Welcome to Funny Bones, Nightmare On Film Street’s look at horror comedies. Each month, we’ll examine the skeletal structure of a horror-comedy, how the film connects it’s unique brand of funny and creepy, as well as the metaphorical fleshy details laid over that skeleton which bring the movie to life!
Greedy Guts month at Nightmare on Film Street allows us writers to do many things, but for one singular purpose; to highlight the stuff we’re passionate about. So, for this month’s edition of Funny Bones I’m going to shine a spotlight on a classic horror-comedy that I only recently fell in love with, 1988’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space I saw it for the first time last year in preparation for my trip to Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights because one of their haunted houses/mazes was based on the film. I ended up loving the movie, and not just because it was part of a great vacation. Today we’re going to take a look at what it is about this saga of intergalactic hell-raising, hungry, homicidal, harlequins that has made it a cult horror-comedy classic.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space chronicles the invasion of the small college town of Crescent Cove. Caught up in the invasion are Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder), Dave Hansen (John Allen Nelson), Debbie’s ex and a member of the Crescent Cove police department, Curtis Mooney (John Vernon), a fellow CCPD member who’s a bully with a badge, and Mike’s goofy, ice cream truck driving friends, the Terenzi brothers (Michael S. Siegel and Peter Licassi).
When Killer Klowns From Outer Space was released in the late ’80s alien invasion horror comedies were not a new thing. 1986 saw the release of the first Critters film and Night of the Creeps. In ’87 director Peter Jackson’s ultra low budget, splatter, horror comedy Bad Taste was released and Critters 2: The Main Course debuted the same year. The Critters movies were definitely on the minds of sibling special effects artists Charles, Edward, and Stephen Chiodo since they created the puppets and effects for the first film. Unlike Critters, Killer Klowns From Outer Space is the singular vision of the Chiodo Brothers, who wrote produced, and directed the film.
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Killer Klowns From Outer Space has an incredibly passionate fanbase, partly because it is a master class in the old comedic axiom of committing to the bit. The film’s title is a promise of absurd, silly, fun, and almost all of it’s 1.8 million dollar budget was spent on delivering that promise. Production Designer Charles Chiodo, art director Phillip Dean Foreman and the special effects team of Fantasy II Film Effects fully realized the idea of an invading, intergalactic, alien culture and their violent, but zany technology. The Klown spaceship sets are perfect and moody like a mix of Pee-Wee Herman era Tim Burton and the original Star Wars film. They went the extra mile on props too, including a gun that shoots popcorn. It was very expensive to make and actually included a compressor to propel the popcorn.
“Killer Klowns From Outer Space […] is a master class in the old comedic axiom of committing to the bit.”
There are great sight gags too that add to the film’s absurdity, like the Klown’s ability to create bloodhound style tracking dogs out of balloon animals, deadly pies, and a full-out clown car. Then there are the Klowns themselves who were created with practical effects that still hold up today. The Klowns are of course creepy and absurd, but there’s a sense of gleeful, twisted, fun that shines through thanks to the effects and the performers that brought them to life. You see that in the way they engage in screwball comedy style antics as they hunt humans. In one scene they pretend to be pizza deliverymen, and in another they dress up as classic clown firefighters when Debbie tries to escape her apartment. There’s also a great scene where two curious Klowns explore, tromp through, and take items from a local drug store.
The Klowns are a combination of Bugs Bunny and the Predator. They love to confound and lull their prey into false sense of security with comedic antics. They then kill them with their advanced alien weaponry. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work but does thanks to all the detail the cast and crew add to the film’s otherworldly characters.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space is way more comedic than it is scary, but there are some chilling moments, and I don’t just mean for people who suffer from coulrophobia. There are scenes of pure cosmic horror, the same type audiences would have seen in Predator the year before. They’re not there to talk to, take over, or enslave mankind. They are just here to kill. In a scene that’s both funny and creepy one of the Klowns uses Officer Mooney to tell Dave, “All we want to do is kill you.” That moment is made especially ominous by John Massari’s score for the film.
Massari’s music is another way in which the movie invests and commits to the bit. His John Carpenter-esque keyboards really helped emphasize moments of silliness, wonder, and terror. Another great bit of music is the hilarious and very catchy title track by the punk band, The Dickies. You hear it in the opening moments of the film and the first lyrics tell you exactly what to expect: “PT Barnum said it so long ago/ There’s one born every minute, don’t you know/ Some make us laugh, some make us cry/ These clowns only gonna make you die.”
“Killer Klowns From Outer Space […] knows it’s a B-Movie and is perfectly comfortable being one. In fact, it revels in it.”
Ultimately, the great music, incredible special effects, silly humor, fantastic production design, and a devotion to fully realizing a ridiculous premise are the reasons why fans like me love Killer Klowns From Outer Space. It knows it’s a B-Movie and is perfectly comfortable being one. In fact, it revels in it. So, if you’re in need of a horror-comedy that’s just, twisted, silly, ’80s style fun, I recommend heading down to Crescent Cove and catching up with the Killer Klowns.