The Horror: ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’
Playing off of the Alien invasion trope, the Chiodo Brothers define a 'cult classic'.
Horror films are often forgotten and left behind to rot in the locked vault of cult appreciation. Buried so far beneath the over saturation of projects being pumped out into the genre is the struggle of production, the social stigma of fear during a film’s release, and how the critical reception may have changed over time. Searching the vault, we will examine the inner workings of the greatest films and creators the horror genre has to offer. You can check out my last installment on David Fincher’s iconic violent crime film, Se7en, here.
The Chiodo Brothers & Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
We all have our guilty pleasure films. I remember watching the SyFy channel at 10 years old when mine stumbled into my lap… Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Campy and ridiculous, I watched in awe as I was introduced to the concept of the “killer clown” that stuffed dead bodies into cotton candy cocoons. Before the Chiodo brother’s cult classic, I had never seen something so funny be so terrifying. Spoofing the “alien invasion” film structure, we see an unsuspecting farm town invaded by an alien race that just so happens to look like clowns. From here, we are taken on a trip that transformed the perception of the clown in American culture. Upon release, the film did not exactly blow up the box office, but over the past 30 years, the film has garnered a cult following and influenced horror in a way that would make anyone turn the other direction if they saw a clown in the streets late at night. Following this film, clowns have become a horror icon and gimmick that may have worn out their welcome. However, in 1988 this was uncharted territory as we saw something that was once humorous become terrifying.
Chiodo’s Experience in Movie Monsters
The trio of the Chiodo brothers had been well-known in the movie monster lexicon long before they created the Killer Klown. Working in special effects, each of them had different experience in creating iconic horror moments. The Crites from the 1986 film Critters and Large Marge from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) were both products of the Chiodo brothers, and both stick out for the use of practical effects in creating “the scare.” Their design of the Killer Klowns is no different. Coming in the early ages of CGI, the brothers stuck with their guns and used a practical approach that included plenty of camera tricks and remote controlled animatronics. This brand of special effects is something that is synonymous with 1980s horror/sci-fi films, and as we move further and further into the era of computer graphics, the appreciation for the practical only continues to grow.
Growing up shooting bootleg monster movies, the Chiodo brothers knew all the tricks of the trade in order to get around a budget. Perspective is a large part of what the filmmakers used in order to get their point across. From giant clowns to UFO’s, the techniques used were mainly just changing of frame and using miniatures. The UFO take off is a painting, the Godzilla sized clown is a camera trick, and pretty much anything you see on camera is meant to trick the human eye. Some scenes could not get by with camera tricks, and thus rigs and stop motion were used to give exactly what the brothers wanted from each scene. This is an extremely detailed process that one would not expect from a film so ridiculous, but their experience with equipment obviously came in handy. When it comes to the Klowns, a few different techniques were used. The facial motions and expressions were a mix of robotic puppeteering and human actors behaving like they “were underwater” in order to simulate their perspective change in gravity from their home planet. This gave the alien feel to the Klowns that made them seem off and different from what people expected from the friendly circus clown. The Chiodo brother’s attention to detail and use of homemade props/sets make this film extremely nostalgic for anyone that loves the 1980s era of horror films.
Horror in Absurdity
When I watched this film as a child, it was terrifying. This is partially because it is a genre mix-up, and seeing clowns murder people with acidic pies and a rabid balloon animal dog is both comedic and violent. As I watch the film in my adult years, it becomes less “scary” and more clever. The idea of absurdity is turned up to 11, and we are given a wide variety of obscene kill tactics that you can’t help but chuckle to. The absurdity of the Klown’s method of madness was something that the Chiodo brothers wanted to make sure felt both nostalgic and reinvented. Referring to a body of horror tropes and alien invasion films, Stephen Chiodo states: “We didn’t want to just copy them. We wanted to kind of reinvent them within the universe of alien clowns.” This is evident on a few occasions: the cotton candy cocoons are a reimagination of the alien abduction and harvest popularized with films like The Blob (1958) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The jack-in-the-box clown head is a homage to the chest bursting scene in Alien (1979). The entire film is rooted in horror tropes, and redefines them in the scope of this ridiculous world the filmmakers created; that dedication to the genre is what makes Killer Klowns from Outer Space the ultimate cult classic.
Because of this desire to play as a “midnight movie” of sorts, the film feels a lot older than it is. A homage to the B-movie drive-in era that was killed by the in home VHS, Killer Klowns is paced like a classic horror film. We move from each kill to the next as the film essentially tries to one-up itself with how absurd it can get. While the film is minimal in gore, opposed to Grindhouse films, each event is able to be both hilarious and terrifying. Watching a biker get his “block knocked off,” or a clown who uses the town sheriff as a literal meat puppet are two scenes that I will never forget; both because of the horror aspects and the hilarity of the execution. This balance between horror and comedy, coupled with the lack of gore that would require scenes to be edited, perfectly encapsulates how the film garnered its cult following: cable television. The pacing of the film gives every scene a suspenseful event, perfect for a commercial break. The lack of sexual content and gore made the film accessible to both B-movie horror fans and impressionable youth that just so happened to stumble across the film on a dark stormy night. Absurd in nature, Killer Klowns is the ultimate guilty pleasure watch, but the attention to horror icons and tropes is what makes the film rememberable. It’s no wonder people are so afraid of clowns…
Redefining What it Means to be a Clown
Before Killer Klowns from Outer Space, America had a pretty straightforward opinion of clowns. Sure, Poltergeist (1982) had the haunted doll, but that was a possession of a supernatural being, and of course Stephen King had released IT in 1986, but it’s film miniseries counterpart did not release until 1990. While films like Terror on Tour (1980) and Funland (1987) came prior to Killer Klowns, neither had the cultural impact that the Chiodo brother’s film did. This is partially because it plays off of the prior depiction of clowns that Americans had become accustomed to. Icons like Bozo the Clown and Ronald McDonald had eased people into a friendly relationship with the clown. Funny and approachable, the Killer Klowns sport the same nature as the likes of Bozo, silly and slapstick, but unlike the circus clown, something about them is just off. Using items synonymous with the circus, like cotton candy and popcorn, this version of the modern day jester is much more sinister.
John Wayne Gacy was arrested for his crime spree in 1978, 10 years prior to the release of Killer Klowns. His methods of luring victims was exactly what the Chiodo brothers were attempting to emulate, the false sense of security of a friendly entity that becomes murderous. Stephen Chiodo speaks on his opinion of the clown, stating: “You don’t know what they’re up to. They’re tricksters; I just don’t trust them.” Also, “when you get really close you find out it’s not what you think.” This perspective is what has changed the modern opinion of a clown, and spawned multiple “murderous clown” films. The Klowns in the film encapsulate the idea that not everything is what it seems, and something that is lighthearted in nature can become evil in an instant. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is an iconic horror film because they essentially popularized the murderous clown, giving inspiration for a whole new genre of horror; while still remaining rooted in the genres tropes that existed in the midnight movie era.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space is the ideal love letter to the monster flicks that defined the horror genre for years. A quirky mixture of sci-fi and horror, the film is a time capsule of the era of the drive-in theater and the ultimate B-movie. As films become increasingly advanced and realistic, it becomes clear we may never see a film like Killer Klowns again. Influencing the fear of the clown in American culture, we continue to see the impact the Chiodo brothers made in the horror genre as people still cringe when they see the once friendly entity smiling back at them. Today, Killer Klowns lives on, not only through late night SyFy channel airings, but also new interpretations by those who grew up watching the clown invasion. Orlando’s Universal Studios yearly “Halloween Horror Nights” is paying homage to the film with an entire maze dedicated to the invaders where patrons will walk through the circus accompanied by the faint smell of cotton candy. The film has also been transformed into an orchestral show in which the soundtrack is played live in concert and the Klowns perform. While the sequel has been stuck in development hell for years, it is clear the film has made a lasting impact on its viewers and is the gold star standard for a cult horror film.