Killer Klowns From Outer Space was a cinematic tightrope act. Released in 1988, the film skirted the divide between comedy and chills while also juggling elements of classic B-movies, punk rock, and the Memphis-style art aesthetic. A dream project for its creators, the cult classic looks at science fiction tropes through a funhouse mirror. Plus, it showcases some of the deadliest desserts in film history.
1. IT WAS WRITTEN, PRODUCED, AND DIRECTED BY THREE BROTHERS.
This passion project was a family affair. Bronx natives and special effects artists Charles, Edward, and Stephen Chiodo arrived on the Hollywood scene back in the 1980s. In 1982, they founded their own company, Chiodo Brothers Productions. Since then, a huge array of directors have enlisted the trio’s services. Some of their most iconic works include the “Large Marge” claymation from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the monster effects in Critters, a 1986 horror-comedy.
One day, Stephen found himself entertaining a spooky hypothetical: In a thought exercise, the artist tried to come up with the single scariest image that he could devise. “I imagined myself driving up a lonely mountain road and somebody’s passing me on the left, and when I turn to see who it is, it’s a clown,” he recalled in 2011.
When he brought the idea to his brothers, Charles came up with a twist: What if the clown was actually an alien? And what if it wasn’t driving a car but levitating over the ground? The brothers converted this premise into a feature-length movie script. Once TransWorld Entertainment green-lit the film, Stephen stepped up to the plate and directed it.
2. THE CLOWNS' EXPLOSIVE NOSES WERE AN HOMAGE TO ZOMBIE CINEMA.
Every monster needs an Achilles’s heel, and—as Officer Dave learns in the above clip—the space clowns are no exception. Punch, kick, or shoot one of these aliens in its bright red nose and the creature will explode. At the 2011 Spooky Empire horror convention, the Chiodos revealed that this little attribute was inspired by a familiar trope in zombie cinema. “It seemed so logical,” Edward Chiodo said during a panel discussion. “Shoot the nose, kill the clown.” “How do you kill a zombie?” Stephen then asked. “Shoot the brains, kill the zombie. Same idea.”
3. MIKE’S RUBBER RAFT HAS ITS OWN BACKSTORY.
Zombie references are just the beginning. Growing up, the Chiodos were big monster movie fans. Killer Klowns spoofs a lot of their all-time favorites. The cotton candy cocoons, for example, are a riff on the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And in an obvious wink at The Blob, the first big scene in Killer Klowns finds a pair of teenagers making out in a parked Pinto when, suddenly, a meteorite crashes by their scenic lookout point. The car belongs to Mike (Grant Cramer), who’s using it to romance his girlfriend, Debbie (Suzanne Snyder). For some reason, the young lovers choose to lock lips on top of an inflated yellow raft in the trunk. Why does Mike keep that thing there? A lot of fans have pondered that very question. According to Charles Chiodo, Debbie asks him point blank in the original script. Mike answers her with a story about how he was out rafting on Long Island Sound one night with his good pals, the Terenzi brothers. When his father heard about the incident, he flipped out, so poor Mike now has to hide the inflatable boat in his Pinto. Although this dialogue-heavy scene was shot, it ended up getting cut because, in Charles Chiodo’s words, “we had too much exposition.”
4. THE DRAG RACER CLOWN LITERALLY HAD A FEW TRICKS UP HIS SLEEVE.
Stephen Chiodo’s original thought experiment—the spark which set the whole project into motion—was realized in a heart-racing action sequence, which shows a space clown with headlights on the soles of his giant shoes levitating next to a car and then driving the vehicle off the road. To pull off that visual, a stuntman in a killer klown costume was seated on a mechanical rig that was physically connected to the automobile. A controller in the suit’s wrist enabled the man to move said rig backward and forward as needed. In addition to the stuntman’s work, this scene also uses two shots that were realized with stop-motion animation.
5. IT WAS CHRISTOPHER TITUS’S FIRST MOVIE.
Keep an eye out for Christopher Titus during the opening credits sequence: He’s the blonde teen who casually strolls in front of Officer Mooney’s police car while downing a can of beer. Today, this standup comedian is best known for his edgy network sitcom, Titus, and his one-man special Norman Rockwell is Bleeding.
Although most of his scenes were deleted in post, Titus says that he’s been asked to sign loads of Killer Klowns DVDs over the years. “The movie geeks who liked that movie really liked that movie,” he told Westword in 2013.
6. TO KEEP THAT BALLOON ANIMAL FROM POPPING, THE EFFECTS TEAM COATED IT IN LATEX.
Being teenagers in a horror movie, Mike and Debbie can’t help but do some snooping when they discover a circus-themed spaceship. The clowns soon chase them out and then use a balloon dog to track their scent. This gag proved difficult to shoot. In the scene, the inflatable pooch gets dragged over some rough forest floor terrain. As Charles Chiodo explained the DVD bonus documentary Kreating Klowns, their balloons kept popping prematurely on pine cones and other objects. So to get the shot, he gave one of the dogs a protective layer of latex and then solidified it with a hairdryer. That did the trick; Charles’s quick fix kept the balloon from exploding.
7. THE PIE SCENE WAS MORE COMPLEX THAN IT LOOKED.
Pie-in-the-face humor is a time-honored tradition, one that Killer Klowns subverts by having a luckless security guard get pelted to death with highly acidic desserts. For this famous scene, the Chiodos decided to use actual pies instead of the more conventional shaving cream-filled tins. Though more realistic, the approach had some drawbacks. “We needed the colored fillings for our final reveal and we needed the crust. And we found out that getting hit in the face with a pie [at close range] was painful,” Charles Chiodo said.
The crew needed to devise a way for actor David Piel to get repeatedly pied from a nice, safe distance away. They also had to avoid hurling the tins at him because the Chiodos also wanted some gratuitous shots of custard and cream oozing down Piel’s face. If any tins were clinging to him, they’d block all that filling from view. Once again, Charles came up with a novel solution: By feeding their fingers through a wristband on the back of each pie tin, the crew could launch the desserts forward without letting go of their metallic containers. Some actors got in on this fun, too: Cramer remembers getting to toss a pie at Piel during the scene.
8. FOUR PRIMARY “GENERIC CLOWN HEAD” MASK MOLDS WERE BUILT.
At the 2011 Spooky Empire convention, Charles Chiodo told the crowd that Stephen wanted his team to sculpt “four generic head types: one round, one triangular, one inverted triangle, and one peanut-shaped.” Once completed, these were mass-produced, with the effects artists creating two clown characters from each of the four molds. On top of that, an original mask mold was made for Klownzilla, the giant who shows up at the film's climax.
But how did the masks change their facial expressions on camera? That was made possible through a system of built-in, mechanically-controlled cables. By the way, some of the masks were later repurposed as troll heads for the 1991 comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, which the Chiodos also worked on.
9. THE DICKIES WROTE THE KILLER KLOWNS THEME SONG BEFORE THEY SAW THE MOVIE.
Just like The Blob, Killer Klowns From Outer Space opens with an original title song. However, instead of a sax-heavy lounge number, we get an energetic punk rock jam, courtesy of The Dickies. When the band was asked to compose the theme song for Killer Klowns From Outer Space, they wrote one entirely on the basis of their gut reaction to the movie’s title. At the time, the band hadn’t so much as read the script and they wouldn’t see the film until well after their song had been recorded. The Chiodos credit The Dickies with expanding their movie’s cult fan base by prompting punk rockers to check it out.
10. A SEQUEL HAS BEEN IN DEVELOPMENT HELL FOR 29 YEARS.
Will our home world ever be revisited by those murderous space clowns? The Chiodos started toying around with a second Killer Klowns movie very early on. “Look, Hollywood is a very fickle industry,” Stephen Chiodo told The Odd Podcast in 2016. “We’ve been working on a sequel since the day after we made [the first movie]. I mean we have tons of ideas on different directions we can take it.” So what’s with the hold up? The brothers have cited financial and legal setbacks as major roadblocks.
In 2012, Cramer said that one proposed sequel idea would take his character in a tragic new direction. “[One] of the Chiodos … came up with the idea that everybody thinks Mike Tobacco is crazy,” Cramer said. Set long after the events of the original movie, this hypothetical follow-up would portray Mike Tobacco as the town drunk whom everyone else believes to be crazy—until the clowns return. The Chiodos have also discussed the possibility of a four-part “trilogy” that’d be part sequel and part remake and produced for cable television.