Cosmic Calliope: Killer Klowns From Outer Space

Cosmic Calliope: Killer Klowns From Outer Space

I remember having seen fragments of Killer Klowns From Outer Space at a time in life which predated my becoming a passionate horror fan. Even then, its strange appeal was apparent to me. Recently, having a desire to revisit it, I picked up the DVD at a bargain price, this being the month that retailers make such things readily available. When I mentioned the film to my friends, they expressed their own affection for the film, singing its praises. I know now how right they were...

When trying to envision the scariest thing one could encounter on the road at night, filmmakers Edward, Stephen, and Charles Chiodo conjured a scenario of glancing through your side window while driving and seeing a clown. This initial spark exists in the final film, as a scene in which a motorist, speeding down a dark and lonely road, notices a Klown appear alongside his vehicle, one who is hovering in a seated position, as if in an invisible car. A horror comedy, the movie is a pitch perfect homage to the creature feature drive in output of the fifties. In fact it's plot structure is exactly parallel to movies like The Blob (1958) or The Giant Gila Monster ('59), wherein a handful of young people stumble upon a fantastic threat of some kind, and try to warn incredulous authorities while the damage done by said threat gradually escalates out of control. In this case, the invaders are precisely what the title indicates.

The Klowns themselves are designed as both demonic and cartoonish, with an unsettling layer of textural detail. Stylized faces are delineated with stress lines and deep wrinkles, their eyes yellowed orbs of pure, maniacal malice, and behind their fat lips lie convincingly rough, jagged teeth. Some years ago, an artist re imagined what a few famous cartoon characters would look like if they existed in reality, while maintaining their exaggerated proportions. The results were unsettling - bulbous eyes threaded with veins, disturbing, malformed noses or ears, skin made repulsive and tactile. The Chiodo brothers, it turns out, may have prefigured that particular kind of grotesque style here, in 1988. When the Klowns take their victims, they utilize lethal versions of thematically appropriate props such as popcorn, shadow puppets, and balloons. The popcorn, when left alone, evolves into chomping, long necked monstrosities. The killings themselves play out as a series of gags, akin to those found in early animated shorts, but as seen through the lens of a nightmare. 

Victims are dispatched early and often by the Klowns, who are eerily imposing and almost totally non verbal. In this way they are legitimately creepy at times, despite the wonderful absurdity of the concept. One of my absolute favorite things about the Klowns is that they are, as antagonists, inexplicable, not unlike the evil vehicle from 1977's The Car. At one point a character mentions that they may have visited humanity in a distant age, and our idea of clowns come from them, which would explain their similarity to such a specific earthly archetype. Thankfully this remains nothing more than an off handed comment, and the monsters maintain their vital, abstract mystique. 

Killer Klowns From Outer Space utterly nails what it sets out to do. The Chiodo brothers took a strange but simple concept and followed it through with incredible focus and precision. Three men with a wide range of cinematic experience between them, they carefully tailored the film to their considerable, distinct strengths. There is not a misstep in this little movie, from its practical and optical effects, its fairground funhouse meets alien invasion production design, to its consistently perfect tonal equilibrium. It is this last element that makes the movie such a superb Halloween viewing experience. Like the holiday itself, it's fun and creepy in equal measure.

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