Film discussion

Screamiversary – Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Note: for consistency purposes and respect to the legacy of the Chiodo Brothers, clowns will be spelled as they are supposed to be; with a K. We thank you for your understanding and patience with our brass commitment to true art.

The Chiodo Brother’s – comprised of Stephen, Charles and Edward – aren’t exactly a household name; though with their extensive resume, they damn well should be. All three Bronx natives have dabbled in just about every creative facet that goes into bringing film and television to life. Okay, not every facet, but enough to fill a circus tent. Collaboratively, which really puts into perspective the relationship with my own sibling, the Chiodo Brothers worked in the special effects team on Mel Brook’s History of the World Part 1, consulted on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse creating Big Marge using Claymation, designed the toothy crites in Critters and the Labyrinth-like trolls in Ernest Scared Stupid, worked on the stop-motion sequence in the Philip K. Dick adaptation Screamers, blew up the Connor’s home in Roseanne, brought marionettes back into the mainstream as the principle puppeteers on Team America: World Police, and even directed a segment in an episode of The Simpsons titled ‘Ned N’ Edna’s Blend’. In every respect of the profession and the art of the special effect, the Chiodo Brothers deserve a place next to the likes of Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Willis O’Brien (who acted as their creative catalyst with the original King Kong (‘33)), and yes, Ray Harryhausen.

It’s a lofty claim bolstered by even loftier names, but when you strip away their countless credits that go into bringing other people’s work to life, the Chiodo Brothers are left with one killer kareer! Now don’t let the K fool you, as it represents not a typo (blame the editors for everything else), but creativity with a capital K in the form of popcorn blasting firearms, cotton candy cocoons, tyrannosaurus shadow puppets, K-9 balloon dogs, and one boxing klown that would make P.T. Barnum’s head roll. That’s right, I’m talking about the Bronx brother’s first and only full-length feature, Killer Klowns from Outer Space!

Shot in Watsonville, a city with a population of a little over 50,000 within the Santa Cruz county of California, Killer Klowns from Outer Space invites us to once again be scared of the face-painted jesters that tormented our adolescent birthday parties. This time it isn’t some guy from Vallejo and his beat-up Oldsmobile, but a troop of rubber faced klowns who arrive in the sleepy town of Crescent Cove from the outer limits of space in a giant spinning top. Parked outside the towns “lovers lane” (referred to by locals as the Top of the World), steady couple Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder) and Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer of New Year’s Evil notoriety) witness a meteor-like landing in the backwoods a la The Blob, prompting them to ditch the bottle of champagne they’ve been romancing and investigate.

What they discover is a massive Big Top Circus tent pitched in the middle of a clearing that contains pink and orange corridors that lead to a room housing what seems to be cotton candy preserved humans. Enlisting the help of her ex-boyfriend turned police officer, Deputy Dave Johnson (John Allen Nelson), Debbie and Mike infiltrate the alien spaceship turned circus tent in order to save the population of Crescent Cove from becoming klown food (they conveniently drink their blood with a twisty straw, of course).

Now as an adult, watching a 7ft tall klown with jagged teeth and a sinisterly goofy smile drink blood from a giant piece of hanging cotton candy might sound outlandish (don’t worry, it is), it was pure nightmare fuel as a kid. It’s what makes the Chiodo Brothers’ craftsmanship so versatile and effective. Not only does it cater to scaring the socks off youngsters, but in adult hood it winds up working similarly in its subversion of our latent fear of klowns who, in the Chiodo Brothers’ world, are a hybrid of the cutesy cartoonish Bozo and the John Wayne Gacy’s of our imagination.

Their bubblegum aesthetic invites us in with its candy coated colour that bursts with its yellows, pinks and greens, lowering our guard against a threat that hides its filed down teeth and menacing eyes. These are klowns who parade around in the classic frilled costumes and over-sized shoes of our childhoods, yet wear the shrivelled faces of our terrifying cheek pinching aunts caked with impressionistic makeup. It’s a mixture of the familiar with the alien, the friendly with the frightening, and it works no matter how old you are.

Working with a budget of almost $2 million, Stephen, Charles and Edward Chiodo reached deep into their childhood short films (Land of Terror) where they explored stop-motion, practical effects and props in order to bring to life the cinematic universes of their imaginations. It’s an art form that’s seen a massive decline within the Hollywoodising of genre films, though its appreciation can be found in the works of Peter Jackson (Dead Alive), James Wan (The Conjuring 2), Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game) to name a few. While not quite working off a budget directors of that caliber are granted, their fondness for the practical can be witnessed in the countless cotton candy corpses, retro blasters – with one of the film’s most memorable guns costing $7,000 in order to shoot actual popcorn like a burst of confetti – and rubber klown masks, which exemplify the wizardry of a prop driven budget.

Except none more specifically than in the films showdown with Jojo the Klownzilla, the 30 foot tall leader aping Godzilla, who appears during the climactic scene involving a dozen or so costumed klowns. Originally reported to be done using stop-motion, a desire stemming heavily from seeing the marvel of filmmaking bring a gigantic ape to life and climb the Empire States Building, Klownzilla instead had to be done using a costumed Charles Chiodo due to budgetary conflicts. Learning to move within a massive costume in order to throw what appears to be a 1:3 scale replica of an ice cream truck, the eldest Chiodo brother had to move at almost triple the speed necessary, as filming of Jojo was done at three times the normal frame rate of 24 frames per second, a challenging yet rewarding aspect of playing with movie magic.

Which is exactly what watching Killer Klown’s from Outer Space is akin to! It’s infectious and inviting, dark and disquieting, and evokes the many splendours of watching a labor of love from three siblings who know how to craft gory giggles out of the tangible. From the quirky visual effects from Gene Warren Jr (Dr. Giggles, Lords of Illusions) to the bombastic explosion of strings and horns in John Massari’s score, the klowns of the Chiodo Brother’s world invade our hearts while covering our sensibilities in sticky candy convection. Even thirty years later, they continue to remind us why we fell in love with film; and what will always make klowns inextricably discomforting. 

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