One of the biggest, if not most likely, cult horror hits from the ‘80s, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is the sole directorial effort from Stephen Chiodo—one of the legendary Chiodo brothers known for their iconic special effects and art design, which includes giving us Large Marge from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the critters from Critters, and the Rankin-Bass knockoff claymation sequences from Elf. However, it would be their 1988 collaborative effort (Stephen and his two brothers Charles and Edward are credited with the screenplay as well) for which they are most famous.
Shamelessly cribbing the format from 1958’s The Blob with some ideas from ‘56’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Killer Klowns begins with a meteor crash off in the woods and a young couple, Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder), heading out to find it. They stumble upon a large circus tent filled with colorful tunnels and mysterious elevators. In the basement of the tent, they discover cotton candy pods containing some of their dead friends. Now they have to convince the police and the rest of the town what’s going on. Debbie’s ex-boyfriend, Dave (John Allen Nelson), is a cop and joins them in unraveling this mystery.
Practical effects are all but left behind in today’s industry. Yet they bring so much charm to older films. Despite its memorable costumes and sets, Killer Klowns might have gotten lost in the shuffle of all the other slashers and pseudo-slashers of its era if it weren’t for its economic use of practical effects. It’s what makes this film unique and memorable—despite its plethora of flaws.
Having arguably the best production design of any horror movie from the ‘80s, the film teases us in the beginning with the iconic circus tent set piece but then doesn’t return to it until the final act, where we finally get to explore it in depth. Likewise, the titular monsters aren’t your typical makeup-wearing clowns you’d see at the circus, but large costumed Klowns (notice the “K”) that look more like walking puppets with permanent evil grins.
The creature design and circus-themed art direction are the predominant takeaway here. Whereas the human protagonists are largely obligatory if not forgettable. There are entire stretches where the protagonists are off doing something else entirely while we get to watch the Klowns venture around this small town beheading bikers, eating old people with shadow puppets, and kidnapping teenagers inside cotton candy cocoons—things you’d expect from a Tim Burton Batman villain.
But also, you can’t really have these show-stealing Klowns on screen at the same time as the lead human characters either, because one would surely render the other invalid. They do meet up once at the beginning and end of the film. As for the middle portion, the nature and appeal of the Klowns and the necessity of the protagonists would only clash and contradict one another.
Although it’s unquestionably carried by its eye-popping visuals and colorful set pieces, the plot is underwhelmingly routine. It grows nicely and fills the runtime well, but story-wise doesn’t quite live up to the curiosity it inspires. There’s also this haphazard, unresolved love triangle between Mike, Debbie, and Dave. Debbie, at any given moment, changes who she’s clinging onto. And in the final freezeframe of the film, it would appear as though she and her ex-boyfriend Dave were the ones dating, despite this never being made clear and no prior resolution that would hint at why this would even be the case.
The movie doesn’t really care about what its characters are doing and treats them as merely functional. Authentic human behavior was difficult to nail down consistently in ‘80s horror B-movies, but the characters in Killer Klowns are almost entirely unrealistic and annoying, with the exception of the Lenny and Squiggy stand-ins, the wacky Terenzi brothers (Peter Licassi and Michael S. Siegel), who drive around town in an ice cream truck shouting absurd announcements at people over the PA speaker.
Fortunately, Killer Klowns doesn’t take itself too seriously, so neither do we. Oddly enough, the movie also doesn’t give us too much to laugh at. But it doesn’t even matter. We almost don’t notice because the weirdness of it all is enough to entertain us.
Aside from the chilling fact that the Klowns act without any motive whatsoever, they provide more of a visual weirdness than they do evoke any terror from the audience. However, there’s one exception: Late in the second act, the best moment in the movie arrives as one of the Klowns sits in the background of a frame in the police station. He’s facing backwards in a chair as Officer Dave suddenly stops to take notice. The Klown then turns around to reveal Dave’s partner, Officer Mooney (John Vernon), sitting in his lap, now turned into a creepy ventriloquist puppet.
This is the sole instance of genuine horror amidst a film that’s easily classified as a schlocky, goofy dark comedy. To add the cherry on top—so to speak—the Klown finishes the sequence by removing his bloodied hand from Mooney’s back and shaking off the residue. It’s the most human yet the most evil that any of the Klowns appear to be throughout the entire movie, and it’s absolutely necessary.
I should also mention the incredible, calliope-filled score by John Massari, who combines circus-inspired motifs with ‘80s synth arpeggios. It’s then bookended with a catchy title track, “Killer Klowns,” by the punk rock group The Dickies.
The acting is bad, the dialogue is stupid, the direction is sloppy—but does it matter? The Chiodos tap into familiar genre tropes but then essentially pervert them. Killer Klowns from Outer Space may feel structurally safe but establishes such a unique visual and tonal aesthetic that a disorienting viewing experience is created regardless.