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Reviews 31 Days of Horror VI

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Stephen Chiodo

USA, 1988

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 03 October 2009

Source MGM DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror VI

As 80s B-movies go, Killer Klowns from Outer Space surely has one of the most memorable titles, not to mention one of horror’s finest theme songs in The Dickies’ calliope-laced punk epic “Killer Klowns” (Some make us laugh, some make us cry/These klowns honey gonna make you die!). Still, those elements are enough to merit only minor cult status at best. The film has had staying power – still scoring fans via DVD and outings on late night television more than twenty years down the line – because it strives to live up to all of the insane promise of that drive-in perfect title. Killer Klowns was a low budget labor of love for the Chiodo brothers – director Stephen Chiodo and co-writers and producers Charles and Edward – and they mine their love of classic and not-so-classic monster movies for inspiration as they explore a simple premise: that is, that clowns are kind of creepy.

And for all of its cheeky humor and camp appeal, the film is also kind of creepy: the clowns themselves are eerie, rubber-faced creatures who murmur to each other in an alien language and walk like astronauts who’ve just landed on the moon. They curl back their painted-on lips to reveal disconcertingly sharp-toothed smiles. You may have to shrug off a chill when one such clown surfaces at a local McDonald’s-like eatery to play peek-a-boo with a little girl, or when the lot of them stage a macabre parade through the center of town. An air of strangeness permeates the whole enterprise, with stock B-movie characters (including John Vernon’s marvelously cranky and skeptical policeman and Royal Dano’s shotgun-wielding old man, who says things like “tarnation”) and situations feeling markedly more surreal with a liberal application of greasepaint.

This is not to say that Killer Klowns is necessarily going to inflict the kind of damage that Tim Curry’s turn as a murderous harlequin in It has been perpetrating on unsuspecting youngsters since the early nineties. Much of the mayhem in Killer Klowns is in the good-naturedly prankish creatures-wreaking-havoc tradition of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, albeit with the obligatory Barnum and Bailey twist: balloon animals and shadow puppets become instruments of menace, and the clowns encase their victims in Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like pods—made of cotton candy. (When one of the clowns blasts popcorn from a gun early in the film, our heroine Debbie can’t help but ask, “Popcorn? Why popcorn?” Her boyfriend has the perfect answer: “Because they’re clowns, that’s why!”) To wit: the filmmakers appended From Outer Space to the film’s original, shorter title in the hopes of conveying their lighthearted intentions. To that end, they don’t pass up any chances to incorporate a good circus-themed gag, and the results are inventive and frequently amusing. Like Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead from a few years prior (with its squirming split dogs and reanimated pinned butterflies), Killer Klowns exploits its premise for every yuk – and yuck – that it can.

Still, what’s most endearing about Killer Klowns may be its DIY aesthetic. The Chiodo brothers worked extensively in special effects before taking on their own project, and they make the absolute most of their limited resources and practical know-how here. This isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a hearteningly scrappy one, and for all the time that has passed, the clowns and their freaky big top spaceship still look pretty cool. They also have the virtue of being unique. With Killer Klowns, the Chiodo brothers haven’t simply paid homage to their B-movie obsessed childhoods by lovingly recreating the madness of The Blob and King Kong. They’ve also made those traditions their own, mischievously painting over them with a big, sloppy grin.

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