October Horrorshow: Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Clowns are creepy. But I didn’t realize this until I got older. Back when I was a kid, I remember my old man and his brother loading up our families in a van to head out to Richfield Coliseum to see Ringling Bros. We only went a couple of years — at most three in a row. Hardly a family tradition, but there are still parts of those outings I remember vividly, and clowns creeping me out is not one of them.

A quick aside — do you know what the best part about going to those shows was, for me? It was this thing:

Ringling Bros. spinning flashlight

That is an official Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus spinning flashlight thing, and it came in red or blue. Richfield Coliseum had a capacity of over 18,000 people, and on circus nights half the people in the audience must have had these, spinning around like demented police lights in the darkened stands. It had a spectacular effect on the senses, and it enhanced what was happening down on the floor. How much more pedestrian the show would have seemed had it not been surrounded by 10,000 flickering red and blue stars. The circus must have made a killing on selling those flashlights. Anyway, clowns.

We never had great seats when we saw the circus. We were always in the upper deck of the coliseum, which had no overhang, so we were far away from the action on the floor. When you’re far away I have to admit that clowns are pretty funny. It’s only when you get up close to them that the gaiety is destroyed and clowns become creepy and weird.

Which brings me to today’s movie!

It was a rare month in the late 1980s and early ’90s when Killer Klowns from Outer Space wasn’t on HBO some Friday or Saturday night. That channel got a lot of mileage out of The Chiodo Brothers’ epic horror/comedy film from 1988, only to kick it to the curb after Ghost Ship made it to cable. A lot of potential viewers would see a title like Killer Klowns from Outer Space and assume it’s a shitty movie. It certainly has a lot of the hallmarks one would expect from a shitty horror flick. It’s full of unknown actors, with the exception of the veteran character actor all shitty horror flicks seem to get (in this case, it was John ‘Double-Secret Probation’ Vernon). Some of the sets were decorated with doodads one could pluck off of the shelves at the local big box hardware store. And the movie is about alien clowns that kill people. There’s no way this movie was ever intended to be good, right?

I don’t know what the Chiodos had in mind, but Killer Klowns is not a shitty movie.

In some generic small town somewhere in America, a race of alien creatures resembling circus clowns has landed their spacecraft. Mike Tobacco and his girlfriend, Debbie (Grant Cramer and Suzanne Snyder), investigate the craft and discover that the clowns are cocooning citizens of the town in pods of cotton candy. They try to warn the local police, but not before the clowns begin working their way through town, spreading holocaust wherever they go.

The clowns use some of the tricks of the trade (Is there a clown car? Of course there is. Are there balloon animals? Of course there are.) to chase down the fair citizens of Anywhere, USA, but these clowns are clearly monsters. There’s none of the ambiguity I found from the upper deck of Richfield Coliseum. The Chiodos made a career for themselves in the film business as effects artists, and it appears most of the budget for this film went into the clowns. Their animatronic faces are monstrous and silly at the same time. The clowns’ appearance plays up the inherent creepiness of real clowns. The clowns are ridiculous and absurd, and really, they had to be. If one is going to make a movie about alien clowns massacring an entire town, one has to go big.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a wonderfully goofy diversion from the heavy stuff in the horror genre. It’s cheesy, and hardly a masterpiece of filmmaking, but it’s a good little movie.