Klowning Around: 30 Years of KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE
I think it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that my friend Doug and I were, for a brief moment, obsessed with Killer Klowns from Outer Space. It was the summer of 1989, a year after the film was released. One of Doug’s relatives had HBO, an exotic thing in our tiny Upstate New York town in the middle of nowhere, and he regularly got movies, sometimes three to a VHS tape, from this relative. Killer Klowns was on one of these tapes, and we proceeded to wear the thing out as quickly as possible.
We were barely nine years old and didn’t have much to do for our summer vacation, so we ended up watching Killer Klowns once a day, every day, for a few weeks. Close to a month we watched that damn flick. Doug’s babysitter started to think we were a tad weird.
So what was the appeal? Well, neither of us were afraid of clowns, so that helped. Really, though, I think the movie simulated our sense of wonder in a couple ways. For one thing, once the action starts, it doesn’t stop. Killer Klowns is anything but dull. But I think the second factor is the most important one: It was really weird. And since we didn’t have a large film vocabulary and wouldn’t have known much, if anything, about the rich history of low budget alien invasion movies from the 50’s and beyond, it seemed as though Killer Klowns had arrived whole cloth, and it was a revelation.
Odd that I have so many fond memories of a film that I didn’t revisit for almost thirty years. I never got around to watching the film again until Arrow Video released their special edition Blu-ray last month. I have to admit, I was surprised at how much I dug the thing. I love cult films, but I figured that looking at the film from the lense of a wide-eyed child had skewed my perspective on the thing and made it seem better than it actually was. Very glad to see that wasn’t the case.
Directed by Stephen Chiodo, this is the first feature film from the three Chiodo brothers (Stephen and his brothers Charles and Edward), who were responsible for the practical effects on all sorts of 80’s films from Critters to a scene in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Inspired by a late-night drive where Stephen Chiodo imagined a lone clown driving down the road on an invisible vehicle, Killer Klowns from Outer Space was a passion project, and that passion shows up on screen.
The film’s concept, as you’ve probably already guessed, is quite bizarre. A spaceship that looks like a Big Top tent lands in the middle of small town U.S.A. The clowns run amok, killing people and encasing them in cotton candy as a means of digestion similar to the way a spider wraps its prey in silk. As the movie progresses, the deaths get more bizarre. A member of a biker gang has his head punched off, a shadow puppet eats a group of people waiting at a bus stop, a dead policeman’s back is hollowed out so that he can be used as a puppet. Yes, strange things indeed, and all very funny.
But as weird as the concept is, it’s very much played straight, just like those old creature features usually were. The humor is situational, arising from what the Chiodos figured would be the logical outcome of a race of aliens that looked and behaved like clowns. Sure, there are sight gags galore, but they’re the logical endpoint of a concept pushed as far as it will go. After all, if you’re going to do something, go all the way with it.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space always sticks to its own internal logic. As our main characters, the lovebirds Debbie (Suzanne Snyder) and Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer), are fleeing the circus tent space ship for the first time and one of the clowns squeezes the trigger of a gun that shoots popcorn, Debbie asks, “Why popcorn?” Mike answers, “Because they’re clowns!” And not only does this make sense, but that’s about all we get as far as speculation about the clowns’ origins. There’s a throwaway line near the end of the film about how the clowns might have been ancient aliens from which our concept of the clown originated, and that’s about the only other example. Did the Chiodos really need to bog the movie down with an elaborate backstory? Of course not. So they didn’t.
It probably goes without saying about a movie created by three FX artists, but the costumes, props and sets all pop with color and detail. All of the clowns have a unique look which informs their personality, and you can easily tell them apart. Seriously, this movie is worth watching for the visuals alone.
Though there have been talks of a sequel or a TV series over the years (2016 seems to be the last time that these rumors were all over the Internet), nothing has come of it save a one of the clowns’ brief cameo in the 2018 horror-comedy Hell’s Kitty. Personally, I’ve always thought that the characters, if they were toned down a bit, would have made a great Saturday morning cartoon. After all, if we could make the Toxic Avenger kid friendly, surely it wouldn’t be that hard to do the same for a bunch of space clowns. (Though, admittedly, the “Killer” part of the title would need to be removed.) Sadly, these kinds of cartoons don’t really exist anymore, though I could easily imagine a web-based animated series in the style of late-80’s to early 90’s Saturday morning cartoons working quite well. But for God’s sake, can’t we at least get a comic book?
With the beautiful new (and definitive) Blu-ray release of the movie by Arrow Video, perhaps now there will be renewed interest in the franchise. The mythos is almost begging for an expanded universe.
Whatever happens, though, it’s wonderful to see any renewed interest in the film at all. I’m instantly transported back to my childhood whenever I see one of the costumes or look at the DVD cover art. It’s one of those movies that’s wonderfully anarchic, an invitation for the imagination to go in whatever silly directions it wants to go. In my mind, there’s not a whole lot better than that.