This ICHF was written by Casey, who you can find at http://riftwitch.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Art by Casey
Have you ever stopped and thought about just how bizarre clowns are – or more accurately, how bizarre our perception of them is? Clowns are entertainers, ordinary men and women who perform comedic skits for us, and yet as the surge of “clown sightings” in 2016 demonstrates, we tend to view them as a monster first and foremost. Every Halloween store in America is almost guaranteed to have clown monster masks and makeup right alongside the vampires, the werewolves, the pumpkins, the frankenstoids and the sexy catgirls.
What other professions can you say that about? Plagues doctors? Even those menacingly masked, cloaked figures who follow sickness, tend to actually be depicted doing their job, with the themes of sickness and devastation being an integral part of the creepy imagery. Clowns, meanwhile, you can plop right into a forest, holding a knife, and most people won’t even think anything is out of place. Yeah, clowns are creepy monster-men who stalk you through the night and eviscerate you, right?
About the only thing that can truly be compared to how we see clowns is how we see mimes. Pop culture tends to see mimes as some sort of counterpart to clowns, the hyena to clowns’ lion. Order vs chaos? And yet even then, there are noticeably more non-monster mimes than non-monster clowns in most modern fiction.
It’s thus no surprise that there are oceans of works to choose from, if we wish to analyze the clown-monster archetype. But I think that one in particular stands out above the rest in terms of capturing the essence of the archetype. The clowniest, most monstrous clown-monster movie of all time!
I refer to the 1988 cult classic, Killer Klowns From Outer Space!
Our story begins in the manner that horror movies tend to be known for: A group of teenagers are making out on a cliffside, when something falls from the sky and lands in the woods, prompting our adventurous heroes, Mike and Debbie, to investigate. You can make out whenever you want, but chasing meteorites is a rare treat! I actually really like this as a plot device, as these kids are proactive even before the stakes rise.
The film jumps straight into its own premise, revealing a massive, bizarre circus tent in all its glory. Mike and Debbie very quickly determine that they’re not in any kind of circus they’ve ever heard of, and soon encounter one of the tent’s owners, a short, clown-like creature.
The klowns are designed to give us a pretty solid idea of what they’re about right from the start. What we have are essentially white-skinned trolls of varying height, with bulbous red noses, colorful hair, a diverse array of vibrant facial markings, and baggy, festive clothing that obscures their stocky figures. These creatures are nothing like humans, and yet all the basic parts are there: Eyes, ears, noses, mouths, two arms, two legs, upright posture. Essentially, we are looking at the most elemental distillation of the clown concept, divorced from its human origins.
And this continues well beyond their designs, as the creature responds to Mike and Debbie’s intrusion by blasting them with popcorn, as opposed to anything that could actually stop them. When the teens escape into the woods, one of the klowns grabs a balloon and quickly twists it into the shape of a dog, using it to track the kids.
As the protagonists escape into the town to warn the authorities, the klowns regroup and head in, not to give chase, but to explore and cause as much havoc as they please before the real work begins.
KKFOS is not a movie that skimps on making the main characters likable, or in building the threat up, but it also doesn’t beat around the bush: The klowns are here, and they are the movie’s main attraction. While Mike and Debbie struggle to prove their story to the cops, the klowns simply wreak havoc all across the town, which leads me to the point that I think makes these characters the clowniest clown monsters of all.
The rampage is not framed or shot as a horror movie. It takes place at night, and maintains an eerie atmosphere, but the actual shenanigans are treated… well, like comic skits. We see the klowns set up their lethal pranks, we see unsuspecting townsfolk blunder into them, and we reap the schadenfreude as they succumb. No gag is repeated, no victim is quite like the others, every scenario has some sort of bizarre punchline. Not all of them are funny, but all of them follow the sort of logic one would expect a murderous entertainer to follow. Only a couple of scenes in the entire movie are actually played for straight, sincere horror, and even those still rely on the comic logic of the klowns, merely switching perspective to focus on the victims.
The klowns don’t talk, but they communicate a lot through simple body language – NOT an easy task with makeup that thick, I must add. There are several different individuals who each communicate certain quirks – The short one is sociable and upbeat, but has a vindictive streak a mile wide. The tall one is a sadistic bully who likes to deliberately lure people into a false sense of security, then strike. The skinny one is curious and spends most of his time sifting through(and utterly trashing) a convenience store, trying to figure out our technology.
Throughout the chaos, the klowns repeatedly come back to their ray guns which envelop victims in a cocoon of cotton candy, killing them either through suffocation or through the gun’s own power. While at first, this seems like just one more unexplained quirk, it soon becomes apparent that this ties into their ultimate goal: The klowns want to collect all the cocoons and take them back to their ship. Some victims, however, are taken alive, Debbie being among them.
I might also add that the raygun and popcorn cannon are some of their only unambiguously technological weapons, and even they end up having freaky, biological elements in their function. Most of their other stunts, it’s not clear how many of their tricks are technology and how many are natural abilities, nor is it made entirely clear whether each klown is capable of doing all of these things, or if each has their own special X-men klown power.
During a GLORIOUSLY gratifying scene where a corrupt sheriff is humiliated and murdered by one of the klowns, his not-so-corrupt partner discovers that the klowns, though seemingly bulletproof and impossibly strong, do have a weakness: Their fragile noses, if damaged, will cause the entire creature to spin around rapidly until it explodes in a shower of green sparks.
This is likewise never explained. Is the nose a regulator for the eldritch energies that power a klown’s various abilities? Are they really from another dimension, with the nose being their anchor? We don’t know, and we don’t need to know, because the essence of a clown is nonsense!
Oh, some things are explained, sure. As our heroes infiltrate the ship, we discover the purpose of the cotton candy cocoons, as one of the klowns enters the larder, feels several of them, before settling on one and plunging a crazy straw straight into the mass, slurping it up like a spider drinking the melted insides of a fly. The klowns did come to Earth with a purpose besides chaos for its own sake! Unfortunately, that purpose was to round up some snacks for the road.
Finally, in the third act, the teens attempt to bring some reason into this candy-coated nightmare. These creatures must have visited the planet centuries ago, and inspired what we now think of as clowns.
This raises SO VERY many more questions: Would we really find murderous monsters like this humorous, in real life? Did we create clowns as an act of defiance, mocking our oppressors? Were the klowns that previously visited us even as malevolent as these hungry bastards, or were they friendlier? Are these kids just full of shit?
These are more questions the movie knows it doesn’t need to answer. Brevity is the soul of wit, and nobody knows that better than a comedian. The klowns don’t need to be explained. We can tell right away what they’re about, and that’s what drives the story.
A clown is more than just its appearance. Its colors and proportions are outlandish, and this can add to the humor, but it’s the actions, the timing, the wit that ultimately makes them funny. By that same token, a monster clown is so much more than its appearance. Putting makeup on a snarling, feral beast might make it slightly creepier, but a true monster clown relies on comedy for its carnage.
There are many evil clowns in fiction. There are evil men who wear clown makeup to make a mockery of the horrors they inflict. There are pranksters with no regard for the damage their jokes do. There are otherworldly horrors who disguise as clowns to lure victims in close. There are demented show hosts who torment for the sake of entertaining in-universe audiences. But the Klowns are, in my opinion, the most distilled of them all, because everything about them revolves around their being comedians. We don’t know if they deliberately do what they do to amuse themselves, or if they’re simply psychologically incapable of not being funny because it’s how their species is wired. Do they choose to be clowns, or can they be nothing else? It’s such an integral part of them, it may be all of the above!
When the klowns fight, it’s with weapons that are meant for style more than effect. When they kill, it’s as a punchline to a skit. When they communicate, it’s in a language we can’t understand, because you never explain a joke. When they drive, it’s invisible mime cars. When they feed, they do it through crazy straws. When they pilot their ship, it’s in a big circus tent shaped like a top, because of course clown ships are visual puns. EVERYTHING about them revolves around the fact that they are clowns.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space is devoted 100% to following its premise to the end. Its characters are fleshed out, but they’re archetypal. Its plot is briskly paced, but ultimately simple. And its monsters are the purest expression of their name that they could possibly be. There are other clown-monster movies, but this is THE Clown-Monster movie.
Editor’s Note: You really do owe it to yourself to track this movie down and see it. It is an absolutely unique horror-comedy experience – there is no movie quite like it.