A change of career is something everyone should consider, and within the film industry the most common direction is towards the director’s seat as frequently demonstrated by actors as diverse as Jon Favreau, George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Ryan Gosling, but also from more technical backgrounds such as cinematographer Wally Pfister, costume designer Joel Schumacher, animator Tim Burton, visual effects designers David Fincher and Patrick Tatopoulos or special effects experts such as the late Stan Winston and the Chiodo Brothers, Stephen, Charles and Edward, who having crafted the eponymous animatronic puppets for Critters in 1986 helmed their own long gestating dream project with Killer Klowns from Outer Space, released in 1988.
It starts as a normal night in the California town of Crescent Cove, the kids parked out under the trees and enjoying the warmth and intimacy of the darkness when a strange object lights up the sky as it falls to earth nearby. First on the scene is a local farmer who witnessed the spectacle from his porch, but instead of finding a crater he comes across an illuminated circus big top, but to his surprise the clowns which surround him are not there to entertain.
Arriving next are Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and his girlfriend Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder) who venture inside the structure to find it is in fact an alien spaceship, the bulk of the vast of the interior concealed underground, but their investigation is cut short when they are pursued by a clown with a popcorn gun.
They flee back to the safety of Crescent Cove and try to warn the police of the alien invasion, but officer Curtis Mooney (John Vernon) is unapproachable, mocking them and refusing to take action, forcing Debbie to plead with Mooney’s abused and put-upon deputy Dave Hanson (John Allen Nelson) to attend the site. Instead he sends her home and handcuffs Mike before driving out to the woods, but even as he confirms their story the town is already under siege and Debbie is captured.
A subgenre of cinema as far back as the 1920s, comedy and horror can work together although until the 1980s only a few features would be produced each decade such as Roman Polanski‘s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) or Douglas Hickox’ Theatre of Blood (1973), but in that decade the blending flourished with films such as John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985), Richard Wenk’s Vamp (1986) and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987) but in order to be successful both elements must be strong enough to stand alone and enhance each other.
Here the comedy is slapstick and the horror is ridiculous and adding science fiction elements, a volatile mixer in the in any comedy cocktail, feels more a poorly conceived excuse for Forbidden Planet inspired matte shots rather than genuinely inventive storytelling, leaving the film unbalanced and unfocused. Reeking of the B-movie clichés, there is no regard for backstory or explanation why the Killer Klowns have arrived from outer space, many of the supporting cast aren’t even attempting to act while the leads compensate with grating over the big top performances. A town of people who have let themselves go, Crescent Cove is populated by jumped up college kids, slack jawed yokels and retirees, all resplendent in ill-fitting sweatshirts, jumpers and mullets, and the only actually funny moment is presumably unintentional, when the Klowns attack what is apparently an inbred gay biker bar.
Suzanne Snyder, who had previously appeared in The Last Starfighter, Weird Science and Night of the Creeps is one of the better performers yet is given the worst role, with Debbie serving little purpose in the already minimal narrative other than to appear scared, run around and eventually be captured. The two principal male roles, Grant Cramer’s Mike, Debbie’s near-useless boyfriend and John Allen Nelson’s Dave, Debbie’s previous boyfriend, a point which has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, offer little more substance, though Nelson does at least attempt to do his best with what he is given. Cramer’s subsequent career has not generated any roles of note, though Nelson has had supporting roles in a number of long running shows including Quantum Leap, Baywatch, Murder, She Wrote, 24, Burn Notice, Criminal Minds and Castle.
Unfortunately, by far the two most experienced actors were given roles which, frankly, were beneath them. The ill-fated farmer Gene Green could have been taken directly from the second section of George A Romero’s Creepshow (1982), The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, except instead of Stephen King the actor is the once respected Royal Dano in one of his final roles of a career spanning four decades encompassing Gunsmoke, Electra Glide in Blue, The Right Stuff, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Twin Peaks.
The abusive alcoholic officer Curtis Mooney is played by veteran Broadway and television actor John Vernon. With roles in Mission: Impossible, The Questor Tapes, The A-Team and Knight Rider but best remembered as the mayor of San Francisco in Dirty Harry, Vernon was also the father of Kate Vernon, Battlestar Galactica’s Ellen Tigh, most recently seen in Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar as Captain Sonya Alexander. Mooney’s fate, his dead body used as a ventriloquist’s dummy, is an idea used many years later in the Smile Time episode of Angel and James Wan’s film Dead Silence (2007).
Released two years after Stephen King’s definitive clown horror novel It, the approaches are utterly different and King’s work is superior in every conceivable way, and by consciously attempting to make the Klowns scary and menacing they actually lose what makes clowns inherently sinister. The animatronics may be the most accomplished aspect of the film, but in the accompanying feature the Chiodo Brothers comment on their time working for Matt Stone and Trey Parker on Team America: World Police where they were asked to reign in their elaborate puppet creations and offer a more primitive design. Had this more effective approach been taken with the Klowns the end result might have been a more entertaining film rather than what is too often an amateur showcase for excellent technical skills.
The determination to focus on the whimsical – candy floss webs to hang the bodies from, popcorn guns, balloon animal hunting dogs – is emphasised by the carnival soundtrack, and one of the few scenes which deviates from this is one of the only moments where the film succeeds in being in any way unsettling, the eerie synth passage underscoring the Big Top Burger Scene where one of the Klowns tries to lure a child away from its mother, a contrast to the rest of the soundtrack, though it is also notable that it is in this moment that it most closely draws from King, the death of six year old George Denbrough in October 1957.
Filmed in Santa Cruz, the same city which stood in as Santa Carla in The Lost Boys the previous summer and as bizarre and surreal as The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953) though with considerably smaller budget and less audacious imagination, there are aspects of the design which are understandably similar to Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, released just two months earlier in March 1988.
With the two uses of shadows among the few inventive moments, visual effects supervisor Gene Warren recalls the considerable effort expended to get the shape of the bricks correct and the texture of the shadow to change as it shifted, a task which would now be made easier with computers, though as Stephen Chiodo says “No matter how real CG is, it’s always fake; no matter how fake stop motion is, it’s always real.”
The vintage “behind the scenes footage” included in the Blu-ray package is of very poor quality and not particularly illuminating, and integrating it with the interviews with Steven, Edward and Charles Chiodo slows up an already dull conversation. While Charles calls the film “A labour of love for us,” it is Steven’s comment that “You can blame us” which is more apt.
More interesting is the interview with visual effects supervisor Gene Warren covering the perspective shots utilised to make the puppets appear bigger and Kreating Klowns, focusing on the construction of the animatronic Klown heads and also included are Bringing Life to These Things, a look around Chiodo Studios, interviews with actors Grant Cramer and Suzanne Snyder and composer John Massari and deleted scenes with commentary from the directors.