After four years of writing, 19 days of filming, and a pandemic, Jaysen Buterin’s 2020 horror feature Kill Giggles is at last emerging into the world. It follows Tommy Dos Santos (Michael Ray Williams), an average guy, save for his extreme case of coulrophobia. After his parents died in a clown-related tragedy when he was a young boy, he learned to deal with his trauma by killing every clown in sight, as any normal individual would. His coping mechanism is challenged when a new girlfriend (Eden, played by Ellie Church) prompts him to leave it all behind in favor of a normal life, but sometimes love just isn’t enough.
It is a fresh and unique take on the “clown” subgenre of horror, wherein the clowns are not the ones to fear but are the targets. It is funny, colorful, and bursting with passion on- and off-screen. The joyous energy is immediate, as we follow the opening credits set to some funky music, and then we’re in for the kill.
The romance taking place between Tommy and Eden started out as feeling a bit fast to me but quickly grew into something that felt natural and believable. It’s the type of relationship that you want to see succeed and thus root for Tommy to find a healthier way to cope with his phobia. But of course, he was never going to be able to ditch his clown-killing alter ego so easily, and I knew this. But the characters are strong enough so that, even though I know it’s not going to pan out, I hold my breath and hope for the best, and I do care when things don’t go well.
Despite wanting to see the character heal, I enjoyed Tommy as a killer. He’s efficient and to the point. He doesn’t like to play around or gloat; he just kills without a second thought. He has nothing to say to these clowns that hasn’t already been said. In his mind, he’s an exterminator, and he talks to his vermin no more than a regular pest control man would talk to a cockroach. So, while he is a grounded character worth rooting for, he still completely works as a hardened killer.
The film presents some fascinating psychological exploration as it delves into the way Tommy came to hold his strong beliefs about clowns. He does not believe they are humans in costumes but monsters who are inherently evil. Under the assumption that his parents were murdered by clowns, this would make sense—however, this isn’t actually the case. His parents were hit by a car that was aggressively swerving around a corner in an attempt to get around a drunkenly cycling clown who was slowing them down. So, while a clown was perhaps the root cause, it was not the perpetrator. But the motorist who actually caused the deaths would have Tommy believe otherwise.
Years after the accident, the motorist, desperate for closure, pays a teenaged Tommy a visit at his and his aunt’s (Tracey de Leon) home. But rather than take the blame, he decides to push the narrative that the accident was entirely the clown’s fault. Tommy, now sent into a spiral, drunkenly wanders into a theater wherein a group of clowns is practicing a song. He enters a blind rage and kills each one of them, exclaiming that they killed his parents. The motorist followed him inside, and through a little mix-up, died as well and wound up taking the blame for the slaughter. This all leaves Tommy with his taste for clown blood, and with the perfect cover to begin his long-spanning killing spree in secret.
I watched this movie in the midst of my first watch of Hannibal, an incredible show that surely defines the term “psychological horror,” and I couldn’t help but detect similarly fascinating themes in this portion of the movie. Hannibal is about one person destroying another person’s sanity and the conditioning of that other person’s behavior to match a certain vision. In Kill Giggles, Tommy is conditioned to view clowns a certain way, shifting the blame off of the actual perpetrator behind his trauma and molding him into a killing machine incapable of reshaping his views. Maybe the motorist didn’t exactly mean for that to happen, or maybe he harbored the exact same views on clowns. Either way, he chose to nudge Tommy towards becoming the kind of person he did, and a kind of person that would have ultimately benefited him, had he survived—again, similar to Hannibal and the titular character’s elaborate scheme surrounding Will Graham. This is absolutely my favorite kind of psychological horror to behold.
It’s okay to kill monsters.
Ultimately, Kill Giggles is an entertaining and engaging feature that I would absolutely love to see again. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it represents a direction I would love to see more horror movies go in. I love stories that have incredibly fun concepts and use that to their full advantage while also exploring some deeper concepts. Truly, the only real complaints I have are the dialogue being occasionally corny and some of the sound being a tad loud. But what I want you to take away from this is to please watch this movie if you get the opportunity. It’s important to support small filmmakers in the extremely saturated world of movies. So, c’mon. Do it for me.
Before I sign off, I have a bonus segment! Kill Giggles was a film screening in conjunction with this year’s Carolina Fear Fest, which I attended. At the con, I was able to have a chat with Jaysen Buterin (creative director at Mad Ones Films, one of Kill Giggles’ production companies) about Mad Ones’ past, present, and future.
(It is worth noting that, at first, I did not realize the person I was talking to was Jaysen.)
Emma Gilbert: How long have y’all been in operations?
Jaysen Buterin: We started in about 2006. We did a 48-hour film project, and then we’ve been making movies non-stop ever since.
EG: Very cool! Where are you based?
Buterin: Greensboro, North Carolina.
EG: That is awesome. Can you tell us anything about some of the movies you have out right now?
Buterin: Well, we did short films for a lot of our career, spent quite a few years in the film festival circuit [and] doin’ cons and festivals and stuff like that. We started [with] Between Hell and a Hard Place, which was a gritty, 25-minute black and white horror film, kinda like the closest thing I’ll ever get to an original episode of The Twilight Zone, [which] makes me very, very happy. And then we had a film [called] Don’t Let the Light In and [one called] The Corner, and those were kind of shorts, but I wanted to make a feature. I wanted to cut my teeth on that, so I spent about four years writing a script, which turned into Kill Giggles, which is our first feature film. We screened [it], actually, on Friday night at the [Alamo] Drafthouse.
EG: I was there, actually! I didn’t realize you were the director!
Buterin: Yeah, writer-director, and I even have a brief cameo in the little band scene.
EG: I remember you sayin’ that at the Alamo!
Buterin: [Laughter] But yeah, it’s our first feature, y’know we shot it in 2019, we got distribution right when we started shooting […] But, with a major L.A. studio, it sort of took it to a much bigger level, so we’ve gone through a lot of legal paperwork, so it’s not out yet, but it’s gonna be out any day now, so as soon as we get a street day, it’ll be worldwide pretty quick.
EG: That is so awesome to hear. I loved it, I thought it was really great.
Buterin: Thank you so much!
EG: It is no problem! Is there anything else that you have in the works […] that you’re willing to share about?
Buterin: We’ve also got—as you saw at the Drafthouse—a feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary called Inside the Circus Tent, so we’re gonna self-distribute that, just to kinda be able to get it out, and [to] throw in all sorts of goodies and extras and stuff like that. So, we’ll have that comin’. We’re gonna do a couple of shorts. Our DP and editor Jesse Knight has a film called Trapdoor Spider [that’ll] be next. And we’ve got a couple [of] other projects, and then I wanna make a movie where we physically manifest and then kill the sh*t out of cancer.
EG: Oh! I love that idea.
Buterin: Yeah, we’re gonna kill cancer. It’s gonna be called Let’s Kill Cancer, ‘cause it’s gonna be the best revenge film ever [laughter].