I know a thing or two about creepy clowns. Some of my best friends are creepy clowns. I am, strangely enough, uniquely qualified to talk about creepy clowns.
Before we get started, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) is currently streaming on Netflix!
Killer Klowns from Outer Space, from the Chiodo Brothers (Stephen, Charles, and Edward), is another favorite film that I saw for the first time thanks to Svengoolie. People watch shows like Svengoolie for many different reasons: some watch solely for the movies—some watch to make fun of the less stellar ones, and some watch to enjoy the beloved ones. Some watch solely for Svengoolie and his shtick. Some, like me, watch both because they enjoy Svengoolie’s shtick and because they enjoy the movies.
When I first began watching Svengoolie’s show, every week brought a new film that I’d never seen or, many times, even heard of before. To this day, I still get legitimately excited when Svengoolie hosts a film that’s new to me. You never know if it’s going to be a hidden gem, a total turkey, or something in between. Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a film I’d never heard of and that hooked me from the first preview for Svengoolie’s show the next week, was definitely a gem. A bright red, spherical gem.
I enjoyed it from beginning to end and still recommend it to people.
Interestingly, upon rewatching the film for this article, I realized the version I saw on Svengoolie had extra content you won’t see in a streaming version.
Whether you watch the extended cut or the original theatrical cut, there’s no denying that Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a unique film in horror, in comedy, and in horror comedy. It stands out in the lineup of horror movies like a clown stands out in the lineup of acrobats, tightrope walkers, and trapeze artists. It’s a fascinating film that’s as fun as a day at the circus.
Step right up and have your tickets ready as we open the door of the clown car that is Killer Klowns from Outer Space!
Some of the comedy in Killer Klowns from Outer Space is very straightforward: for example, goofballs like Rich and Paul Terenzi, a.k.a. the Terenzi Brothers (Michael S. Seigel, Peter Licassi), would fit into any wacky comedy.
When the Terenzi Brothers are directly integrated into the plot in the final act, the casual, easygoing, and lighthearted way they undertake interacting with a killer alien species adds to the comedy of the crazy climax.
The less straightforward comedy comes from two main sources. One is the human characters who take the extraterrestrial threat as seriously as if the aliens were xenomorphs instead of clowns.
The way in which someone stores cotton candy wouldn’t generally be cause for alarm. Also, how many people really know (without looking it up) how cotton candy is actually stored? My guess would be: not too many. But for Debbie (Suzanne Snyder), it’s enough to confirm her suspicions that something about this circus is sinister.
The other source of less straightforward comedy is how everything the clowns do to achieve their gluttonous goal is associated with standard Earth clowns, meaning that props, skills, and behaviors that would be harmless and even whimsical in the gloved hands of an everyday clown are suddenly dangerous and even deadly.
Whether one has a fear of clowns (coulrophobia) or not, being afraid of shadow puppets, balloon animals, or popcorn is almost certainly not going to happen. And yet, the human protagonists are horrified at every new clown-related thing they see.
So…with a premise so ridiculous, when does the clowning end and the horror begin?
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a young couple making out in a car sees a meteor fly by, and it looks like it lands close by. One of them convinces the other to go look for its landing site, and they set off in pursuit of astronomical observation. Before they arrive, an older man and his dog who live near the impact site find it first…and pay the consequences.
If you said this sounds exactly like the opening scenes of The Blob (1958), then congratulations! You win…a balloon!
How about this one: when the young couple goes to the police, the police don’t believe them.
This brings us to one of the two main ingredients of the “horror” part of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space pie (pun intended): the use of horror hallmarks.
The story, without the clowns, certainly sounds like a horror tale: aliens come to Earth to capture, kill, and feed on humans. The aliens have mysterious technology that’s lethal to humans. The threatened humans are justifiably afraid of what’s going on, but also want to stop the aliens from completely taking out their town. If every one of the characters was laughing at the silliness of it all, then this film would just be a comedy about weird aliens. Instead, we have characters that, if you cut out all the clowns, would be seemingly reacting as they would to zombies, serial killers, or any other more traditional horror movie threat.
The “horror” side of Killer Klowns from Outer Space also has a second fascinating and unique source: how scary you find Killer Klowns from Outer Space depends heavily on how scary you find clowns in general. For bone-deep coulrophobes, this movie could be a genuine nightmare with some scenes of levity.
Adding to this, the clowns in question don’t look like regular clowns: instead of exaggerated features being painted onto their faces or put on their heads or bodies as costume pieces, the exaggerated features are their faces, heads, and bodies.
If one already has any degree of coulrophobia, these particular clowns will probably inflate it further and twist it around like a balloon animal guard dog.
Non-coulrophobes may still be creeped out by these unconventional clowns and their distorted, exaggerated features. But, on the other side of the spectrum, there’ll still be people who have zero fear of clowns who’ll have, quite literally, basically nothing to fear here.
So…with a “horror” side that’s so subjective to each individual viewer, how can it blend cohesively with the comedy?
How They Mix
To use a clown-related metaphor, the horror/comedy mix of Killer Klowns from Outer Space can be imagined like a pie.
The horror framework—the storyline, the characters’ reactions, the plot devices, etc.—is the crust of the pie: it holds everything else inside it and gives it shape.
The pie’s filling is the clown- and circus-related elements, taking the place of more traditional horror elements. The monsters are clowns. The monsters’ lair is a circus tent. Their lethal ray guns are covered in stripes and polka dots and shoot cotton candy and popcorn. Their hunting dogs are balloon animals. Their transportation of choice includes: clown car, invisible car, and even tiny clown bicycle.
Every role that, in a traditional horror movie, would be filled by something horrifying is instead filled by something you could find at any circus. Circuses are supposed to be fun and joyful: in Killer Klowns from Outer Space, what are usually supposed to be the most fun and silly parts of the circus experience are turned against the protagonists, to their terror. For coulrophobes, all of this can make Killer Klowns from Outer Space land anywhere on the spectrum from creepy to horrifying. For non-coulrophobes, this could be creepy, or it could add to the comedy.
Why are all of these supposedly beloved, allegedly whimsical symbols of the circus the source of such terror and destruction?
There have been talks of a Killer Klowns from Outer Space sequel or even a follow-up TV show for years, even as recently as last year. With merchandise (even Funko Pops) and apparel everywhere, from online stores to brick and mortar stores, to even a presence in Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights in 2018 and 2019, the clowns have clearly never been more popular.
With fans having more avenues than ever to express their love of different media, whether by purchasing merchandise, directly contacting production companies, or…well, writing about it like I am…who knows? Maybe the Big Top Meteor will strike again.
And if they need actors, I’ll call my aforementioned friend…
In the meantime, Killer Klowns fans can check out the Chiodo Brothers’ latest work, Alien Xmas (2020), on Netflix.
For many Killer Klowns fans, including the one writing this article, an official follow-up would be very welcome. A new story in this world, new avenues and stories to explore, and anything else expanding on what the first film served would be the cherry on top.