Halloween Countdown: 7 - Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)


For the Halloween film reviews I wanted to look at different types of films that are worth watching for this growing annual pagan holiday. “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (KKFOS) is an homage to the horror and sci-fi films of the 50’s and 60’s, as well as the teen comedies of the 80’s. 

The film was written and directed by the Chiodo brothers, who have a background in special effects (Team America, Critters and Elf). This was one of the first films they made and they set out to make a film that they could have fun making but also show off some of their skills. Lets be honest from the start, they are not overly talented writers or directors. The dialogue is clunky and only well handled by some of the more experienced actors (we will get on to John Vernon in a minute). The direction is also very pedestrian with no flare. However, neither of these affects the quality of the film and in fact adds to the cheesy B-movie nature of the film.

In addition to this some of the special effects are very cheap and dated; this can be expected though based on the films budget ($2M) but the thing that standards out for me are the Klowns themselves. There are 4 or 5 main Klowns and they look great, a little rubbery but the movements in the faces are smooth and they look good enough for me to accept them as a threat in this very silly film. This is aided by the fact that the Klown designs themselves are great, they are all different shapes, sizes and make-up combinations, making them each easily identifiable. In addition to the Klowns there are a few other things that standout for me in design and effect, which I will call out as I go.

Getting into the film itself, from the outset it is clear that this is not a film that is going to scare anyone, the title sounds like the result of a drunken conversation. It also opens with the most amazingly ridiculous 80’s synth-rock title song performed by The Dickies. The expectations are set, this film has a sense of humor and we are right in the heart of comedy-horror.

We are introduced to the main players straight away, with the idiot brothers selling ice-cream out of their clown ice-cream truck out side Big Top Burgers, this film isn’t subtle. Then we get the main male and female leads Mike and Debbie at “make out point”, which are very cookie cutter late teens being played by actors in their mid-twenties. Knowing that neither of these actors went on to do much more will give you an idea of the quality of the acting that is on display here. However Mike is leagues ahead of Debbie, who has particular trouble getting through some of the clunky dialogue. They are sufficient for what the film needs.

Soon after we also get the films good cop / bad cop combo; Dave the good cop is very bland and by the numbers but the bad cop is great fun. John Vernon as Officer Mooney is brilliant as the teenager hating paranoid aging cop. He gets stuck into this role and chews the hell out of it. He is a panto villain that the audience want to see killed. The fact that the film plays it totally straight when he intends to beat two teenagers for walking through park after dark drinking is brilliant. By playing it so straight it is over the top but makes the rest of the film even more outlandish.

Then we get the introduction of the titular Klowns. They fall to earth and Mike and Debbie decide to go investigate but in the mean time we get to see the ship in which they have arrived, a huge glowing circus big top, and a glimpse of Klown when they kill a local old timer. Within minutes we are in the ship with Mike and Debbie and they are being chased by the Klowns. There really isn’t any messing around in this film the pace is great, it starts and you are off to the races. I may criticise the writing but I can’t fault them for getting stuck in as soon as possible. They know that this isn’t about building tension or drama, lets see some craziness.

So what craziness do we get? How about a pop corn gun or the Klowns using a balloon animal dog on a leash as a bloodhound. The sniffer dog is a particular favourite of mine, stupid and simple but makes me laugh each time. At this point we also get the most exposition we are going to get in this film when Debbie asks about the Klowns guns “Pop corn, why pop corn?”, Mike’s response “They’re Klowns, that’s why.” fair enough I can buy that and there is no need for any other questions, this is all the explanation I want and need from this film.

The second act is a 20 minute montage of the Klowns invading the town to kill and collect it’s citizens. I won’t go into all the moments but I will highlight two standouts for me. The first is the shortest Klown cycling up to a biker gang. The inevitable happens and his little clown bike is broken and I love the expression of sadness on the klowns face. The puppet work is so good, his ears droop, he frowns and for a second I feel sorry for him. However, he gets his revenge when he offers to take on a member of the gang one on one and literally knocks the guys head off. In keeping with the general tone of the film this is daft and fun.

The second is a queue of people waiting for a bus being entertained by a Klown making shadow shapes on the wall, which eventually becomes a dinosaur and eats them all. I love this because of the complexity of the shadow designs and the fact that no one in the queue questions whether this is possible. I especially love the old man who salutes when a shadow of a soldier and waving flag is presented. Again, this has dated but I am so enjoying the tone and essence of this film that I can see past the iffy spots.

I should mention that during this act we also find out why they are here in the first place. They are here to wrap us in space cotton candy cocoons and drink our blood. Obviously as with most things in the film this raises a load of questions that there is no point or need in asking because the simple answer is, “They’re Klowns, that’s why”.

The third act starts with the first payoff of the film when Mooney is killed by one of the Klowns and turned into a ventriloquist’s dummy. We also find out how the Klowns can be defeated, how else than blowing up their big red comedy noses, why? They’re Klowns, that’s why.

The third act is driven by the fact that Debbie is one of the people that have been captured and Mike and good cop Dave have to go and rescue her. During this section we get a glimpse of other budget restraints of the film and poor direction Such as the Klowns invading one street and it looking like a party with streamers, then a shot from another direction shows the rest of the street is fine and we even get to see two cars driving past normally in the background. A mis-step but only a quick shot that doesn’t distract from the madness.

I should also point out that at this stage that I am beginning to think that good cop Dave has a darker side. The two leads are supposed to be late teens in college and he a Officer that has been on the force for a couple of years. Yet he dated Debbie at some point in the past, it’s not made clear when and the age difference between the two is never made clear but it’s another part of the script that feels forced. There had to be some relationship tension so they threw in a love triangle. It doesn’t work for me but it is also so inconsequential to the film that you can ignore it.

So off they go back to the Big Top space ship to save Debbie and stop the Klowns. Unfortunately this final act is where the lack of budget really shows. While the scenes on the space ship at the beginning were in small corridors and looked pretty good, the final act tries to take things to a larger scale and while one or two sections are good overall the inside of the ship is made up of big black spaces and some random brightly coloured shapes. It looks cheap and well, rubbish.

The finale is also a bit of a mess. There is a super Killer Klown in the empty black space back lot that is space ship which does have a fun little fight with an ice-cream van. The super Klown is defeated and the main characters escape. This is a bit of a flat ending for such a fun film but I am not sure how much money there was left or if they could have done something larger.

In summary this is a cheap and clunky scripted comedy horror that tickles that silly immature funny bone. It never takes itself seriously and despite some missteps has some great moments that will stick with you, as well as some great design work, puppetry effects and title song. And who can resist a film that has pop-corn attack a woman in the shower? Why, pop-corn? They’re Klowns, that’s why

I highly recommend this 88 mins of joyous nonsense, which is best enjoyed with a few friends and a few drinks.