Director Stephen Chiodo is not afraid of clowns. He just gets wary when he sees a smiling face in greasepaint staring back at him.
“There’s a mystery about them, an oddness about them — it’s not that I’m really afraid of clowns, it’s just that I’m not really comfortable around them,” the Killer Klowns From Outer Space director told SYFY WIRE while reminiscing on the upcoming 30-year anniversary of his clownish cult classic. “You don’t know what they’re up to. They’re tricksters; I just don’t trust them.”
Killer Klowns will see its 30th anniversary on May 27. No one expected a movie about carnivorous alien clowns to become both a cult hit and a movie still relevant to the horror-verse three decades later, least of all its director. The idea emerged when Chiodo dreamed up a scenario of cruising down a lonely mountain road, headlights flashing from behind, and the mysterious car driving up to reveal an evil clown face staring him down.
“For me, a clown being in a place where he shouldn’t be, in the middle of the night, was really frightening,” Chiodo said. “From there I thought, 'What if he wasn’t in a car? What if he was just floating there; was he from outer space?'"
That was how a freakshow of rainbow aliens (that prefer their prey cocooned in cotton candy, liquefied, and then sucked up with crazy straws) emerged from the same imagination behind the snapping furballs that fell from the sky in Critters. Chiodo's first coulrophobic memory still echoes in his brain, taking him back to when he was a young boy whose personal space was invaded by a clown that approached him out of nowhere at Ringling Bros. circus. He remembers the laughter in the crowd growing louder and louder until it suffocated him.
That disconnect between mirth and horror is what really defined clowns for Chiodo. There is a certain irony in how his alien Klowns mutated from supposedly friendly and approachable painted faces in the media, such as Bozo and Ronald McDonald. He observed that clowns are thought of as G-rated by most of society. Clowns have something of a magnetic attraction for children, like the girl in Killer Klowns' Circus Burger scene who was seconds away from becoming an appetizer when what she must have assumed was a stray circus performer lured her over to the door.
“When you get really close you find out it’s not what you think,” the director said, noting how deceptive clowns can be. “They’re deadly and you’re five minutes too late. Bringing them from outer space kind of made them non-human, something extraordinary besides some guys who got their faces painted.”
The alien DNA added a whole other dimension to these already chilling characters that simultaneously trigger laughs and shock. Morphing them into life-forms from some other galaxy gave Chiodo and his co-producers, his brothers Charles and Edward, the creative license to take the Klowns places where no one had gone with clowns before — or since, for that matter.
Elements of classic ‘50s and ‘60s thrillers like The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Haunted Cave inspired what Chiodo calls “candy-coated kills” that merged sci-fi and body horror elements with circus motifs and carnival gags. Those popcorn kernels that explode into vicious clown-faced jack-in-the-boxes were a fusion of extraterrestrial spores from Japanese horror films like Matango and the chestbursters from Alien.
“These are things that we saw when we were kids, and they stuck with us as horrible ways to die,” Chiodo remembers. “We didn’t want to just copy them. We wanted to kind of reinvent them within the universe of alien clowns.”
Some creatures evolved on their own. Predatory balloon animals were what came to Chiodo’s mind when he wondered what the alien clown version of bloodhounds would be. The absurdity of a pink balloon dog hunting humans makes it borderline hilarious — and also the reason you may never trust things made out of twisted latex ever again.
The aliens themselves came into being from what could only be described as visualizations of clowns in funhouse mirrors, with trippy head shapes designed in silhouette by Charlie Chiodo, before sculptor Jim Kagel made those grotesque faces a reality in plasticine. Those prototypes were used to make molds that the flexible foam rubber heads would emerge from. While there were still versions for the actors to walk around in (which relied on radio-controlled servo motors for believable eye blinks), the faces used for close-ups were animatronic puppets with maneuverable facial features. That explains every eerily realistic grimace and snarl.
While the Klowns mostly evolved from the Chiodo brothers’ warped ideas of circus clowns, the one whose elongated head makes him vaguely reminiscent of Bozo is also the star of what might possibly be the most bizarre and epic shadow gag ever. You know something cannot possibly be from Earth when it can create shadow puppets of a hula girl, an elephant, Washington crossing the Delaware, and then a final T-Rex that devours its audience.
“We tried to think of the stupidest, most impossible thing, and my brother Edward came up with [Washington]; it was a really absurd thing to have happen,” Chiodo said of the scene that was his favorite to film out of the whole three-ring screamfest. “It’s very surreal when you think about what goes on. You haven’t ever seen anything quite like that in motion pictures."
As for the glowing plasma that brought the Klowns’ ray guns and spaceship/circus-tent to life, it was no supernatural CGI, just in-camera opticals and digital effects. Those laser beams and rocket blasts were artwork that was double-exposed onto the original footage. An optical effects company photographed and filmed some cartoon elements again in post-production. Those strange, garbled words that gurgle from the Klowns’ throats are actually human voices put through a harmonizer to sound more unnatural.
Chiodo has an appreciation for these types of practical effects, which were mostly used during an era when CGI was still in its embryonic phase.
“I have a feeling that no matter how realistic CGI is, it’s always fake, just a really great cartoon,” he said. “No matter how fake the original effects are, they are in fact more real. They’re real. I think people recognize that.”
You can’t possibly watch Killer Klowns From Outer Space without being weirdly mesmerized by the fusion of synth and guitar riffs, or wanting to blast the title track on repeat. The film’s music supervisor just happened to know The Dickies, who only went off of the theme to create a circus-punk hybrid with lyrics: "It’s time to take a ride on a nightmare merry-go-round/You’ll be dead on arrival from the likes of the Killer Klowns." The entire soundtrack will be reimagined with a 70-piece orchestra at a showing of the flim this Saturday at Hollywood’s Montalban Theatre, with the Dickies rocking out — and yes, there will be clowns.
“The whole orchestra thing is kind of odd because it’s twisted nature and the nature of the film,” said Chiodo, who previewed the remastered soundtrack as it was being recorded at Warner Bros. Studios. “But to hear it with these incredible instruments and wonderful musicians is extraordinary.”
Killer Klowns has been passed down by the original generation of ‘80s kids who freaked out in theaters, to the next, and even to the next, despite all the computerized effects that millennials — who may have never seen an animatronic creature before — practically expect every time the lights go out in a movie theater. With scary clowns being put back on horror fans’ radar with Andy Muschietti’s take on Stephen King’s IT, Chiodo is recharging his idea for a second film that he says will be a “requel," neither a sequel nor a remake, that incorporates both original and new characters who are all potential cotton candy pops when the Klowns land again.
“Sometimes reality can get boring, so you go to thinking about other things, other dimensions, other planets,” Chiodo said, “It’s exciting.”
Grab tickets for the Killer Klowns musical spectacular here if you’re going to be in the L.A. area when the Klowns come to town. Just remember, you can get popcorn, but in space, no one can eat ice cream.