Though they exist to entertain and make us laugh, there are few things people find scarier than clowns. Why that is, I cannot say; it’s a combination of the makeup, I think, and the fact that there is a person in there whose motivations for hiding under that makeup are unclear. As such, they have been a staple of the horror genre for close to 40 years, whether it’s Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s IT (the novel and the two film adaptations) or the clown that attacks poor Robbie in Poltergeist or the undead clown in Zombieland or the spate of horror films from just the last few years all based around clowns: Stitches, Terrifier, Clown, and, most recently, Gags. While some may be scarier and they all vary in quality and degrees of success, there is no better clown horror movie than Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
The first—and somehow only—directorial effort from visual effects creators The Chiodo Brothers (Edward, Stephen, and Charles), Killer Kowns from Outer Space is the best possible Killer Klown movie we could have ever hoped for. Made for under $2 million and given a messy theatrical release by distributor Trans World Entertainment (I can remember being desperate to see it as a young kid because of my obsession with monster makeup, puppets, and animatronics, but I couldn’t even find a theater around Chicago where it was actually showing), Killer Klowns is the sort of film that was destined to be a cult hit before it ever even hit theaters. It may not be a movie for everyone, but for the people it is for, it’s really for. If that doesn’t define “cult movie,” I don’t know what does.
While parked up at makeout point, Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Suzanne Snyder of Return of the Living Dead Part II) spot what appears to be a comet plummeting to the Earth. They investigate where it landed, discovering an enormous circus tent that’s actually a spaceship carrying a race of alien clowns (or Klowns, as the title suggests). They’re harvesting blood by trapping humans in cotton candy cocoons, so Mike and Debbie escape to tell the police. They find help in the form of Debbie’s ex-boyfriend Deputy Dave (John Allen Nelson), but his partner Deputy Mooney (played to perfection by the great John Vernon) believes all this Klown talk to be a prank and can’t wait to throw everyone in jail. As the Klowns run rampant all over town capturing and killing indiscriminately, Mike, Debbie, Deputy Dave, and the ice cream-selling Terenzi Brothers (Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi, clearly modeled after the Chiodos themselves) try to put a stop to the clowny carnage and take back the planet.
Here’s what makes Killer Klowns from Outer Space so special: it understands the value of a gag. This may seem like a small thing, but think about some of your favorite horror movies of all time: Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive, Carpenter’s The Thing, Chuck Russell’s The Blob—every one of these movies lives and dies by the gag. There may be other factors at work making these movies great, be it atmosphere or tension or performance or comedy, but it tends to be the gags that we’re still talking about all these years later. In the case of all these other movies, the specialty is gore gags: the invention with which the filmmakers can twist, mutilate, or destroy the human body through the magic of special effects. Killer Klowns’ gags aren’t especially violent, but they’re no less effective or memorable. The movie is almost wall-to-wall gags, each of them clever and inventive, as if the Chiodos sat down before writing their screenplay and thought of every clown-related image and idea they wanted to include somewhere in the film and then began devising ways to weave them into the fabric of a sci-fi horror comedy. Just when you think they’ve exhausted the limitations of their high-concept premise, they introduce something entirely new and weird and wonderful on screen, up to and including a climactic showdown with an enormous clown marionette referred to as Jojo the Klownzilla. The movie keeps finding ways to top itself.
This, I suspect, is because the Chiodo brothers come from a background of visual effects, a discipline that’s so often about setting up and executing gags the same way a magician pulls off tricks. The actual narrative of Killer Klowns is pretty threadbare, existing as nothing but a clothesline upon which the Chidos can hang a series of ideas and set pieces, whether it’s a shadow puppet that eats a bunch of onlookers or a great pizza delivery gag or, most famously, a klown-versus-biker boxing match that ends with the film’s greatest punchline. Nearly every frame of the movie is stuffed with something inventive and fun to look at, and the Chiodos use every tool in their toolbox to bring their ideas to the screen: puppetry, makeup design, animation, model work, forced perspective photography – you name it. Killer Klowns is a celebration of movie magic.
Some of the effects may come off a bit cheap or crude for today’s more sophisticated audiences, who are used to seeing anything and everything created on a computer with total photorealism. There is obviously skill and artistry in that, but I vastly prefer what the Chiodo Brothers do in Killer Klowns; the effects feel handmade, and more personal as a result. Being able to see the seams in some of the gags makes us more active participants in our enjoyment of the movie, because we have to meet the filmmakers halfway and fill in the rest of the illusion with our imaginations and our suspension of disbelief. A $200 million blockbuster may offer clinical accuracy, but it just sits there on the screen hoping to fool our eye by pummeling us into submission. Killer Klowns needs us to complete the illusion, and that’s why we’re so much more connected to it. That’s why it’s special.
What is maybe most impressive about Killer Klowns from Outer Space is that, 30 years later, it remains completely singular. It has never been duplicated. Hell, it hasn’t really even been imitated; despite being a beloved cult favorite, it has never been sequelized, never been remade, never been copied by some enterprising young filmmaker trying to capture the tone and vibe of Killer Klowns in his or her own movie. It would be impossible to capture accurately, because what the Chiodos have managed to do goes beyond cool effects or iconic makeups or even the wacky clown premise. It’s the intangibles – the spirit that exists between the things we see on screen – that make Killer Klowns from Outer Space such a special movie. It’s the kind of film that shouldn’t work as well as it does, either as a straightforward horror movie or as a self-aware, deliberately designed cult movie. But here we are, three decades later, still coming back to the circus tent, still singing the cool theme song by The Dickies. Of all the killer clowns we’ve seen in the history of horror, these Klowns are the most killer. You can bet your big red nose on it.
Be sure to check here all month long for more special features celebrating the Class of 1988!