Monday, October 26, 2009

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988): or, You All Scream When I Scream

Most people have heard the phrase, variously attributed to horror greats throughout the ages (commonly to the granddaddy of all horror icons, Lon Chaney Sr.)--a phrase so succinct, catchy, and undeniably true that it's almost entered the annals of folk wisdom:

"There ain't nothin' funny about a clown in the moonlight."

It's a feeling that predates John Wayne Gacy, Pennywise, and Captain Spaulding, a phobia so common as to have its own psycho-analytic name--coulrophobia, for those playing along at home.* What is it about the festively painted, zanily joking jester that fills some with glee and a nostalgia for childhood, and others with a paralyzing dread and desire to flee? Is it because the clown's stock in trade is his license to do the boundary-crossing things that most dare not even consider? The slapstick violence that could so easily cross the line into actual brutality, before the audience and victim even knew what was happening? The make-up that proclaims it's all an innocent gag, and the nagging fear of what corrupt monster might lurk behind it?

*True confession: for many years, the Vicar quite seriously thought this disorder was properly named "bozophobia."

These questions are not exactly answered in the Chiodo Brothers' 1988 classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space--however, the film does deliver an hour and a half of fun and fear in almost equal doses, and rightly earns its place in the Mad Movie pantheon.

"Howdy kids! Are you ready to have some fun today?"

The movie starts as a throwback to the 50s and 60s sci-fi classics--specifically the original 1958 version of The Blob. A group of local teens--well, pretty much every teen in the whole town, including hero Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and his girlfriend Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder)--see what looks like a shooting star flash over their heads and crash in the woods outside town. They immediately head off to investigate, but not before crotchety old forest-dweller Gene Green (the legendary character actor Royal Dano) and his bloodhound Pooh-Bear find the meteorite first.

Of course it's not a meteorite at all, but an interplanetary vessel in the shape of a yellow-and-red striped big top! Thinking the circus has come to town (and for some reason set up camp in the middle of the woods), Farmer Green tries to get tickets to the show, only to meet the ship's strange inhabitants, the titular interstellar jokesters.

Royal Dano learns the shocking truth.

Not much later Mike and Debbie arrive at the crash site, and are also taken in by the bright colors and flashing lights. Going inside to check out the show, they soon stumble into the ship's power core--a wonderful matte painting that purposefully recalls the underground complex from Forbidden Planet. Realizing the big top is not what it seems, they soon discover the awful truth--a largely empty storage center with a few cotton candy cocoons hanging from peppermint-cane hooks...and inside, the slowly liquefying bodies of townspeople, including poor old Farmer Green! Debbie's screams draw the attention of the ship's inhabitants--huge, nightmarish clown-creatures whose wrinkled faces and crooked smiles are the stuff of coulrophobic nightmares everywhere. They flee for their lives, barely escaping the Klowns' fiendish popcorn-tommyguns and sugar-floss web-spinners. The innocent kids hoof it back to town, hoping to warn the authorities before it's too late.

There are many joys to be taken from Killer Klowns from Outer Space, but chief among them is the amazing production design brothers Stephen, Charles, and Edward Chiodo--who famously did the stop motion work for the Large Marge scene in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure--pack into every scene. It's all bright primary colors in front of dark backgrounds, like a skewed cartoon come to life. The klowns are both funny and terrifying, and their endlessly inventive weaponry--the popcorn guns, cream pies filled with acid, and even balloon animals that double as tracking beasts--will keep you smiling throughout.

Hydrochloric Banana Cream

Of course the local authorities have a hard time crediting what Mike and Debbie tell them. Debbie's ex-flame, Officer Dave Hanson (John Allen Nelson), promises to get to the bottom of things and find the elusive "rational explanation," but crusty misanthrope Officer Curtis Mooney (a wonderfully hateful performance by character actor John Vernon) puts it down to teenage pranksterism and wants to lock them up for juvenile delinquency. While Debbie and Mike struggle to get someone to believe their warning, the Klowns have free reign to harvest the town's populace for their hilarious, nefarious purposes.

The rest of the movie is pretty much devoted to watching the klowns do their business, and this is not at all a bad thing. Many of the set-pieces are played as straight comedy. The klowns deliver a pizza to a scantily clad single babe, with predictable results. One of the creatures impersonates an animatronic dummy to hide in plain sight. Later, an impossibly large klown emerges from a tiny puppet show booth to candyfloss his disbelieving audience, and another "drives" an invisible car next to a teen drag racer to force him off the road. And in my favorite scene, a klown entertains a group of people waiting at a bus stop with some incredibly ornate hand-shadows, culminating in a man-eating T-Rex that leaves only the stumps of their feet behind!

" *Okay guys...try not to act suspicious.* "

It's not all funny ha-ha, though. A few of the klowns' antics are genuinely disquieting. For instance, Mike and Debbie watch in horror as a disgustingly obese klown comes down to the cocoon-hold for a midnight snack, which for me called to mind both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Bloodsucking Freaks. A scene where a very frightening klown plays peek-a-boo with a small girl at the local burger joint--the grown-ups are oblivious to his presence outside--is more than a little disturbing, particularly as slowly lures her away from the safety of her parents, hiding a giant, deadly hammer behind his back. The same klown later uses one of his victims as a ventriloquist dummy, pushing his hand gorily into the poor sod's back and manipulating his spinal column in order to say his only English words--"Don't worry--we just want to KILL YOU." And a late parade scene in which the klowns wander through town sucking up the cocoons with a giant, festive machine is equal parts Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss.

Eventually Officer Dave comes round to the truth of the matter, Mike calls in the aid of his comic-relief/ice cream truck-driving friends Rich and Paul Terenzi (Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi), and they storm the klowns' big top in a desperate effort to save the town. Once the heroes are inside they find themselves in a strange other-dimensional funhouse, full of more Burton/Seussian landscapes and kids' toys turned deadly. Finally they must battle the king of all killer klowns--Klownzilla!--for the fate of the human race.

"I said, 'Where does a 50-foot clown sleep?' FUCKING ANSWER ME!"

Obviously Killer Klowns is chiefly a comedy, but the comedy is surprisingly dry given the subject matter. Like the teens in The Blob, all the characters here play the premise entirely straight--overacting a bit, perhaps, but no more so than lil' Steven McQueen and company--letting the visuals sell most of the jokes. (The Terenzi Brothers' bits are the exceptions here, and most of their funny falls flat.) The Chiodo Brothers really craft a wonderful cartoon world, one that I never get tired of looking at, and that never fails to impress. (I still don't know how they did the popcorn locomotion, for instance.) It's also fun for a horror/sci-fi movie buff to play "spot the reference" here, as the Chiodos are clearly fans of the genre they're working in.

I said the acting was a little hammy, and the worst offender is probably Grant Cramer as Mike. He reminded me a little too much of Dave Coulier with his smarmy delivery, and that is never a good thing. Suzanne Snyder comes off slightly better as Debbie, attractive and energetic if a little airheaded--which I'm going to generously presume was the way the part was written. Best here are John Allen Nelson and John Vernon as the warring police officers. Also, keep an eye out for Christopher Titus as a nerd in red-rimmed owl glasses who gets captured by the klowns--Titus would later become inexplicably famous and have his own TV show on Fox, which a few people somewhere probably watched.

"There's something funny about these guys..."

And the movie would not have been half the success it is without the frankly fantastic score by John Massari. The odd instrumentation of standard circus-music themes is just off enough to make it slightly creepy as well as fun. And the theme song that plays over the beginning and end credits, performed by The Dickies, is worth having on your iPod right next to 45 Grave's "Partytime" and Calamari Safari's "Poultrygeist."

I love this movie, and am pleased to make it Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies' 200th entry. 3+ thumbs, and remember: in space, no one can eat ice cream!

"That's all, folks!"

More images from Killer Klowns from Outer Space!

She's clearly dealt with clowns like these before.

"Have you put on weight, dummy? You used to be ganglia."

John Wayne Juicy-Juice

The most chilling scene of the movie.

Keep watching the skies!

Laugh, and the world laughs with you.


iasa said...

My favorite part is the people eating shadow puppets as well. My son and I watched it this past weekend. Now he's trying to make a popcorn gun.

Beau Jangles said...

Badass review..

Still Lmao..


( Now, The movie goes to my mustsee list..)

Anonymous said...

Congrats on #200, guys! I toast your inspiring cultural contributions and look eagerly forward to the next two-hundred.
BTW and completely off the subject, and maybe y'all are already aware, but Mya Communications is releasing the formidable Mr. Naschy's "Hunchback of the Morgue" on DVD. Far as I know this is the sole R1 DVD release of this title to-date. $22.49 on Amazon, available 11/24 -- just in time to gobble up on Turkey-Day.

JamiSings said...

Captain Spaulding? Whatever do you have against Groucho Marx?

(Someone had to say it.)

For the record I have never shot an elephant in my pyjamas. I only wear nightgowns.

J. Astro said...

YES! John Vernon is classic in this flick. And I DO totally have the Dickies' theme song on my iPod :), and even .45 Grave, too... but not the POULTRYGEIST track. Yet.

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