Murder clowns and demonic toys, both well-worn staples of mainstream horror, have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years thanks to two cinematic chapters of Stephen King’s It and various films set within The Conjuring universe. A combination of these two tropes popping up in a B-movie cheapie that aims to capitalize on current trends doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. And yet, in wasting competent cinematography—which leans on natural light, a vivid color palette and the fetching set dressing of various museum exhibits—The Jack in the Box can’t even meet bargain-basement expectations, resulting in a plodding, formulaic exercise in derivative horror.

As far as stories about unleashing evil go, this one begins quite plainly when a man with a metal detector discovers a huge, ornately decorated box buried, preposterously, only a few inches below the soil. Back in his garage, the box springs open, a muppet-like set of claws stretching out to drag the man’s wife down into its supernatural abyss. Before long, the box makes its way to a history museum, where workers Casey (Ethan Taylor) and Lisa (Lucy-Jane Quinlan) struggle to figure out how to get the thing open (the combination ends up being “JACK”). Once they do, museum visitors and would-be thieves alike begin disappearing left and right.

Casey quickly suspects the creepy jack-in-the-box might be behind the relatively bloodless mayhem, which mostly involves the extremely tall, clown-faced Jack (Robert Nairne) slowly emerging from the box, grabbing people by the face and kind of smooshing their heads a bit. Casey sets about doing a little research, resulting in lengthy scenes involving Google searches (about as interesting as it sounds) that don’t link to Amazon toy listings or fast-food franchises but instead to historical information about how jack-in-the-boxes were once used to house demons, or something. He also learns that the sinister Jack, who gets a handy dossier on one quickly retrieved website that looks like a list of combatant backstories for a Mortal Kombat knockoff, will only be sated when he dispatches six victims. Casey ends up turning to the insights of a vintage toy expert of sorts (Charles Abomeli), who immediately launches into a stiff lecture about how jack-in-the-boxes, while seemingly playful and benign enough to entertain babies, are not to be fucked with because they’re actually super evil.

With such a weak concept and abysmal writing, the film would’ve at least offered some midnight movie escapism if it turned into a gleeful splatterfest, but the violence is incredibly tame and unimaginative. Even artless killer-clown torture porn like Terrifier and tonally schizophrenic nonsense like Stitches at least indulge in inventive kills, but not so with The Jack in the Box. The film never approaches anything close to tension or suspense, presenting a toothless monster that spends far less time wreaking havoc than it does prompting Casey—who is supposed to be an American though Taylor struggles to disguise his British accent—to stare into the distance contemplatively. By offering no surprises whatsoever, The Jack in the Box deserves to stay buried.

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