Almost exactly one year ago the ‘Northampton Clown’ clambered up to the fickle heights of the blogosphere. Dressed in big-top patchwork, and wearing a Pennywise mask he shuffled, balloons in tow, through Northampton’s quiet streets.
“He doesn’t juggle. He doesn’t twist balloons into animal shapes. He just stares.”
– The Northampton Herald and Post
The deranged clown, stained with grime and a malevolent grin is a mainstay of the horror genre. The greasepaint’s twisting of the familiar, and an unrelenting absurdity give even the stock clown a capacity for creepiness. Killer Klowns from Outer Space elaborates somewhat on the standard, terrestrial, brand of clown and even it’s malicious horror film cousin; this is because its clowns are from Outer Space.
Originally (and very briefly) released to theatres in 1988, Killer Klowns is very much a family effort, created by sibling special effect artists Stephen, Charles & Edward Chiodo. The film follows the candy-striped invasion of Crescent Cove, an interchangeable Californian suburb, by grotesque clown creatures.
While stargazing at one of American cinema’s many make-out points, teenage sweethearts Mike and Debbie are interrupted by what appears to be a flaming meteorite crashing into a nearby wood. Upon investigation, they stumble upon an unusually remote, unusually glowing Circus tent; it’s entrance enticingly unfurled. Once inside it isn’t long before the teens realise that something is amiss, there’s gaudy rainbow piping, futuristic revolving doors and an endless chasm, arcing with electric blue beams, “This is no Funhouse” Mike whispers. The next chamber presents more distressing developments; human corpses entombed in candy floss and congealed blood. The fluffy cocoons hang in pink rows, surrounded by skittles buttons and frivolous mechanisms, bright apparatus that would sit comfortably in a fantasy chocolate factory.
It isn’t long before the intruders are discovered and subsequently chased by a towering clown (or Klown) wielding a Barbarella calibre popcorn blunderbuss. Mike and Debbie scramble back through the woods and drive back to civilisation, ramming a number of zany pursuers in the process. The sequence draws to a close with a gaggle of Klowns, their invasion exposed, lurching from their Big Top towards the unsuspecting town of Crescent Cove.
Events unfold into an unsteady alliance between the bitterly cynical local law enforcement and the stammering teens, the town troublemakers are also enlisted (Sex obsessed twins who bumble around in an Ice cream truck) and the group formulate a plan to quell the invasion.
Whilst we’re spoilt for choice at the buffet of half-horror comedy, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a particularly rewarding spectacle. Throughout the course of the film the inane marriage between science fiction and circus-tinged horror never really loses it’s novelty. One sequence features an unsettlingly deadpan Klown pausing in his pursuit to twist a balloon into a baby blue bloodhound; it sniffs the air, barks and gives chase, shuffling across the ground after its prey. There are also some fantastically theatrical ‘terrorise the little town’ moments, with Klowns delivering booby-trapped pizzas, performing fatal puppet shows or ramming residents off the roads to explosive deaths.
The young cast is both wonderfully wooden and painfully over-animated at times; delivering cliché after cliché, scream after strained scream. The seasoned John Vernon gives undoubtedly the film’s best performance as the sardonic asshole-cop Mooney, chewing his cigar stub and hissing threats of violence at both Klown and Teen alike.
Killer Klowns performs perfectly well as a cookie-cutter horror romp; the film excels however in its presentation of animatronics, practical effects and set design. The Klown masks are indulgently repulsive, glistening shark-mouths bristle with yellow teeth, skin is ribbed with chalky-white folds, and jaundiced eyes have a sickening ‘insomniac Mr. Blobby’ souring. Faces also articulate brilliantly, twisting into malignant sneers or mocking roars. Klown vehicles and weaponry also gleam with the same exuberant design; one scene contains a garish hoover-styled tank, rolling through the streets digesting mounds of candy-encrusted bodies. When at times the sets can appear cheap, it does so within the realm of funhouse simplicity, with labyrinthine theatre flats or shallow quicksand balloon-pits.
The abundance of special features on this particular edition of Killer Klowns from Outer Space provides a charming insight into not only the making of the feature, but also the legacy of the Chiodo brothers as a creative ensemble.
The making-of featurette explores the original inspiration for the film and the medley of limitations and compromise that lent to its signature texture. The blooper-reel features, amongst other content, fifteen takes of a set-hand slinging a prosthetic head into a rubbish-can. There are also contemporary interviews, and storyboards; the most welcome however is the addition of the Chiodo brother’s earlier films. Various 8mm family projects, which include The Beast From the Egg, detail an endearingly self-directed introduction into a career of practical effects and filmmaking.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a hugely entertaining nonsense-fest and delivers everything you would expect from a feature with such a ridiculous title. Digging deeper into the disc’s special features will undoubtedly become the highlight for anyone who has encountered the Klowns before, but also yields an entirely distinct narrative; one which, in some respects, is actually more compelling than Klowns itself. Whilst the Chiodo brother’s graduation from sibling film school, to technicians and directors may have made a career from a pastime, Killer Klowns still invokes a sense of ‘people at play’.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.
Words> Samuel Cochrane