Review: Beware An Invasion By ‘Killer Klowns From Outer Space!’

Maybe the most unsettling thing about the HD release of 1988’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space is that for 20 years I’ve been mispronouncing the names of indie filmmakers/animation and effects pros the Chiodo Brothers (the “Ch” has a “k” sound). There’s not anything overtly scary about the Chiodos’–Charles, Stephen, and Edward–horror-comedy, although I can imagine the visual of their saw-toothed, grease painted alien invaders might have caused at least a few cases of coulrophobia over the years.

Fox and MGM have given the film a decent, if not spectacular HD upgrade with all of the features intact from the 2001 DVD.

Klowns is the brainchild of the Bronx-born Chiodos, who wanted to make a comic sendup of the small town alien invasion movies of their childhood. But instead of the stomping evil of a nuclear-spawned horror like the mutated insects of Them! or the creeping horror of The Blob, the Chiodos decided to take their horror to the big top. Killer Klowns sees an alien race descending on a small southern California town to wreak havoc and collect victims in cotton candy cocoons to be transported for food (or to drink, we see at least one clown tap one of their meals with a twisty straw).

In the special features, the Chiodos talk repeatedly about being inspired by the visual of driving alone at night and being threatened by a sinister clown (a visual which shows up here near Klowns’ climax) and from there they added the names and personalities of some of their friends from back home. Grant Cramer stars as Mike Tobacco, a wise-cracking local who’s one of the first to discover the alien invaders, but can’t quite seem to get the local cops (soap opera and TV vet John Allen Nelson and John “Dean Wormer” Vernon). And it’s too bad, because in the span of one night, the invaders manage to scoop up much of the town’s population for storage, transport, and later snacking.

This was the first feature for the brothers, and it shows with some awkwardly-staged scenes (a couple of botched car crashes thanks to budgetary constraints), a lot of what ended up on the screen was a case of making the best of a shoot where everything that could go wrong, went wrong. While the performances were a little rough (I’m not sure the Terenzi brothers are as funny as the Chiodo’s want them to be), the actors throw themselves into the deep end with the z-grade material, upping it to a solid B with determination and performances that acknowledge, but doesn’t overplay the campiness of the material.

If Killer Klowns isn’t especially scary, it’s only kind of funny but still gets by on the execution of extremely inventive visuals based on the clown/circus motif. The Chiodo’s get a lot of mileage out of their lumpy-faced, leering, reptilian eyed clowns, who unnervingly, never speak, using a combination of pantomime and props to kill the locals. Gags like the shadow puppet scene and the slow parade through the center of town make the Klowns a far more interesting horror movie threat than they have any right to be, and that’s all thanks to the cleverness of the Chiodo boys.

Presentation and Special Features

The AVC @ 36 MBPS transfer isn’t great, but it’s not a disaster, either. Some early night scenes look a little smeary, for lack of a better descriptor, but overall the colors are rich and stable throughout. On the audio front, the disc includes a robust DTS HD 2.0 track in English and French Dolby Digital 1.0 along with English and Spanish subs.

I suppose I could complain about Fox/MGM simply lifting the features from 11 years ago, but there’s so much here, it’s unlikely anyone involved has much more new to say about Killer Klowns. That includes the informative commentary from Charles, Edward, and Stephen, along with “The Making of Killer Klowns” (21:40), which features extensive behind-the-scenes VHS footage. Composer John Massari talks about crafting the movie’s music in “Komposing Klowns” (13:15), while the effects get some notice in “Visual Effects With Gene Warren Jr.” (13:15); “Kreating Klowns” (12:50) looks at the mime work behind the clown performers; “The Chiodo Brothers’ Earliest Films” (7:10) features old Super 8 movies shot in and around their home; two deleted scenes with commentary; “Killer Bloopers” (2:49); and a pair of vignettes featuring the clown auditions (3:53) and a short TV-friendly clop of John Vernon profanity. The trailer is also included on the disc.

Curiously, there’s no menu option and I have to say I hate, hate the Juggalo-friendly cover art which replaced both the more striking VHS box art and still way better than the dark carnival we have here DVD release.

Killer Klowns From Outer Space is available now on Blu-ray from Twentieth Century Fox and MGM.

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