Years before the ‘Killer Clown’ moral panic from Fall 2016 and Twisty the Clown from Season 4 of American Horror Story, there was Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Author Stephen King popularized the ‘evil clown’ in mainstream circles with Pennywise from his novel, It. Of course the idea of killer clowns has a long history going back as far as the Italian opera, Pagliacci. Real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy performed at children’s birthdays dressed as a clown. There’s even an official term for fear of clowns – coulrophobia.
Written and directed by the Chiodo Brothers, Killer Klowns is one of those films that didn’t make much of a ripple upon its initial release but managed to attract a cult following in the VHS years of horror. A sci-fi/horror comedy, Killer Klowns is based on the ludicrous premise of aliens, who just happen to look like clowns, that invade a small American town. It’s hard to believe but 30 years ago, on May 27 in 1988, Killer Klowns from Outer Space first invaded our movie theaters. So join me in celebrating the insanity of Klowns on its anniversary.
A Fun Homage to 1950’s B-Movies
Killer Klowns is clearly a tongue-in-cheek homage to the sci-fi/horror classics from the 1950’s, most notably The Blob. Its very basic narrative mirrors these old black-and-white drive-in films closely. Local teenagers Mike and Debbie, parked at lover’s lane, see a glowing object crash off somewhere in the near distance. They discover a giant circus tent that’s hiding Klown-like aliens who are abducting residents and encasing them in cotton candy cocoons. Mike and Debbie escape and spend the rest of the film trying to convince the police that their small town is in danger.
If you grew up watching movies like It Came from Outer Space or The Blob, you’ll likely smile a lot while watching Killer Klowns. In spite of its topsy-turvy premise, the Chiodo Brothers clearly have an affection for these old B-films. In addition to following the plot structure of these old films, Klowns revels in the same old-fashioned, low-budget inventiveness in bringing its concept to life. Townsfolk are liquefied and drank through large crazy straws. In one scene, a clown captures several people with a shadow puppet. It’s almost impossible not to admire the sheer out-of-control creativity behind Killer Klowns.
It’s almost impossible not to admire the sheer out-of-control creativity behind Killer Klowns.
An Emphasis on Comedy over Horror
For the uninitiated, it’s worth pointing out that Killer Clowns from Outer Space is firmly rooted on the comedy side of the fence. Like Troma films, Klowns fully embraces the absurdity of its concept and wants the audience to do the same thing. After all, it’s a movie called “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” with the clown spelled with a ‘k’. In a movie where the aliens use guns that shoot popcorn and encase victims in cotton candy cocoons, subtly is not an option. Fortunately, Klowns is much better at intentionally mining the ‘clowns’ premise for laughs than most Troma efforts. This is an intentionally silly film but most of its visual gags work.
While Klowns is almost ‘review proof’, the one area where it’s clearly a let-down is the horror part of the equation. Aside from the creepy clown masks and costumes, there are no real scares of which to mention. In fact, the Chiodo Brothers make no effort to introduce any genuine scares. There’s also a surprising absence of gore and explicit bloodletting. I expected Klowns to take a similar approach to its horror-comedy as films like Dead Alive, Bad Taste, or Evil Dead II. This is a PG-13 film that barely earns that ’13’ part of the rating.
While Klowns is almost ‘review proof’, the one area where it’s clearly a let-down is the horror part of the equation.
The closest Klowns gets to embracing some its 1980’s gory brethren is a scene where a Klown uses John Vernon’s crusty Deputy as a hand puppet. There’s a bit of blood and gore rooted in the sheer lunacy of a film about alien Killer Klowns. It’s neither excessive nor mean-spirited and I couldn’t help but wish there was more of this type of bloody inventiveness spread throughout the film.
Killer Klowns is the Perfect Sleep-Over Movie
Not surprisingly, given its title and premise, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a ridiculous movie, but it’s a wonderfully ridiculous movie. Not everything hits the mark but Killer Klowns largely nails its affectionate send-up of old B-films. This is the kind of film that is best enjoyed watching with friends and a few drinks. For younger audiences, Klowns makes the ideal sleep-over movie where no one needs to play close attention and its pure silliness will feed into the giddy energy in the room. Happy anniversary Klowns! They don’t make them like this anymore.