Killer Klowns From Outer Space (which just turned 30 on May 27th) was the culmination of a lifelong dream, as unlikely as it sounds. Bronx born Stephen, Edward, and Charlie Chiodo had all done respectably well in Hollywood as special effects artists, but had longed since childhood to make their own movie. Though they had done crew work on theatrical hits like 1986’s Critters, it was an ABC after school special that finally attracted the attention of potential investors.
With only 1 pitch meeting and some concept art of a ray-gun-toting clown, the Chiodos got their chance to realize their dream. Production was greenlit on what would become 1988’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space.
The trio collaborated on the screenplay, and middle sibling Stephen was nominated to direct. Though accomplished effects artists in their own right, the brothers called in favors to assemble some high budget SFX talents for their modestly-budgeted film.
Rather than the slasher stalkers and fast times teens of the 80’s, the world of Killer Klowns is chock full of the monster kid culture of the post-atomic age. The Klowns and their array of circus themed, overly elaborate, comically oversized gadgety wouldn’t be out of place in Bill Finger’s era of Batman. The cotton candy cocoons in which they keep their victims are spun sugar homages to the Pod People from 1956’s Body Snatchers. There are scares here, but they are wrapped up is a sticky sweet layer of delightful camp.
Even the plot is a loving homage to 1958’s The Blob. A cranky old man (alerted by his barking dog) is the first victim in both films. The protagonists are rather wholesome teenagers (played by actors a bit too old for that title) who discover the film’s big bad after seeing a shooting star from a local lover’s lane. The gruff town deputy won’t believe the protagonists, even after people start disappearing. While Killer Klowns never announces itself as a period piece, its clean cut kids, checkerboard floor greasy spoon, and officially designated make out point are certainly more 1958 than 1988.
The charm lies in how deadly earnest this all is, how obviously gleeful the Chiodos are, as if they were still kids showing you some Super 8 they shot in the backyard. The film fully commits to the goofy space clown conceit, with balloon dog trackers, popcorn guns and deadly shadow puppets.
The deaths are mostly goreless, choreographed fits of rubber masked mauling that would do any nuclear monster film proud. An ice cream truck and the friends we made along the way are what set the scene for a happy ending and a final frame that hinges on an old Soupy Sales gag.
Other than the fantastic synth-fueled theme song, a few instances of rotoscoping and a candy neon color palette, Killer Klowns From Outer Space‘s plot and visual universe were a bit dated even at the time of its release. The practical effects hold up better than they perhaps should due to a talented team, but even those are now charmingly retro in the age of CGI.
However, that same dated quality is likely the reason why Killer Klowns is a perennial favorite even 30 years after its release.
It doesn’t matter if you watched the film in the theater during its very brief theatrical release, or as a bleary eyed 3:00 AM selection in its countless replays on late night cable. The second you hear that theme song, you know you are going to hop into that big top spaceship and blast straight to the creature feature horror traditions of years past, in what was (arguably) the last film to utilize them effectively.
Horror (along with the rest of pop culture) became much more sardonic and cynical as we moved into the decade of disaffection that was the 90’s. 1988 may have very well been the last moment you could make a silly little horror film about rubber-masked space clowns, and have people sit and enjoy the show, rather than rushing to look for the seams.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Stephen Chiodo
Writer(s): Stephen Chiodo, Charlie Chiodo, Edward Chiodo
Stars: Grant Cramer, Suzanne Snyder, John Allen Nelson
Studio/ Production Co: Sarlui/Diamont
Budget: $1.6 Million
Length: 88 Minutes
Sub-Genre: Creature Feature