Lots of science-fiction and horror films have been built around seemingly ridiculous high-concept gimmicks, particularly when it comes to totally improbable and impractical monsters. We've had killer elevators, killer laundry-folding machines, killer tomatoes, killer beds, killer penises, etc. What makes Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) so special is that the movie fully makes good on the promise of its extravagant title. If you want a rollicking, highly enjoyable movie about murderous extraterrestrial harlequins, look no further.
The Chiodo Brothers -- director Steven and his siblings Charles and Edward -- have worked together and separately on a variety of film and television projects for the last 20 years or so, generally as creature designers, puppeteers, and art directors. (All three toiled on Team America: World Police.) Killer Klowns is the Brothers' one big chance to run amok in a feature-length film, and they do not waste this golden opportunity. The film feels like the kind of thing a group of brothers might come up with in giggly, late-night brainstorming sessions.
STEVEN: So our villains are evil alien clowns, right?
EDWARD: (snorting) Yeah, and maybe their spaceship looks like a big circus tent!
CHARLES: And their weapons are popcorn and balloon animals! (sprays Mountain Dew out his nose)
If the movie can be reduced to a formula, it would be: The Blob times Gremlins minus the actual monsters from those movies minus budget plus clowns plus terrible sweaters plus Dean Wormer from Animal House. That's a lot to absorb, so let me break it down.
The action takes place over the course of one eventful night in a small, generally peaceful town where the local college kids (many of whom wear the aforementioned sweaters) are constantly running afoul of a local policeman, Mooney (played by John Vernon as an even-less-tolerant variation on Dean Wormer). A mysterious meteor crash-lands just outside of town, and some of the suspiciously old-looking "young people" go to investigate. All of this is imported straight from The Blob, as is the old hillbilly who is the film's first casualty. Anyway, the meteor turns out to be that circus tent/spaceship I mentioned previously, and soon the killer klowns themselves are unleashed on the unsuspecting citizenry, causing vaguely Gremlins-esque mayhem and occasionally killing people as well, wrapping their corpses in cotton candy cocoons. Really. Cotton candy cocoons. The actors even have to say the words "cotton candy cocoons" occasionally. Try saying it aloud yourself.
I suppose I should mention the film's token romantic leads, Mike and Debbie, or the town's only other cop, Dave, who also happens to be Debbie's still-jealous ex-boyfriend. But all that really needs to be said about them is that they play their roles just right, which is to say a little stiff and bland and only somewhat in on the joke. They help the movie to maintain its tricky balance of self-aware campiness and actual horror-movie creepiness. John Vernon and Royal Dano (as the hillbilly) have the fun roles here, and no scenery remains unchewed in their presence.
But you don't watch a movie like Killer Klowns from Outer Space for acting, do you? You watch it, I hope, for the CAS (crazy ass shit) contained within it. Does this movie deliver on the CAS? Oh, brother, you better believe that it does. The clowns -- excuse me, Klowns -- are about 8' tall generally, and their faces look like very elaborately-designed though not highly expressive Halloween masks. They are unable to speak, which in retrospect is probably a blessing, and move with a very plodding, deliberate gait. Occasionally, they will stage parades and puppet shows.... deadly parades and puppet shows, that is. I only wish the Chiodo Brothers had managed to wrangle some of those tiny Shriner cars. Those little cars have always unnerved me, and I know this film could have exploited them for maximum nightmare potential. But even without those cars, this is a movie that keeps on giving and giving. You want to see a biker get decapitated? How about an animated shadow puppet that eats a group of old people waiting for a bus? Dean Wormer's corpse used as a ventriloquist dummy? You've got it, pal. And what of our nation's most-famous clown, Ronald McDonald? Is his image sullied? You'd better believe it, as a super-menacing Klown stands outside a burger joint, beckoning to an innocent little girl. This is a movie where the CAS flows like running water. Even the movie's goofs are charming. There is a joke in which two horny brothers use an ice cream truck to lure overweight women, and you can tell that the filmmakers were only able to find one heavyset woman and one slightly plump one. For some reason, this made the film more endearing to me. As the frosting on this cinematic cupcake, we even have a kick-ass theme song by the Dickies!
Killer Klowns from Outer Space was not the beginning of a horror franchise. In fact, there never really was a second Chiodo Brothers film. Maybe this PG-13 oddity was slightly too innocent for the hardcore gore hounds out there and way too disturbing for younger audiences, placing it in a deadly commercial no man's land. But for those in the know, it remains -- even 20+ years on -- a slightly-under-the-radar delight.
Quick question: Are you the sort of person who found the clown nightmare sequences in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to be a little too intense and terrifying? If so, and you have heretofore managed to avoid Killer Klowns from Outer Space, then my best advice to you would be to stay that course, for it is practically by definition the last thing a person with Bozophobia should ever be exposed to. As for the rest of us, even after 22 years Killer Klowns can be a thoroughly entertaining way to pass 88 minutes -- as long as your expectations are sufficiently realistic.
For starters, the menacing laughter that is heard over the credits tells you right off the bat that this has the potential to be an especially creepy film. Then, after the major characters are sketchily introduced (with our main couple discovered making out in a blow-up raft in the back of a pickup truck -- which looks about as romantic as it sounds), the titular Klowns make their entrance, leaving no doubt that the creep-out factor will come into play several times before the closing credits roll. Even if you're not afraid of clowns, chances are you wouldn't want to run into any of these merry-makers in a dark alley.
As Joe stated, most of their armaments are sinister variations on such carnival staples as cotton candy, popcorn, balloon animals, puppet shows, squirting flowers, helium balloons and so on. Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't do anything with taffy pulling or funnel cakes (both of which could have had enormous potential), but they did manage to put a lethal spin on that classic slapstick routine, the pie fight. ("What are you gonna do with those pies, boys?" asks one hapless security guard just before he's pummeled to death by the Klowns' edible missiles. If there's one scene from this film that's stuck with me more than any other over the years, it is this one.)
If only the Brothers Chiodo had put as much effort into the dialogue as they did into the Klowns' ingenious devices. For example, Royal Dano gets to utter such deathless lines as "I don't know, Pooh. [Pooh being his droopy-face basset hound] There's something kind of peculiar around here." and "What in tarnation's going on here?" Later, when our intrepid couple is sprayed with popcorn while escaping from the Klowns' circus tent/spaceship, the girl asks, "Popcorn? Why popcorn?" "Because they're clowns, that's why!" comes her boyfriend's response. Then there are the lines that are uttered merely for the sake of irony, like when John Vernon growls, "Make a dummy out of yourself. You're not going to make a dummy out of me!" At least to the Chiodos' credit a good 30 minutes passes before Vernon does get turned into a dummy (in a scene that, now that I think of it, was eerily replayed in Independence Day). The same cannot be said for the biker who unwisely destroys the littlest Klown's motor scooter and, when the plucky fellow dons boxer's gloves, asks, "What are you gonna do, knock my block off?" That, sir, is exactly what he's going to do. Lastly, I was highly amused by Vernon's triumphant "Freak you's all!" -- a euphemism made necessary because he had already used up the film's quota of one "fuck" in the scene before.
Other areas where the film comes up short are the sub-John Carpenter synthesizer score (which is occasionally punctuated by some blistering guitar work) and the director's over-reliance on long takes of the ungainly Klowns casually strolling through the town. As much as it reeks of padding, it also reminds me of the sweaty stuntmen inside the top-heavy (because of the animatronic heads) Klown suits trying to get around with what must have been severely limited visibility. Then there are the comedic stylings of Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi as the Terenzi Brothers, who really should have been a lot funnier than they were if they were supposed to be the comic relief. On the plus side, the special effects are fairly decent for the money they had, but I couldn't help thinking of the Master Control Program from Tron when the big top took off into the stratosphere.
In a lot of ways the Killer Klowns' plot echoes the one in Peter Jackson's underseen feature debut, the aptly named Bad Taste, which came out the year before and likewise features a race of grotesque aliens who arrive on Earth with the intention of harvesting humans for their own sustenance. (In Bad Taste, though, their leader is much more articulate about their nefarious intentions -- namely, we are to be the latest intergalactic fast food delicacy.) The surprising thing is that Killer Klowns is the much slicker one of the two and clearly was the work of people who had something of a budget. Bad Taste, on the other hand, looks like Jackson made it single-handed, which isn't far off the mark considering he shot it on weekends over a period of several years and wound up playing multiple roles simply because he was the one actor he knew who would show up on a consistent basis. Now, I'm not saying the Chiodo Brothers aren't dedicated to their craft, but there's a reason why Jackson went on to helm some of the most ambitious films of the last two decades and win multiple Academy Awards in the process. It's all about ambition and when you get right down to it, once the Chiodos got to make their dumb movie about interstellar clown-like beings with advanced circus-based weapons technology, they must have felt like there was nowhere for them to go but down.
Then again, Wikipedia does say that they are developing a Killer Klowns sequel, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see what they come up with. Perhaps we have yet to hear the final word on murderous mummers from another galaxy. After all, the flying pies that splatter our protagonists in the final shot of this opus had to have come from somewhere.