The horror films of the '80s were dominated by iconic slashers like Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees, A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger, Halloween's Michael Myers and even Chucky, the killer doll from Child's Play. But in 1988, the title characters of Killer Klowns From Outer Space carved out their own territory in the genre.
Killer Klowns was a family affair for the Chiodo Brothers, who had worked as special-effects artists on previous films like Pee-wee's Big Adventure (they created the claymation sequence for the Large Marge scene), Critters and Flicks. Stephen Chiodo directed Killer Klowns from a script he co-wrote with Charles Chiodo. Both Stephen and Charles also produced the film with their younger brother, Edward Chiodo.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, Killer Klowns combines elements of sci-fi and horror flicks, featuring a group of aliens who resemble clowns landing near the small town of Crescent Cove, where they begin harvesting the blood of the residents. Few of the townspeople take the clowns as serious threats until it's too late to run away. The titular monsters' intentionally goofy appearance set them apart from other horror villains of the era, with even their spaceship and weapons being clown-themed.
Although Killer Klowns From Outer Space had only modest success with $43 million at the box office, it received surprisingly strong reviews and, through subsequent video releases and late-night cable screenings, the movie has been a cult classic, spawning action figures, accessories and apparel. With the film celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, the Killer Klowns resurgence continues with a video game in development and talks of a potential sequel film.
Yahoo Entertainment recently caught up with Stephen and Edward Chiodo to get their thoughts on the film's enduring popularity, where they would go with the sequel and what else is coming down the line for the Killer Klowns.
Are all clowns from outer space?
Curiously, the movie never bothers to explain where the Killer Klowns come from, or why they committed so deeply to the bit that even the innermost sections of their spaceship resembles a circus big top. According to Stephen, though, the Killer Klowns may be behind the existence of clowns on Earth. “They are sort of like ancient astronauts who visited our planet centuries ago and kind of inspired our clowns," he says.
“That's one of the notions we played around with in the backstory,” adds Edward. “We don't ever say definitively in the movie, but maybe these guys have been here before and that's where our ideas of clowns have come from."
“I think we tapped into a psychology that there are a lot of people who didn't like clowns,” says Stephen about how Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, has become so prevalent within the last few decades. “I think that's part of the success of the film. We tapped into that raw nerve.”
“Before our movie, and before Stephen King's It and Pennywise, I think people weren't maybe as willing to come forward with their fear of clowns,” adds Edward. “But I think it's always been there. Our movie, and then Pennywise, made it cool to admit your fear of clowns.”
In the theoretical match between the Killer Klowns and King’s Pennywise, both brothers unanimously picked their side to win, naturally.
“I like the classic Pennywise [Tim Curry],” admits Edward. “But even him, I think he's a bit of a wimp compared to our Killer Klowns. [Our clowns] come in so many varieties and shapes and sizes. They've got these gags and tricks. You know, every circus motif, every carnival gag is within the arsenal of our clowns.”
A killer theme song
The film memorably opens with the theme song “Killer Klowns,” which was written and performed by punk band The Dickies. As related by the Chiodos, the song’s inclusion wasn’t their original plan, but they enthusiastically embraced it.
"I wish we could take credit for it, I really do," admits Edward. "We had a great music supervisor, Bob Hunka, who had a relationship with Enigma Records. He just had this idea that The Dickies could be a really good fit. They were an emerging punk rock band here in the L.A. scene back in the '80s, and he pitched it to Enigma Records. He gave a really cool verbal description of what the movie was about, and Leonard [Phillips] came back with the song. They gave us a demo of the song that we just fell in love with. We didn't have one note for it. They just nailed it."
Familiar faces in the crowd
At the time Killer Klowns was made, the most famous member of the cast was John Vernon, best known as Dean Wormer in Animal House. The Chiodos sent out an offer to Vernon to play Officer Curtis Mooney, one of the Killer Klowns' early victims. Much to their shock, Vernon said yes to the role.
"We were going down a list of 'who is this character, and what is he about?' and in working with our casting director, Vernon was on our wishlist," recalls Edward. "Dean Wormer, he's that archetypal nasty villain with the power of authority. He had it in The Blob, he had it in Animal House. So we made him an offer, and he bit! He came and played with us."
"He got the comedy, and the horror," adds Stephen. "It was the first time I had directed a feature film, and he really went along with the performances. He made some wonderful suggestions which showed us that besides being a great serious actor, he had some great comedic chops. He was just a pleasure to work with."
Killer Klowns also notably featured comedian Christopher Titus, in his first movie role, as Bob McReed, an awkward teenager who doesn't survive his encounter with the titlular invaders. Titus went on to much bigger stardom, including headlining his own sitcom, Titus, on Fox for three seasons from 2000 to 2002; making guest appearances on CSI: Miami, The Twilight Zone (2002) and Rizzoli & Isles; and launching several hit comedy albums and touring as a standup comic. The Chiodos fondly remember Titus's time on the Killer Klowns set as he tried to figure out what he was doing.
"[Titus] was a newbie," says Stephen. "He hadn't been in a film or anything before. So he was really, really nervous. He felt like he wasn't doing a good job, so we had to encourage him all of the time. He did what I wanted. He just had to be a goofy teenager going up to Makeout Point with a bunch of beer. It wasn't a difficult role, but it was very funny. He was very humble, and really eager. He tried hard to please us."
"It's funny, his role in the movie is nothing like what his career turned out to be," notes Edward. "In the audition when we met him, there was just something very personable about him, likable, that we wanted to work with him. Even though it's not his character, per say, but he was just a good guy and he was going to do well. Luckily, we caught him early."
A lost Killer climax
During the film's last act, four of Crescent Cove's residents band together to storm the Killer Klowns' spaceship on a rescue mission. But because the film was made on a limited budget, a much more ambitious climax was left on the cutting-room floor.
"One of the original endings of the movie was that as they got deeper into the spaceship it got more funhouse-like," reveals Edward. "And the climax was a giant rotating turntable where our heroes are at the center of this turntable that's spinning faster and faster. Along the perimeter, you have all of those clowns, with all of those horrible weapons. As it goes faster and faster, they're in peril of being spun off into this horrible clown death."
"There were some things we did shoot that were edited out for production reasons," says Stephen. "We had a tightrope that they were walking on, and all of a sudden, that straight line of a tightrope became a stair step, and it defies the visual reality of what it actually was. That was kind of a cool scene."
"Technically, we just didn't have the time or the proper gear to pull it off," adds Edward. "Today, we could probably go back and fix that digitally."
Becoming a cult classic
Neither of the Chiodo brothers was able to offer an explanation for Killer Klowns' emergence as a cult classic embraced by new generations of fans over the past three-plus decades. It turns out that they are just as surprised as everyone else.
"I guess it kind of hit my radar when people would tell us that they used to work at Blockbuster or a video store," notes Edward. "And whenever Killer Klowns was rented, it wouldn't get returned. People were stealing it."
By 2005, renewed interest in Killer Klowns had begun with action figures from SOTA Toys which proved to be popular with collectors. Loungefly, the pop culture apparel and accessory brand owned by Funko, has created several Killer Klowns-themed accessories, from wallets to backpacks. Since 2018, Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood have both had Killer Klowns From Outer Space temporary attractions for the annual Halloween Horror Nights. And both Amazon and Spirit Halloween stores have gone all-in on the Killer Klowns with plenty of costumes and decorations for sale this season.
“I think we had a fanbase for the longest time, but it all of a sudden started to kick off,” says Stephen. “And we don't know exactly why. It seems like now more than ever, Killer Klowns are really popular.”
A sequel series?
The Chioldos have been teasing a Killer Klowns sequel for a very long time, but it has yet to come to fruition. Regardless, the siblings still have very ambitious ideas about where they would take the narrative.
"It'll be a trilogy in four parts, starting with the original film," Stephen tells Yahoo. "But rather than a single motion picture that could make it or break it in one weekend, we want to do a series on a streaming [site] with maybe eight to 10 episodes. And it would chronicle what happens to our main characters after this horrible event with Killer Klowns."
"Thirty-five years later, imagine a new set of young protagonists that get introduced to the Klown world and sucked up into that insanity," adds Edward. "Along the way, they meet a mysterious stranger who happens to be someone from the original movie who has incredible and specific knowledge on how to defeat the clowns who takes [the kids] on and turns them into Klown warriors."
"And over the course of this limited series, we kind of bump into what happened with the other characters until we build up to this climatic battle on the Killer Klown planet itself, where our entire planet is in jeopardy," continues Stephen.
Killer Klowns: The Game
While those sequels are up in the air, the Killer Klowns From Outer Space video game is really happening. Teravision and IllFonic are developing it as an asymmetrical multiplayer game in the vein of the recently released Texas Chainsaw Massacre game, and the Friday the 13th game that Illphonic made in 2017. As far as the Chiodos are concerned, this game may be even better than getting a film sequel or a series.
"We're super excited about that, because it can literally be a game-changer," raves Edward. "The gameplay is so much fun. It brings you back to the movie. You can either be a Klown or a townsperson. The gameplay is really fantastic and I think it's going to excite a lot of people and maybe open up a lot of eyes that this is mainstream. This is more than a cult classic."
"Actually, we were called in as consultants to design the look of the game to ensure that it was on target and matched the original film," says Stephen. "They tried very hard to bring back the style and sensibilities of the '80s movie. It's very moody, and it's a lot of fun. And we're very happy with the transition of our traditional makeup effects type of clowns from the movie and then the CGI versions of the same characters."
"The executive producers on the game, they came to us and made sure that everything looks like a Klown, feels like a Klown, and does what a Klown does," adds Edward. "We're really excited and we're in great hands."