not surprising that the French get the blame for starting all the trouble. (A little on-line research reveals that one of the earliest documented jack-in-the-boxes was built in the 1500s by a German clockmaker named Claus, suggesting Fowler missed out on a potential Christmas-horror tie-in.) Casey starts to suspect the horrific truth of what’s going on and tries to convince those around him of what’s going on, with lines like “Forgive me if I sound crazy. Do you believe in the supernatural?”, but no one will believe him, so he forges ahead with his own investigation, which involves more exposition on the Internet and an eventual visit to an older occult expert.
It turns out that the culprit is called the Jackestemarra, and after claiming six victims, he will be trapped within his box again—which seems like a rather limiting mythology, and you’d think Jack might want to stop at five so he can stay free of his confinement. In any case, he cuts a fearsome figure as made up by Larter and performed by Robert Nairne (who’s played creatures in everything from PENNY DREADFUL and MARROWBONE to a couple of STAR WARS movies), and Fowler manages a few shivers when he’s stalking his prey. The problem is that Jack has taken four people with 50 minutes of movie still left to go, which are filled in with more standard-issue plotting and dialogue that sometimes don’t trust the audience to make connections for themselves. “Now I have a voicemail that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Casey says after a scene that makes that point already clear, and after he comes across a missing-persons flyer for one victim, we get a flashback to him seeing the woman enter the museum and hearing her scream, even though that scene has only happened about five minutes of movie time before.
THE JACK IN THE BOX deserves credit for not copping out at its conclusion, which leaves you with the kind of chill that’s too absent in what has come before. Though competently made on every level, the movie misses its chance to make a memorable mark on either the killer-clown or deadly-toy subgenres.