Are clowns scary? I’ve put a few people who certainly think they are. Even as a kid, though, I found Killer Klowns from Outer Space more intriguing than frightening. Each viewing offered me something else I’d missed before, another scene to laugh at or remark on. Ever since that first fateful TV viewing, I knew what this was a classic.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space probably doesn’t sound like much to the uninitiated, and it isn’t going to appeal to those who aren’t fans of ’80s b-movie schlock-fests. Still, no one can ever accuse it of not delivering on exactly what the title promised. Though the film wasn’t a financial success at first, it still lives in the minds of many who embraced these strange aliens.
Stephen, Charles, and Edward Chiodo — collectively known as the Chiodo Brothers — are monster suit gurus and special effects wizards responsible for visual feasts such as Critters, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Team America: World Police, and more recently, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. The trio are masters of the craft and decided to do the whole shebang for once, acting as director, writers, and producers.
The Chiodos brought in crews they knew were good at what they did, and based the majority of the characters on childhood friends and other acquaintances — joking about killing them all off in the process. Killer Klowns was a passion play contrived from simple ideas of ridiculous fears. Stephen Chiodo said this wasn’t a movie made as satire or parody, but just something he and his brothers would want to see on the big screen themselves.
“You’re not going to make a dummy out of me.”
Come for what it says in the title, the wonderfully garish Killer Klowns, but stay for the effects, colors, a few clever lines, and some delightful foreshadowing. Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder) are on a date when they see something strange, but what they find is out of this world, alien klowns turning people from the town of Crescent Cove into cotton candy cocoons with the intention to drink them as snacks once they’re liquefied. They find help in the form of Debbie’s old boyfriend Dave Hanson (John Allen Nelson), whose badge is misspelled sometimes. The group has trouble convincing Curtis Mooney (John Vernon) the threat is real, even as a horde of klowns lays waste to the unsuspecting residents with showmanship and humor.
I love the idea of these savage creatures not breaking their clown theme. Costumes, weapons, vehicles—they all look right out of the big top. It gives them a disarming quality, but when they finally show their teeth, it’s even more satisfying. The events of the film aren’t scary unless someone watching suffers from Coulrophobia, but there are moments that set the tone well. The title was originally just Killer Klowns, but there were concerns that it would sound more like a traditional slasher; the “From Outer Space” was added to give it more of a sci-fi feel.
The characters help make this movie endearing. Every last cast member embodies their character’s archetype, which helps the overblown script feel more human. The Chiodos wanted to turn a few classic tropes on their heads, like not having Debbie be the dumb blonde and letting Dave be the brave partner instead of a jealous ex and antagonist. The Terenzi brothers are the goofballs and almost too much, but just as they become annoying the pair disappears for a while — thought I wouldn’t have minded if they did forever.
The original ending for the film would have seen Dave die a hero, allowing the others to escape, but test audiences weren’t feeling that and wanted a more upbeat sendoff. That’s a strange notion, seeing as how only Debbie is rescued, but the majority of the town is slaughtered (even though Dave wanted to try and free others). The body count is high for a film without much blood or gore.
There’s also some excellent music here. The film received a theme from The Dickies, who knew nothing about the film other than the title when they wrote the song. John Massari crafted the score for Killer Klowns — a wonderful composition with some catchy guitar riffs — but one of the songs was actually intended for the Friday the 13th franchise movie. The audio work is solid overall, but a special nod has to go to the klowns’ ‘language’ and how they sound when speaking, giving them an even more incredible alien feeling.
The effects are the other charming part of the movie — even when they fail, as with the car crash on the bridge. So much of this creative work was done practically, too, with easy-to-obtain items. Some props were built to work, like the popcorn gun, which reportedly cost around $7,000 to create. There are several zippers to spot or props masters seen in the background, but that almost adds something to a project like this.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a true cult classic
The legacy of Killer Klowns is spectacular, considering we’re still waiting on a sequel and never got the proposed cartoon. That’s a legitimate tragedy. The Chiodos had some issues with their distribution company, Trans World Entertainment, resulting in it not going to many theaters and having marketing issues. Thankfully, Killer Klowns found a home on places like HBO and USA Up All Night — where I first saw it thanks to Rhonda Shear. On top of that, the low-budget passion project was welcomed with open arms on VHS in rental stores. This equaled success down the line.
Not only are the stars of the film a hit at conventions, but the titular klowns have spread across pop culture and managed to endure. Nothing shows that more than some of the lines from the movie being used in Insane Clown Posse songs. The brothers landed several stellar merchandising deals, as we’ve seen action figures sold, costumes for the characters appearing at Spirit Halloween stores, a new short film to promote their run at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, and even a modern video game. Shoot them in the nose all you like, these klowns don’t seem to stay dead.
This movie is a true cult classic, and might be my favorite film under that designation. It isn’t some great piece of art everyone has to see, but Killer Klowns from Outer Space is pure entertainment with soul. Everyone should give it a shot at least, and I’m just thankful that even 35 years later, I still find so much enjoyment in this well-executed, simple, and ridiculous concept.