The crazy cult charm of Killer Klowns from Outer Space

With a long-awaited sequel on the way, we revisit the Chiodo brothers’ classic low-budget horror from 1988.


David Opie

When Pennywise floated up out of the sewers in 2017’s IT, the coulrophobia lurking in many of us was reawakened. But Stephen King’s creation isn’t the only killer clown that continues to stalk our nightmares. Thirty years ago, the Chiodo brothers created the ultimate B-movie funride with their first and only film, Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

Juggling both laughs and scares, this funhouse of horrors centres around a troupe of alien clowns who cartwheel into town one night and put on a deadly show that no one can escape from. Since the film’s release, Stephen, Charles and Edward Chiodo have created puppets and special effects for everything from Critters to The Simpsons, but the trio will always be known best for their riotous debut feature where evil balloon dogs run rampant.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of this cult classic, Arrow Video has released a new Blu-Ray edition packed with a clown car’s worth of special features. Alongside this 4K restoration, composer John Massari has also revisited his eerie synth score, producing a new orchestral arrangement that is set to be released via the US record label Varese Sarabande.

Since it premiered in 1988, Killer Klowns from Outer Space has spawned numerous toy spin-offs, countless midnight screenings and has even been sampled by the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. Part of the reason for the film’s enduring cult appeal is the way it holds a funhouse mirror up to the horror and sci-fi genres, transforming the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers into cotton candy cocoons, and slyly paying homage to The Blob and various zombie genre touchstones – instead of a bullet to the head, these Killer Klowns can only be stopped by being shot in the nose.

The Chiodos also make light of gender stereotypes through the characters of Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder). Dumb blondes might be one of the more unfortunate stereotypes perpetuated in horror cinema, but long before the likes of Drew Barrymore and Sarah Michelle Gellar were being ironically killed off in Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Snyder’s Debbie showed the way by helping Mike to survive while subverting several horror clichés in the process.

Despite its B-movie trappings, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is technically impressive. To bring the title antagonists to life, Charles Chiodo devised a complex system of mechanically controlled cables to enable him to change the facial expression of each mask on camera. Even more effort was put into the famous popcorn gun, which could actually fire real popcorn but cost $7,000 to build. A much cheaper yet equally inventive creative approach was taken when the legs of the balloon dog kept popping on set. To stop the “creature” from breaking during each take, the special effects department coated the legs in latex and then solidified them with a hairdryer so that they would survive long enough to get the job done.

Over the year the Chiodo brothers have expressed their desire to create a brand new trilogy that would act as both a remake and a sequel to the original. Now it seems they will finally have the last laugh when The Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 3D crashes into our atmosphere later this year. That’s right. Killer Klowns in 3D. Currently scheduled for release on 28 September, the follow-up will see Grant Cramer reprises his role as Mike Tobacco. The Chiodos have hinted in interviews that the film will follow a much older Tobacco, who is yet to recover from the Killer Klowns’ first attack.

It remains to be seen whether this long-awaited revival will have the same impact as the original, or whether it will simply be dismissed as a schlocky Pennywise knock-off. Either way, we’re hopeful that Klownzilla and his pals will give Stephen King’s clown a run for his money. Or, at the very least, throw a quick pie in his face before returning to their home planet.

Published 27 May 2018

Tags: Chiodo brothers Stephen King

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