“There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.” This quote, which succinctly illuminates a widely-shared, almost primal fear of clowns, is attributed to silent film icon Lon Chaney. In the 1924 thriller He Who Gets Slapped, Chaney plays a scientist who becomes a vengeful clown when his benefactor steals both his work and his wife.
Chaney’s clown, simply known as “He,” wasn’t the first evil clown in popular art; the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci tells of a clown who commits a murder live onstage. But the popularity of He Who Gets Slapped — the New York Times wrote a rave review in 1924 — set in place what would become a familiar archetype in the popular imagination: Evil clowns.
From the Joker to Pennywise, a common psychological fear of circus clowns means the traditionally silly, wholesome idea of clowns is twisted when pleasure doesn’t become yours, but theirs — which is what makes this 1988 horror-comedy a must-watch monster, especially before it leaves Netflix on March 31.
Rerouting the terrifying energy of “evil clowns” back into the realm of comedy, Killer Klowns from Outer Space surpasses and embraces its goofy premise (and goofier title) to earnestly become a must-see ‘80s staple. Written, directed, and produced by the Chiodo Brothers (Stephen, Charles, and Edward, who hail from the Bronx), Killer Klowns from Outer Space tells of a suburban town’s invasion by murderous alien clowns.
You know, from outer space.
One night at the local lovers’ lane, teenage rebel Mike (Grant Cramer) and his girlfriend Debbie (Suzanne Snyder) witness a falling meteor. They arrive at the crash site only to find a giant circus tent in the middle of nowhere. While exploring, they discover the circus tent is, in fact, a space ship piloted by aliens who only resemble circus clowns. It’s not long until the “Klowns” waltz into town, taking people hostage in cotton candy cocoons.
A sublime example of ‘80s B-horror, the film’s real genius lies in its practical effects. One look at the “Klowns” might wrinkle some brows; it’s not hard to see the zippers on backs like the monsters in Power Rangers. But Killer Klowns’s clever use of textural effects, including in-camera opticals, miniatures, and laser beams that were double-exposed hand illustrations, ensures the movie has legs past the primitive CGI of the late ‘80s.
Stephen Chiodo, the second-oldest of the Chiodos credited with directing Killer Klowns, reflected on the film’s enduring look in a 2018 interview with Syfy Wire. “I have a feeling that no matter how realistic CGI is, it’s always fake,” Chiodo said. “No matter how fake the original effects are, they are in fact more real. They’re real. I think people recognize that.”
Adding to the movie’s mystique is its original theme song by pop-punk innovators, the Dickies. The song, a must for any Halloween playlist, provides a sinister rock spin to archetypical circus music, with playful lyrics like “See a rubber nose on a painted face, bringing genocide to the human race.”
Despite so many things working in Killer Klowns’ favor, including legit cult status, the movie never spawned a single sequel like its slasher contemporaries. While the Chiodos found regular work doing puppetry and practical effects on TV and movies (their combined credits include episodes of The Simpsons, the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, the cult ‘90s superhero series Masked Rider, and the under-the-radar Netflix movie Alien Xmas), their most-celebrated creation has yet to see another day. Though a sequel seemed possible between 2016 to 2018, it was revealed in 2019 that the Disney-Fox merger killed a 3-D Killer Klowns sequel.
But nothing ever stays dead in the age of streaming. Perhaps one day the killer Klowns will ride into town again. Until then, there’s the one and only movie that will leave you screaming.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space leaves Netflix on March 31.