Monday, April 6, 2009

97) Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

97) Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988) Dir: Stephen Chiodo Date Released: May 1988 Date Seen: April 6th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

The wonderful irony of Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988) the Chiodo brothers—director Stephen and his co-writers Edward and Charles—is that it’s brimming with a wickedly subversive subtext but appears to make nothing of it. There’s not a single hard bone in the film, making its freakishly deformed alien clowns a blissfully superficial critique of the plethora of ‘80s horror pastiches that made mince meat out of ‘50s alien invasion yarns. The Chiodos weren’t trying to and certainly didn’t succeed in putting the nail in the subgenre’s coffin—Darabont and Russell’s The Blob (1988) was released scant months later—but they were smart enough to make their space invaders unapologetically bewildering. While their grotesque clowns are creepy enough to be scary, they’re also campy enough to be absurd. For that, the Chiodos deserve to have their cake and eat it too.

Exceptions should be made for any film whose central conceit so neatly pokes fun of the revisionist foundation that contemporary tributes like John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) are built on. By having new pod people settle down in Everytown, USA, these films demanded that the viewer take their newly revamped retro-space terrors seriously. Using elaborate make-up and visual effects that oozed and exploded in all the right places, Carpenter's spsawn attempted to lure audiences away from Jason Voorhees and co. with the promise of good-looking new terrors made from now-restored scraps.

Therein lies the problem: The Blob feature a newly revived traditional terror, but is not really modern because of it. It lapses into the mindless chills of the slasher films it tries to distance itself from, because, as the Chiodos’ astutely recalls, there’s no rhyme or reason to a space invasion. The titular clowns are the ultimate carnivalesque figures because while they pose a serious threat to the town, it’s impossible to take them seriously. Much of the film is spent watching generic smalltown protags deny and re-affirm their existence, not because they’re being slaughtered for no apparent reason but because their murderers look too goofy to be wearing a hockey mask.

Killer Klowns From Outer Space is a perfect encapsulation of the paradox that even The Thing doesn’t answer satisfactorily: why is retro the new modern? The ability to claim affinity to the past’s generic horrors in order to condemn the present’s decadence is one thing but when the good guys can just as easily stand in for Reagan's good ol’ fashioned family values, something’s amiss. 

The Chiodos’ surmount this challenge by having Mike and Debbie (Grant Cramer and Suzanne Snyder), the young lovers that first saw the clowns and lived to sound the alarm, plow ahead with their stories regardless of the doubtful stares they get. They know what they saw, even if they can’t prove it (“We saw it. That’s a fact…I know what I saw. I just can’t prove it. My proof is gone!”). Unlike the new and improved Blob, these bulb-nosed space creatures aren’t the catalyst for contemporary critique. Heck, they announce their facile intentions in big balloon-sized letters: “We’re just here to kill ya!”


  1. "Unlike the new and improved Blob, these bulb-nosed space creatures aren’t the catalyst for contemporary critique. Heck, they announce their facile intentions in big balloon-sized letters: “We’re just here to kill ya!”

    I didint see KILLER KLOWNS..., but I think the very same thing you mention above is what made Joe Dante's THE GREMLINS (1984) so successful.

    Dante plays with referencing 1950s red scare product-de-luxe that was THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), but at the same moment he frees his monsters of any political and/or sociological meaning (the first of furry little fellows is called Gizmo for a reason, I think).

    Even the absurd mechanism triggering their transformation (exposure to water...? eating after midnight...?) serves as a device to make the gremlins as abstract in their origins as possible. They're here to kill and have fun, too.

    Dante's infatuation with playfulness of terror (and the terror of play as such), brings him close to Sergio Leone, who crowded his West with funny ghouls of unknown origin (name any other director wiling to cast *Klaus Kinski* in a western!).

    Notice that both Dante and Leone are very close to the retro territory you charted so well in your post. Damn, you made me want to see the Chiodos' movie, too. Send in the klowns!

  2. Thanks, Michal! Nice to see feel useful.

    KLOWNS, as of now, is on Youtube and last I saw it, it was in a B&N bargain bin for five bucks. So do check it out.

    Haven't seen GREMLINS yet, but I believe you re: Dante as I've seen a couple of his other stuff, including the episodes of POLICE SQUAD! he directed.

    But as for Kinski, he was in a lot more westerns than you might have thought. Apart from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, he was in the TRINITY trilogy and some movie called A BARREFUL OF DOLLARS (obviously just one of many clones meant to piggyback on Leone's success). He was in two of my favorite spaghetti westerns, THE FIGHTING FIST (1972) and THE RETURN OF SHANGHAI JOE (1975), which are, as the titles imply, mash-ups of western and kung fu films. They're very campy but fun.