(1988) Directed by Stephen Chiodo; Written by Charles Chiodo, Edward Chiodo and Stephen Chiodo; Starring: Grant Cramer, Suzanne Snyder, John Allen Nelson and John Vernon; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD
Rating: *** ½
“…we tried to take every circus motif, every clown gag, and give it a perverse twist.”
– Stephen Chiodo
Are clowns funny, or are they scary? Nine out of ten people would probably pick the latter. That other 10%, well… you probably don’t want to know them.* For the purposes of this review, I’m siding with scary. But why are they so nightmare inducing? There are a number of theories floating around to explain the causes behind coulrophobia, the fear of clowns – ask several people and you might get very different responses. I’ll opine it’s due to a combination of factors: freakishly oversized features, pallid white skin and distorted expressions. Their disturbing appearance, coupled with childlike behavior (from someone who’s presumably an adult), creates mixed signals for children and fosters deep seated anxieties that last a lifetime.
* Not based on a statistically valid survey, so don’t bother searching for it.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space * skewed the funny versus scary debate for good, with its hybrid horror, sci-fi and comedic approach. It takes a decidedly comedic stance, while helping us realize our worst fears about clowns as harbingers of malevolence, rather than mirth. Their presence instantly evokes John Wayne Gacy instead of Bozo. Effects maestros the Chiodo brothers, Stephen, Ed and Charles co-wrote the script, and shared the division of labor for their apocalyptic concept of alien clown invaders. Stephen was tasked with directing, Ed co-produced, and Charles handled production design. Exteriors were shot in Santa Cruz, California, and back in the Chiodo brothers’ soundstage for interior scenes.
* The original title was Killer Klowns, but the filmmakers were concerned that their movie would be regarded as a slasher flick.
The Chiodo brothers’ movie is a loving tribute to 1950s sci-fi (particularly the alien invasion sub-genre), but includes nods to other genre flicks. By far, the most heavily referenced film is 1958’s The Blob. The early scenes mirror the earlier movie, as two young lovers (Grant Cramer and Suzanne Snyder) witness a fiery meteorite, and an old hermit (Royal Dano, in a role obviously modeled after Olin Howland’s take in the seminal movie) discovers the invaders. As the monstrous clowns begin their invasion, and abduct townspeople, the lovers must contend with disbelieving police. Also similar to The Blob, they find a reluctant ally in Officer Dave Hanson (compare to Lieutenant Dave in The Blob), played by John Allen Nelson. Forbidden Planet is the template for one key shot, when our protagonists observe the cavernous interior of the clowns’ circus tent-shaped spacecraft. In another scene, the film lampoons one of Hitchcock’s most iconic scenes.*
* Regarding the film’s unique riff on Psycho, Stephen Chiodo commented, “We wanted to do for the toilet what Alfred Hitchcock did for the shower.”
The Chiodo brothers make the most of their paltry $2 million budget, with clever special effects and set designs. The spaceship interior appears as if the filmmakers had more to work with, consisting of modular pieces that could be re-arranged to create various rooms and passageways. While the clowns themselves are obviously people walking around in suits, the designs are distinctive. At once fanciful and scary, Charles Chiodo and his effects crew somehow manage to skirt the line between goofy and threatening. The filmmakers pulled out all the stops to take an unsettling spin on clown tropes, with ray guns that encase people in cotton candy cocoons, popcorn that sprouts into dangerous creatures and balloon dogs that come to life. The hellish circus mood is enhanced by John Massari’s carnivalesque, synthesizer-laden score and punk band The Dickies’ fun title song.
Several characters in Killer Klowns from Outer Space were modeled after the Chiodo brothers’ childhood friends, including protagonist Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and bumbling ice cream vendors the Terenzi brothers (played by Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi). Veteran character actors (including the aforementioned Royal Dano) helped round out the cast, notably everyone’s favorite bad guy, John Vernon, as the hateful police officer Curtis Mooney.
Although Killer Klowns from Outer Space has gained a loyal cult following over the years, it remains a love it or hate it affair, depending on whom you speak to. The haters seem to have missed the point entirely, with the film’s quirky blend of horror and comedy. The Chiodo brothers’ tongue-in-cheek tribute to alien invasion flicks of their childhood proudly wears its B-movie sensibilities on its ruffled clown sleeves. As far back as 2001, with their DVD commentary, the Chiodo brothers indicated they were working on a sequel, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that The Return of the Killer Klowns fromOuter Space in 3D was officially announced, with original star Cramer attached, but few details were released. If the sequel ever becomes unstuck from development hell, however, I can’t imagine it will have half of the charm of the original (I expect it will eschew at least some of the practical effects for CGI), but I remain hopeful. My advice to those who’ve never experienced the Chiodos’ movie: don’t think about it too much. Shut up, turn your brain off, and enjoy some Killer Klowns.