Psycho Circus: Re-Assessing Killer Klowns From Outer Space


Despite – or possibly because of – the cult reputation of Killer Klowns from Outer Space, I’d never actually seen the film prior to this new blu-ray edition. I can’t say I was actively avoiding it as such, but certainly the film never held much appeal. The catchpenny title and concept smacked a little too much as being one of those 1980s films that tried to hard to be instant cult movies (the very idea of which suggests a complete misunderstanding of what a cult movie actually is), like the output of Troma and Empire. That sort of thing tends to leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

So it’s fair to say that I approached this film with a degree of caution, and the opening scenes did little to reassure me, with making out teens, crappy comedy and deliberate hammy acting having awful similarities to the worst films of the era. However, Killer Klowns… takes a sudden swerve early on, and while it never quite becomes great – or even ‘good’ in any conventional sense – it certainly carves out its own unique niche. The film seems to sit alongside a handful of other late 1980s eccentric genre pieces – Life on the Edge, Terrorvision – in somehow managing to transcend its own limitations to become a day-glo bizarro fantasy that makes little sense. It has a story you could fit on the back of a postage stamp and one-dimensional characters, and yet still manages to be weirdly entertaining.


The plot is simplicity itself. A shooting star that appears over Crescent Grove, California, turns out to be an alien spaceship. But no run of the mill spaceship. This looks like a circus tent and is populated by homicidal alien clowns, who kidnap Earth people and wrap them in cotton candy cocoons in order to drink their blood. The clowns fire mutant popcorn from toy guns, ride clown cycles and behave like… well, like clowns – albeit the clowns you might see in your worst nightmares.

It’s down to Mike Tobacco (Gene Cramer), his girlfriend Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder) and her ex, policeman Dave Hanson (John Allen Nelson) to save the town from the marauding clowns, as cynical old school copper Curtis Mooney (John Vernon) refuses to believe the stories of alien killer klowns, even as they rampage across town.


There’s one film that comes to mind immediately while watching Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and that’s Gremlins. While Gremlins spawned a whole bunch of low-budget imitators – Ghoulies, Critters, Munchies and the like – this is the film that really owes the most to the film. The Killer Klowns might not be small monsters, but the film shares the same anarchic structure as Gremlins, with the Klowns having a warped sense of humour, behaving in comical and eccentric ways before suddenly becoming psychotic and deadly. The film doesn’t do this as effectively as Joe Dante’s movie, because the Klowns are too grotesque and too crudely created to work in the way that the assorted gremlins did, but it’s still entertaining to see the characters creating shadow puppets that suddenly turn bad, being bullied by a biker gang who soon learn their lesson and generally being both wacky and wacko. And because these are aliens, the Klowns can be truer to your nightmares that regular psycho clowns, having weird powers and superhuman abilities.

The look of the film is certainly remarkable. This is a movie of vivid colours and surprisingly impressive visuals. For a low-budget affair, Killer Klowns… looks extraordinary, with fantastic, surreal sets and imaginative special effects. While the Klowns themselves are a little disappointing, I certainly can’t knock the visual imagination at work here, and the Chiodo Brothers team deserve all the credit they get for making this such a weird trip of a film. And they ensure that it rarely flags. The film wastes no time getting into the action – there’s no waiting ages to see the monster here, as the Klowns are on the rampage within ten minutes or so. It’s only at the end that the film begins to tire out, as the inevitable scenes of the heroes trapped in the spaceship and chased by Klowns start to become a little one-dimensional.


I would still maintain that Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a little too knowing and smug – you don’t use a title like that unless you are aiming at cult movie status. But it’s head and shoulders above the unspeakable likes of The Toxic Avenger or Sorority Girls in the Slime Bowl-a-Rama (though that is faint praise) and a lot more entertaining. Not, perhaps, as great as some people have made it out to be, but certainly a lot better than logic suggests it should be.

The new blu-ray allows the vivid colours to pop out of the screen and comes with a bevy of featurettes that should keep even the most demanding Killer Klowns fan happy.