If you were ever terrified by a massive ball of Crites snapping and snarling their way down the asphalt, or worried that Killer Klowns from another planet would make you their midnight snack, the Chiodo brothers were behind your nightmares.
"We were bitten by the monster bug very early on," Charles Chiodo tells SYFY WIRE. "King Kong, Godzilla, Son of Kong, all those monster movies we grew up with — we were just fascinated with monsters. That was our thing."
Charles, along with his brothers Stephen and Edward, grew up in New York City where they staged adventures with toy dinosaurs and army men in their basement. Later, they used a busted TV as a stage to film the antics of their marionettes with an 8 mm camera. Their love of Ray Harryhausen, Jim Henson, and other masters of puppetry and stop-motion animation eventually brought the trio to Los Angeles.
"Stephen and I would sculpt, and then Edward got involved with mechanics and that physical kind of stuff," recalls Charles. "We were using these handmade skills to tell stories."
One of those stories was 1986's Critters, a cult classic that was cashing in on the popularity of Gremlins. The first draft of the Critters script described the carnivorous aliens, the Crites, as footballs with teeth, and the Chiodo brothers had to bring them to life. Charles remembers sketching every "scary unpleasant furry thing" he could possibly think of, with Taz the Tasmanian Devil shredding things in the back of his mind.
So how did these flesh-eating terrors start biting?
"They were essentially hand puppets," Edward explains. "Either someone would stand behind the wall or put their hand through the back of chair or couch." Additional cables would control their more detailed facial features, like lip snarls, and later Crites had some radio-operated servo motors in their heads.
An epic scene in Critters 2: The Main Course where an army of ravenous Crites rolled across the ground involved a horde of 125 furballs. Some were almost as heavy as bowling balls, while others were weighted on one side so they could roll on a curve. Many were nearly weightless (but nonetheless evil) puffs of fur.
"We had to basically come up with a very simple rig to harness all the balls together with pins that we could attach monofilament to, and roll them—we didn't drag them," Stephen recalls. "They rolled independently, which gave them very realistic movement."
An especially massive ball of fur and teeth was almost as ghoulish in its construction as the monsters themselves were. Charles explains that it was "a lightweight aluminum frame with spears that we put Critter heads on," with added fur on the 10-foot ball to cover the gaps between the severed heads. "Some were mechanized with things to move the mouth open and close and flashing red eyes blinking," he says.
The mucus-covered, Miyak-hating trolls that petrified children in Ernest: Scared Stupid were a similarly crafty Chiodo creator. Budget constraints forced them to re-use molds and materials, and only the main trolls, like Trantor, had sophisticated animatronics.
What about all that horrifying troll mucus? It was actually methocellulose, a food thickener which was mixed with water and a sickly green color to create that believable ooze. The way the trolls dissolved when squirted with milk (not authentic Bulgarian Miyak) might be surprising.
"The melting was all practical," Charles says. "We just made our actors shake and tremble when they were splashed with milk, and I think they just did an overlay of some kind of an animated dissolve effect."
While the Chiodos have spawned many species of monsters, there was one human monster that would forever remain burned in the memories of '80s and '90s kids who watched Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Her name was Large Marge.
"I really didn't know how we were going to accomplish that effect," Chiodo says of the scene where Marge's eyeballs rocket out of her skull. "But we ended up doing clay animation. It started out as a realistic figure, and then, frame by frame, I just kind of tore the face apart and distorted it into a ghoul as the eyes were growing."
Another thing '90s kids will remember is the Chiodos' wildly imaginative Sea Monkeys series that aired on Saturday mornings.
"We had a mix of live actors and prosthetics that looked like giant cartoon characters mixed with puppets," Charles says, "We were also doing some very early compositing CG work, so we have 3D digital images in it that was kind of unheard of back then. There were some kickass miniatures like the octopotamus on top of their lighthouse, which was also a hand puppet. It was really a mixed-media show using different techniques."
Unfortunately, The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys might have been too ambitious, because it only lasted 11 episodes.
"I remember the TV Guide saying Sea Monkeys was the stupidest show on TV, and we wore that as a badge of honor!" Stephen says with a laugh.
With a potential Killer Klowns From Outer Space sequel creeping up, the Chiodos are exploring different ways in which to make you never look at circus performers the same way again. If it does happen, one thing the brothers can promise is that practical effects — and not CGI — will bring the Klowns to life when they land on Earth again.
"We would like to push the fears and the scares more now," Stephen says. "You take what's available at circuses and carnivals and sideshows and give it an evil twist, thinking how those images can be perverted in a way to make them lethal That is the essence of how to treat Killer Klowns; we look at the circus and just give it a candy-coated kill."
"We have the story arc designed in a three-part series," Stephen continues. "It's a long arc, and by the third story, we actually do visit the Klown planet. So we have big, big ideas for this franchise, and hopefully, we'll be able to partner up with somebody who will help us realize it."
Besides hoping to up the Killer Klowns' body count, the Chiodos have a trio of secret projects planned for the near future. They can say that one will be a character-based stop-motion feature, one will be a holiday special, and one will be — of course — a horror comedy.
"We got our start with holiday specials and 38 years later we're going to be doing a holiday special," said Stephen Chiodo. "If you stick around long enough and keep working at it, it will happen eventually!"