Riding the Clown Train

Clown Train (Jaime Donnelly, 2009) uses a mix of discordant and minimalistic sound, as well as hard and manipulated lighting to create a tense, eerie and terrifying atmosphere.

The sound used in Clown Train is mostly non-diegetic, atmospheric sounds, such as a high-pitched whine – much like the squeal of brakes – and a strange, rhythmic drumming – like tapping on a window. It also featured very minimalistic dialogue from the two characters. There is no background train sounds, such as wheels running over tracks or the sound of engines, alluding to the fact that the train is stationary. There is an echo to the voices that doesn’t exist in the buzzing of flickering lights and the rhythmic tapping, which would suggest that the latter two are intentionally added in post-production.

This sort of minimalistic and highly discomforting mix of sounds is most prevalent in horror-thrillers, because the lack of background sounds, or soft background sounds, lead the audience to pay closer attention, and feel more vulnerable. However, whilst in traditional thriller films, the stretch of quiet sounds is usually punctuated by a sudden loud bang, in Clown Train, aurally there wasn’t a sudden crescendo, save for when the clown shouts ‘BASHES his head in’. Yet this line wasn’t the climax of the actual scene.

Visually speaking, the color palette was extremely stark and de-saturated, meaning the introduction of the overly colourful clown was even more pronounced. The director and cinematographer must have made a conscious decision to ensure that everything but the clown is in a neutral and lowkey color – both costume, set and lighting – so that the clown is extremely standout. There is also an interesting usage of lighting to further the story and help with transitions – a sudden flicker of the light sees the clown move across space, and also moves time forward during the plot. Therefore, the light acts as both a plot device, a transition device, and an atmospheric device.

Finally, in terms of narrative, while the visuals and audio compels the audience to continue watching, the final meaning of the plot is somewhat lost, at least to me. However, an excellent mix of the previous two points mean that the overall tone and style carries the narrative across.

Clown Train creates a strong, alienating atmosphere through a mix of discordant sound and harsh lighting.