Review: Killer Klowns from Outer Space (dir. Stephen Chiodo, 1988)

Killer Klowns

Killer Klowns from Outer Space
USA, 1988
Director: Stephen Chiodo
Writers: Charles Chiodo, Edward Chiodo and Stephen Chiodo

Review by N Emmett.

Young lovers Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Suzanne Snyder) are in the outskirts of their small American town after dark when they make a terrifying discovery: a band of malicious alien clowns have landed, and are planning to wrap the townspeople in cocoons of deadly candy floss to use as food! Our protagonists must team up with Debbie’s cop ex-boyfriend and a pair of bickering ice-cream vendors to thwart this alien menace.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is part of a batch of colourfully daft horror-comedies that arrived in the eighties, fitting right in alongside Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice. Out of all these films, Killer Klowns is perhaps the most resolutely cartoonish. Its plot is deliberately paper-thin; its characters are stereotypes (the bumbling sidekicks, the gruff police chief, the damsel in distress) and its overall sense of humour can hardly be described as sharp or witty.

But with films such as this, of course, obviousness is all part of the fun.

klow1The centrepieces of the film are the Klowns themselves: grotesque cartoon characters brought to life through animatronics that must have eaten up a significant percentage of the film’s budget. Looking as though they stepped right out of the pages of MAD Magazine, these  creations strike just the right balance by combining inherent silliness with a monstrous aspect that makes them a credible menace within the context of the film. It is worth noting that the film was conceived by the Chiodo brothers, better known as special effects artists on the likes of Critters and Team America, and their love of goofy mayhem comes through loud and clear.

Self-consciously simple-minded comedy is all well and good, but a film which takes that approach will need something up its sleeve to keep the audience interested. In the case of Killer Klowns, this takes the form of the various death scenes. The whole point of the film is seeing the range of ways in which the Klowns claim their victims, from guns that fire deadly popcorn to balloon dogs that can sniff out trails.klow2

Just when we think that the spectrum of clown-themed murders must surely have been exhausted, the film surprises us with such inventions as a deadly hand-shadow show or the creatures’ Alien-inspired reproductive process. All of this culminates in a chase through the Klowns’ big-top flying saucer, which appears to have been designed in a brainstorming session between Flash Gordon and Willy Wonka.

If you have not already figured this out yet, the keynote of Killer Klowns from Outer Space is an impish, childlike exuberance. The plot is something that could have been scrawled in a notebook by a pair of giggling twelve-year-olds, and the film itself often comes across as what would happen if those twelve-year-olds were put in charge of an animatronics workshop and a team of actors. But making a silly film is harder than might first be thought, and with its many inventive touches Killer Klowns shows that a surprising amount of thought went into it.klow3

Arrow Video have certainly gone all-out in assembling this DVD/Blu-Ray combo: the list of extras on the back of the sleeve goes on longer than the plot synopsis. The set is packed with behind-the-scenes features, and it seems safe to say that you will have learned everything that you could possibly hope to know about the making of Killer Klowns from Outer Space after working your way through the extras.

Amongst the revelations on offer is that Killer Klowns was originally conceived, like so many other horror films, during a discussion about archetypal fears. The Chiodo brothers hit on the idea of a driver on a road late at night looking out the window, and seeing the face of a clown peering at them from the car next to them – certainly a unusual image. This scene ended up in the final film as a relatively minor moment as the Klowns wreak havoc across the town.

klow4The set even includes a pair of Super 8 shorts made by the Chiodo Brothers in their youth; the second of these, a Ray Harryhausen tribute, took so long to make that the brothers grow from preadolescents to college students during the course of the film. Eat your heart out, Boyhood.

This set seems aimed mainly at people who watched Killer Klowns from Outer Space in their younger days and have a nostalgic attachment to it, but there is no reason why a new generation of viewers cannot give it a look. This kind of confectionary never goes stale.