Starring: Grant Cramer, Suzanne Snyder, John Vernon
Director: Stephen Chiodo
The multi-talented Chiodo Brothers – who between them directed, produced, designed, wrote and appeared in Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988) – are genuine eccentrics and movie buffs, and it’s their infectious fanboy sensibility that makes this film such a joy. It’s one of the very best of the ’80s films that look back to the ’50s, largely because it doesn’t do so literally but on its own unique terms.
The story, as the brothers themselves openly acknowledge, follows the template of The Blob. A meteorite-thingy crashes to earth, sweethearts Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Suzanne Synder) go to investigate, and before you know it aliens are rampaging through the small town of Crescent Cove – aliens who happen to look like clowns, with a spaceship that resembles a big top. What follows is a series of Gremlins-like skits as the red-nosed freaks terrorize the townsfolk, with Mike and Debbie trying desperately to sound the alert.
Part of the fun of the film is the way that the Chiodo Brothers run with the zany premise, upping the ante with ever more imaginative variations on a theme. So we get a spaceship with a stripy Dr Zeuss interior, guns that blast popcorn, a balloon-animal sniffer dog, ray guns that cocoon people in lethal candy floss. Again, very few creative teams could get this to work, but they underpin the goofiness with a dark, edgy, deadpan wit. The clowns themselves are vividly individualized – from the giant Clownzilla of the final showdown to the little, green-haired Tiny, who’s probably the worst of the bunch. (If we’re nominating personal favourites, The Least Picture Show’s would be the clown at the bus stop, making deadly shadow puppets).
But just as much of Killer Klowns’ charm lies in how it is made. It’s a love-letter, not just to old monster movies, but to the traditional methods of FX manufacture that were about to go out of the window with CGI. It’s full of brilliant puppeteering, stop-motion animation, trick shots and matte paintings, FX that have their own heightened reality and that have stood the test of time. It’s thus a small-budget film that looks as good, if not better, than many of the big-budget movies of the period.
On this HD transfer, there’s just a touch of softness and grain to a few of the more workaday scenes, such as the interiors at the police station, but mostly the details are crisp and the colours – those strident greens and purples – are deep and lush, especially in the wow moments: the first sight of the tent-like spaceship sat there in the woods, eerily glowing; the moment where Mike and Debbie stumble upon the ship’s reactor shaft (inspired by the Krell complex in Forbidden Planet); and the scenes in the cocoon room, with its spitting, churning popcorn incubator (all of which are matte paintings, although you really can’t tell in at least one case).
The disc comes with a whole bunch of featurettes. Some of these were produced for MGM in 2001, so they’re not new, but they’re very good. Among them is a 21-minute “making of” with lots of behind-the-scenes footage, in which we learn that the movie was filmed in Santa Cruz, mostly at night, over a 36-day shoot. There’s also a 14-minute piece of the FX. Here we get to see the actual model of the spaceship used during filming, which is about the size of a lampshade, and it’s revealed that the marvellous shadow puppet sequence was done with stop-motion. Another 12-minute featurette looks as the production design, including problems with crumbling polyurethane clown feet and the ingenious kit of parts that was assembled and reassembled to create different areas of the spaceship.
Turning to the new featurettes, there’s a 7-minute catch-up with director Stephen Chiodo, who shows off some lovely maquettes and gives his views on stop-motion animation and CGI. Grant Cramer chats frankly, in an engaging 18-minute interview, about the state of his career at the time and what it was like working on the brothers’ flimsy plywood sets.
The highlight of the extras, though, has to be the audio commentary with the Chiodo Brothers, who seem to have total recall about the smallest details of the movie and are also happy to take the mickey out of themselves. There are times when its like listening to an audio commentary by the Marx Brothers, their New York wiseguy banter is so entertaining. Among the many things we learn: the big red buttons in the spaceship were spongeballs, and the things running along the sides of the corridors were sauna tubes. We also find out the reason why there’s a raft in the back of Mike’s car.
Even for long-term fans, there should be much here to enhance your appreciation of the Chiodo Brothers’ achievement, and hopefully this Blu-ray will have plenty of newcomers rolling up to experience one of the true one-offs of ’80s cinema.