By this point there is surely no way back for the clowning profession: every minor horror movie knows it can serve up a demonic pierrot as a bogeyman. With this sequel to 2019’s The Jack in the Box, Lawrence Fowler’s would-be franchise doubles down on the eponymous creepy toy by having its hellspawn harlequin manifest once the crank is turned. It’s rather beholden to The Conjuring (and uses the same title font) and, while writer-director Fowler obviously knows his horror, he doesn’t really show enough imagination here to blaze a bloody trail of his own.
The knick-knack of the title is delivered to the country mansion of Olga Marsdale (Nicola Wright), a rich collector of vintage toys who is bedridden with bone cancer. Aware of its cursed past, she activates its ability to grant wishes and rearranges the revolving letters on the top from “JACK” to “LIFE”, before winding the crank. The dial on the top of the box indicates that six lives are going to be needed to achieve her wish; the box’s seller duly becomes victim no 1, and Olga browbeats snivelling son-cum-factotum Edgar (Matt McClure) to round up five more sacrifices. Luckily, wide-eyed Amy (Mollie Hindle) has just bulked up the serving staff by signing on as housemaid.
Despite the Hollywood precursors, there’s a distinct strain of English gothic here. Not just in the fusty bedrooms and cellars with blinking lights, which Fowler exploits atmospherically, but in the claustrophobic mother-son relationship. Edgar overcomes his squeamishness towards murder in his desperation to save his parent, with one offering having a particularly oedipal edge.
Unfortunately, that is the sole truly sordid moment in a grim trudge of rote butchery, with Hindle and her fellow sacrificial lambs given little of interest to do or say. Fowler pens everyone in with some lame restrictions, including 10ft estate walls in a world where ladders apparently don’t exist, and the inevitable phone-signal blackout. The rictus-grinning demon has it too easy here; real clowns know that a slip-up or two en route enhances the enjoyment.