Ringmaster shouts ‘Let the show begin’
Send in the klowns, then let them do you in
See a rubber nose on a painted face
Bringing genocide to the human race
– The Dickies, “Killer Klowns (From Outer Space)”
Between the fetishism of homicidal circus mutants and abundance of dim-witted adults trying to pass themselves off as teens you would be forgiven for mistaking Killer Klowns from Outer Space as a documentary of the beginning of Juggalo culture in the U.S.*
More accurately, Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)—when viewed as a stone-cold sober adult—is an easy way to divest yourself of any lingering coulrophobia from childhood.
Coulrophobia, the intense fear of clowns, is a stunningly common anxiety, particularly among kids who quite reasonably bristle at the thought of strange adults who dress in baggy polka dot pants and full pancake makeup while trying to entice them by shaping phallic balloons into grotesque “doggies” and “let’s just keep this our little secret, shall we?”
As a sufferer of coulrophobia, Killer Klowns From Outer Space—along with Pennywise from IT and John Wayne Gacy from reality—was instrumental in shaping my early aversion to clowns. Viewed 22 years later, the blood-runs-cold effect of having the clowns be not only homicidal, but fucking aliens, has weakened, to say the least.
Billed as horror comedy—a distinction that is questionable on 2 levels—Killer Klowns From Outer Space is none-the-less an enjoyable romp of a film, leaving no circus or horror cliché unturned as the villainous clowns haphazardly wreak havoc on Crescent Cove, a small California hamlet populated by 33-year-old college freshmen and other assorted mouth-breathers.
Trouble begins in the idyllic village when the male and female leads—Mike and Debbie, respectively—spot a falling star while parking at The Top of the World, the town’s preferred make-out spot for people in their 30s and 40s. The adventurous couple sets off to find the meteorite when they happen upon a glowing circus tent in the middle of the woods. True to the film’s requirements, Debbie wants to “get out of here, right now” cause “something just doesn’t seem right about this,” while Mike, grinning like a buffoon, insists on taking a closer look.
Predictably, things quickly go awry as the slow-on-the-uptake pair explore the tent and discover the alien clowns’ feeding lair, a storage facility for cotton candy cocoons that envelop mummified humans. (“That’s not how you store cotton candy!” says Debbie, the resident expert on carnival snack protocol.)
Mike and Debbie make a bumbling escape, with the alien clowns in hot pursuit, their expressionless rubber masks frozen in dead-eyed stares as they waddle into Crescent Cove to begin their killing spree in earnest.
The cult film works because it wholeheartedly embraces its silly concept and B-movie stripes, throwing in loving details—including an original theme song, “Killer Klowns (From Outer Space)”, by the Dickies and a wholly unnecessary 30-minute shower scene—and having the decency to not take itself seriously in any sense of the word.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie is the performance of John Vernon as Curtis Mooney, an over-zealous cop with a delightfully outlandish abhorrence of the “degenerate” “youth” of Crescent Cove and delusions of grandeur on par with Barney Fife.
Vernon, a prolific actor whose credits include Dirty Harry and Animal House (astute Rental Rehab/MacGyver Monday readers will also recognize him as Mac’s foe in season 1’s “The Gauntlet”) has a grand old time playing the authoritarian figure who would just as soon shoot an unarmed underage drinker in the back of the head, than to write him a citation for jaywalking.
It’s hard to miss the twinkle in Vernon’s eye as he snaps off the best lines in the film, such as this terse and sarcastic response to Mike’s news that the town is being overrun with extraterrestrial homicidal circus freaks:
“Killer clowns from outer space? Holy shit.”
While Mike and Debbie find an uneasy ally in Ken-doll-like rookie cop Dave Hanson (who also happens to be Debbie’s still-smitten ex…tension!) Mooney refuses to believe the story of the murderous clowns, even as his phone and radio buzz with panicked calls from the townsfolk. He’s an old-school cop (“I made it through Korea, I can make it through this bullshit!”) who won’t be hoodwinked by the ne’er-do-well youngsters and he breaks often for monologues peppered with non sequitors to an audience of none: “It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a prank like this to get me to throw down my badge, well, fuck you! Over.”
That Mooney is such a tight-ass makes it all the more fitting that he meets his end by being eviscerated by a particularly lumpy clown and turned into a ventriloquist dummy.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a Chiodo brothers production, BTW, succeeds in making your fear of clowns seem goofy and unjustified, even as it ostensibly exploits the common phobia to fulfill the “horror” aspect of the horror comedy genre. The clowns use animated balloon animals, poisoned cream pies, anthropomorphic hand puppets and transforming popcorn to dispose of their targets. Their giant shoes mean they move at an awkwardly slow pace and their almost Troll 2-like costumes provide a limited range-of-motion. Not exactly the most formidable of opponents for anyone with a fully intact frontal lobe.
The only moment that still rings creepy—and exemplifies the most unsettling aspect of the thought of a grown man dressed in a giant bowtie and a squeaky rubber nose—is a clown who visits a circus-themed burger joint and tries to lure a young blond girl to join him outside – alone. Does this rag smell like ether, little girl?
Killer Klowns From Outer Space is an affable pop culture throwaway, a look back to a not-so-distant past when puppetry and smoke machines still had a place in the horror world. Like visiting a roving carnival and riding the Gravitron as an adult, you’re less frightened of the prospect of having the floor drop out from beneath you and more fixated on trying to determine if the ride’s operator was the guy you saw huffing glue in the parking lot 30 minutes prior. The alien clowns are a bit disturbing, sure, but not quite like before.
If only all childhood adversaries were as easy to vanquish.
(*In the interest of preventing a backlash from the ICP camp and a wave of grammatically incorrect, poorly spelled death threats in the comments section, this will be the only reference to Juggalos and the Insane Clown Posse, though the temptation is there, for obvious reasons.)
–Rental Rehab review by Tricia