Thursday , May 23 2024
Custard pies and barking balloon animals. . .

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to stay away from horrorflix that are deliberately made as camp. They’re like Old Navy holiday commercials: no matter how much winking irony the creators slather on the surface, their deep awfulness ultimately makes ’em unbearable. Spend ninety minutes with the low-budget self-consciousness that is Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or its more modern off-off-Broadway equivalent, Psycho Beach Party, and you find yourself longing for the earnest ineptness of an Ed Wood movie. Oh, for the days of Bert I. Gordon, when hacks who didn’t know any better, quickly churned out product meant for horny drive-in teens too inattentive to notice the occasional mic shadow.
There are, of course, exceptions to the horror camp rule, and the Chiodo Bros.’ Killer Klowns from Outer Space is one of ’em. Released in 1987, this cheesily demented gem concerns the seaside town of Crescent Cove, which is invaded one night by a tent-shaped saucer packed with alien klowns. Said creatures (“Some kind of animal from another world that looks like klowns,” one character posits) stroll through the small town largely unnoticed until they pounce on their unsuspecting prey, aiming a brightly colored ray gun at their victims which cocoons the humans in cotton candy, then carting each cocoon back to their ship where they’re kept as a source of interstellar nutrition. (At one point, we see a space klown stick a large crazy straw into one of the cocoons and drink blood from it.) They utilize all the tricks of the trade to lure unsuspecting prey – a hand-puppet show in the park, killer pies, a balloon animal dog that can sniff out its target, shadow puppets that devour their audience, oversized boxing gloves that literally knock a victim’s head off – and because they look so goofy, few of their victims initially recognize that they’re a threat.
The ones that do recognize the menace – in the best AIP tradition – are the town’s young people: Mike (Grant Cramer), Debbie (Suzanne Snyder, doing her darndest to come off as perky as P.J. Soles and just missing it) and Police Academy grad Dave (John Allen Nelson). Of course, they can’t get elder authority (repped by John Vernon, playing at his usual pissed-off level) to listen until it’s too late. It’s a given in these movies that the authorities never see what’s coming in time, even when the warnings are directly handed to ’em: a difficult-to-refute premise, given the events of recent years.
Per its low-budget status, Killer Klowns doesn’t much bother with the niceties of acting – all three of the leads are stiffs, while an unfunny duo of brothers named the Terenzis (Peter Licassi & Michael Siegel – surrogates for the Chiodos, mayhaps?) engage in cheap comic shtick that Bob Clark wouldn’t have let out of the cutting room for Porky’s – and occasionally shows its seams in the action shots, too. At one point in the flick, for instance, a squad car crunches into a wall so timidly and poorly synced that you just know director Stephen C. ran out of time-slash-money to do a decent retake, while a scene where heroine Debbie is menaced by mutated popcorn in the bathroom is lensed too limply to work as either scare scene or shower sequence parody.
Despite these flaws, the movie still works and the reason lies in them Killer Klowns. The Chiodos (Charles & Stephen wrote the pic; Stephen directed, and Charles designed the creatures) may lavish more attention on their aliens and the innards of their funhouse spaceship than they do on the niceties of telling a solid story, but the effort pays off. The movie’s title figures – with their giant, craggy ear-twitching heads, circus garb and four-fingered hands – are consistently fun to watch as they strut their oversized feet across the screen. Clearly, the manufacture of these creatures was a labor of love for these guys, as is the movie’s spaceship interior, which at times recalls the whacked-out Seussian imagery of the criminally underseen 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Having worked on animated puppets for movies and commercials before Killer Klowns (e.g., Large Marge in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the T. Rex car ad in Robocop, the clay animated feature I Go Pogo), the Chiodos embrace their creature cast with tons of malicious glee. It’s this wholeheartedness which lifts the flick from being just one more campy horror movie parody.
MGM has released Killer Klowns on DVD as part of its “Midnite Movies” series, and among the extras are two amusing pieces of Chiodo juvenilia: homemade monster movies made by the kid filmmakers, one of which features a giant-sized rampaging G.I. Joe with articulated arms and patches of green fuzz all over his body. The bros. may’ve grown in skill over the years (their most recent work was overseeing the wicked puppetwork in Team America), but at heart they, happily, remain a bunch of Jersey kids with a home movie camera. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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