ABCs of Horror: “K” Is for Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

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ABCs of Horror: “K” Is for Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?

The 1980s were a decade where cult horror films—i.e., those movies that didn’t make anyone rich during an initial release, but eventually found a core audience of inveterate horror geeks on home video in the decades to follow—were so often the product of enterprising filmmakers who doubled as technical whiz kids, able to create endearingly weird or charming effects at a fraction of the cost that major studios would take to replicate the same. That statement could apply to many of the tacky “trash classics” that have come to define the idea of ‘80s horror to so many fans, but those very fans would also surely agree that few films more proudly bear the title than Killer Klowns from Outer Space. This, dear readers, was not a title conceived by someone with the intent to make a nuanced or cerebral chiller. The word “psychological” will not appear in anyone’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space assessment. Hell, the film is barely even attempting to be genuinely scary. What is it, then? It’s just plain fun.

With that said, there is a certain mythic power in the title alone. To wit: I can vividly remember being a junior high school student and first hearing someone speak in hushed tones about a movie called, of all things, Killer Klowns from Outer Space. It was spoken of with an air of reverence and intimidation, of the sort usually reserved for say, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, suggesting that Killer Klowns might very well be some transgressive artifact you’d need to track down in a grungy trinket shop by providing the correct password to a grizzled shopkeep. There was something in that title that suggested cinematic taboo in addition to bad taste.

Of course, the actual film is nowhere near as dire or momentous as all that—evidence of the power that a florid title has to frame a budding horror geek’s expectations. In reality, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is vintage 1980s cheese, well-aged and riper than ever when you revisit it now more than 30 years later. It’s a charmingly creative, well-designed FX spectacle pulled together by a trio of hard-working brothers who harnessed their technical expertise and became B movie legends in the process: Charles, Edward and Stephen Chiodo.

The Chiodos, as they’re always collectively referred to, have served a long tenure as Hollywood FX workers, specializing in animatronics, clay modeling, puppetry and stop motion animation. Along the way, they’ve contributed effects to films from Critters and Team America: World Police to The Simpsons and Elf, but Killer Klowns remains the property that any horror fan immediately thinks of when they hear the Chiodo name invoked. Some 32 years later, it’s still the only film the trio has directed together.

The premise is simple, but absurd as can be: A small town is menaced by a gaggle of aliens who happen to, through pure coincidence, look almost exactly like grotesque earthly clowns, complete with a spaceship that just so happens to look just like an earthly circus tent. They’ve come to Earth to harvest humans for food, which they take in the form of a substance that, once again, just so happens to look exactly like earthly cotton candy. You can’t help but laugh at the idea that evolutionary lines galaxy wide apparently have some strange tendency to run in the direction of “clown” as a superior model for lifeforms.

The “klowns” themselves are brought to life via instantly iconic, grotesquely bulbous rubber suits that give each individual klown a distinct, lumpy personality. The heart and soul of the film is present in these costumes and the level of commitment shown to making every possible aspect of their presentation conform to the theme. There’s death by pie-to-the-face, living balloon animals, a giant marionette “klownzilla” and more creativity on display than in half a dozen other clown-related horror films. Where so many others rely entirely on Stephen King’s It and coulrophobia in general to get the job done, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is trying as hard as it can to be memorably absurd.

That sort of moxie hits its zenith in the classic “shadow puppet” sequence, in which a rogue klown happens upon a group of people (including some poor senior citizens) waiting for a bus, and proceeds to entertain them with a sequence of shadow puppetry that quickly progresses from the expected (bunnies, elephants) to the hilariously niche (George Washington crossing the Delaware?!). For the grand finale, he then summons a shadow Tyrannosaurus, which devours the crowd of onlookers—a massacre that is completely in line with a film that also features klowns punching off people’s heads, turning corpses into marionette puppets and drinking victims’ blood with crazy straws. There’s no idea too silly for Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

As fondness for the original 1988 film has persisted through decades of horror conventions and B-movie screenings, rumors of a proper Killer Klowns sequel have circulated and re-circulated for more than a decade, with the Chiodos doing everything in their power to stoke whatever anticipation and enthusiasm they can for such a project. Stephen Chiodo has stated at various points that he was working on a film sequel, and then a potential TV series, bizarrely described at one point as “a trilogy in four parts.” Much of this news felt like hot air, however—that is, until 2018 and 2019, when it began to feel like the wheels were finally turning on a new Killer Klowns property following two years of the klowns being heavily featured in Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights. It was later revealed that 20th Century Fox was indeed working on a long-delayed sequel … only to have the rug pulled out from underneath it once again, when that film was among the many canceled projects after Fox was acquired by Disney. Once again, the fate of The Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 3D (yes, really) is uncertain.

In all honesty, though: Do you really get the sense that there’s a huge market out there waiting for a multi-part revisit of Killer Klowns from Outer Space? This is one of those properties that has an undeniable group of admirers, myself included, but it also feels like one that I can’t help but doubt would draw a true groundswell of interest if a new version suddenly appeared. It’s a silly concept that was built to be niche from the very start, not one that was ever going to have legions of fans. You might say that that it appeals to its most ardent fans for the fact that it doesn’t possess a wider fandom—a film for genre geeks and outsiders. That’s a good ceiling for a film that is literally titled Killer Klowns from Outer Space, right?

Oh, the hell with it. Give us a new trilogy with the Chiodos directing. Who am I kidding, I’ll watch it.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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