The way I watched television as a kid no longer really exists. Back then, you had maybe a couple cable channels and if you were lucky four movie channels. Rather than turning on the TV and selecting the exact episode of the exact show you wanted to watch at that exact moment, you were at the mercy of the programmers. Whatever films or shows the channels could afford was what you watched, and by god you liked it or you learned how to go outside and bathe in the unforgiving light of the daystar.
Premium cable channels had yet to really embrace original programming as well, so they had to fill out their rosters with a variety of movies they could obtain on the cheap. They aired these things incessantly, so while you thought you were getting HBO to watch stuff like Lethal Weapon, you were actually going to see Karate Kid Part 3 a hundred times. Because of their ubiquity, these cheap movies took on a place in the pop culture imagination of a generation entirely out of proportion for their modest budgets, bizarre scripts, and amateurish flourishes.
And this was a good thing. While the modern on-demand model is amazing, allowing you to watch an entire run of a show that was canceled twenty years ago (this still feels like sorcery to me), it does cut down on these random touchstones. You’re far less likely to find these tiny corners of pop culture, to know every second of a b-movie intimately. As culture grows more accessible, it also grows more homogenized. Granted, a lot of this is because people aren’t wasting their time with garbage, but as a counterpoint, it’s unlikely that an oddball like Killer Klowns from Outer Space would have found an audience, let alone the large and passionate one it has.
Released in 1988 toward the tail end of the second golden age of cinematic horror, Killer Klowns is a defiant b-movie, both wallowing in and subverting the tropes of the drive-in greats of the 1950s. The plot is largely an excuse for its title. Clowns, or, excuse me, Klowns, invade small town America and cause havoc, only to be defeated by a plucky band of everyman heroes. The movie even ends with a The End, or is it? gag that manages to be winning rather than irritating.
Clowns are so ubiquitous in horror nowadays so as to be almost stereotypes. While this didn’t begin with Killer Klowns, you can see the film’s fingerprints all over the modern conception of the monster. The creatures are created with full-body costumes with elastic, fully-articulated faces. The masks easily walk the line between looking like actual clowns and like awful inhuman monsters. Depending on what you think of clowns, that line might not be all that wide. The clowns themselves are clearly where the lion’s share of the budget went, rather than hiring the few kinda sorta recognizable actors (including a guy who was in the pilot of Friends and one of the girlfriends in Weird Science), or shooting in the crushingly generic suburb.
The clowns, though, are worth it. Beyond the excellent creature design are some truly inspired gags. See, the clowns are an alien species who apparently come to earth every now and again (one character posits that an ancient astronaut situation led to the creation, and fear of clowns, but to the film’s credit it never confirms or denies this hypothesis). Initially, the clowns appear to be there only to feed on human blood — making these, technically Killer Vampire Klowns from Outer Space — but the creators appear to grow bored with that idea fairly quickly. And that is where the movie elevates itself from harmless b-movie time-filling to legitimate cult classic.
The Chiodo Brothers, film journeymen who got their start in special effects and not Duke Nukem villains as I initially assumed, apparently wanted to think of every single clown trope they could turn into a sinister method of sadistic murder. A large part of the second act, beginning when everyman hero and guy-reading-all-his-lines-off-cue-cards Mike accidentally leads the clowns from their big top space ship into town, are short skits of clowns menacing the townsfolk. One of these scenes is basically, person sees clown, assumes clown to be a relatively normal clown, the clown does something silly/harmless/endearing, then that precise thing turns out to kill the hapless person. The film deliriously gives itself over to this anarchic Loony Tunes vibe, ignoring its ostensible protagonists for long stretches. This might be evidence of deep mental illness, but my favorite gag is when one of the clowns wants to drink from a captured human (webbed up in cotton candy because of course), and produces a razor-tipped crazy straw.
That’s not to say the film is entirely devoid of fear. There’s the obvious, and the vast majority of people who at least find clowns unnerving will likely be creeped out by the way the creatures live entirely in the uncanny valley. The most chilling moment is slightly at odds with the rest of the film’s tone, but it only succeeds it making it land harder. A portly clown attempts to lure a small girl out of a clown-themed restaurant, all while clutching a mallet behind his back. There’s still the Loony Tunes logic of it all, but it dovetails well with the pervasive fear of child predators that started in the ‘80s and continues today.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space is relatively recently made, but it is still a relic of a different era. From the idea of a lover’s lane being important to the plot, to the prominence of a clown-themed ice cream truck, down to the fact that all the FX are practical rather than CGI and the subtle mullets on the guys and Whitesnake hair on the ladies, this is clearly an ‘80s movie. It’s also a relic of a time when there wasn’t much on TV, and so these strange orphans took root in the psyches of an entire generation. Killer Klowns is never a great film, but in its own way, it’s an important one.