The Untold Story Of ‘Killer Klowns From Outer Space,’ The Creepiest Film In Central California History

The Untold Story Of 'Killer Klowns From Outer Space,' The Creepiest Film In Central California History

On April 20, 1987, a Hollywood film crew descended on a sleepy town on the central coast of California to shoot one of the strangest science fiction movies of all time.

Watsonville, south of Santa Cruz, is known for its many orchards, annual strawberry festival and quiet beaches. But the fictional town of Crescent Cove, where a gang of bloodthirsty aliens who look like circus clowns staged a cotton candy raid, is becoming more and more famous. Today, Killer Clowns From Outer Space is considered a low-budget masterpiece and a cult phenomenon that changed the way people look at clowns forever.

The film follows two teenagers, Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder), who see a meteor floating in the sky and discover that it is a spaceship disguised as a circus tent. After escaping the clown, they return to town to call the police. A cop – Debbie's ex-boyfriend – trusts the couple and joins the investigation, while the police chief (played by Dirty Harry's John Vernon) scares them off, assuming it's his idea of ​​a bad prank. Think Blob with a carnival twist.

The dark comedy from legendary special effects artists, the Chiodo brothers – Stephen, Edward and Charlie – are the team behind the stop-motion animation of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On and Elf the Doll Team America. Police," the Tasmanian devil-like monsters from "Critters," and the terrifying Big Marge from "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

Director Stephen Chiodo came up with the concept by imagining the scariest thing he could think of. "For me it was the idea of ​​driving down a lonely mountain road in the middle of the night and passing a car only to see that it was a clown behind the wheel," he said in a recent Said Zoom interview to SFGATE. . .

The brothers encouraged him. What if the car was invisible? And if the clown walks by with a menacing grin? What if he just looks like a clown, but is actually an alien from another planet?

A circus is coming to town

People have never seen evil clowns on screen like they did in the late 80s on a VHS tape of Killer Klowns From Outer Space, serial killer John Wayne Gacy clowning around for his birthday. Garden parties, arrested and then called "killer clowns" in the press. And although coulrophobia – the fear of clowns – has always existed, at the time scary clowns gradually began to become an archetype and an instrument of terror.

A creepy clown doll took on a terrifying presence in 1982's "Poltergeist," and 6-year-old Michael Myers donned a clown mask when he committed his first murder in "Halloween." Stephen King's It was published as a novel in 1986, but was not made into a television miniseries until 1990.

When Killer Klowns From Outer Space came out, it was the Chiodo Brothers' first and only film. Despite earning critical acclaim — including a Los Angeles Times review that called it "clearly clever" — it was a box office flop, grossing $2 million on an $80,000 budget (more on that later) . But last April, the brothers were surprised to be reunited for the first time since filming in Watsonville nearly 35 years ago.

The Chiodo brothers, Edward, Charlie and Stephen, left, with the Killer Klowns From Outer Space house at Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, right.

More than 800 fans gathered to get autographs from the Chiodo brothers and see a performance by Killer Klowns, followed by a question-and-answer session at Nerdville, a new comics, horror and sci-fi convention that largely celebrated the premise of the film. links The area is also home to a simple "Killer Klowns" club, Nick Calubaquib, Watsonville's director of parks and community services, told SFGATE.

"This is one of the most famous films made in our small town," said Calubaquib. (Funnily enough, his office is in the old police station where several scenes of the movie were filmed.) Later, the movie does instill a sense of pride and nostalgia in the residents of Watsonville.

But the ghost doesn't stop there. When Universal Studios Released MGM's Killer Klowns on Halloween Horror Nights 2018 – Apr 30 A video of the fear zone has garnered more than 7 million views on YouTube.

This was my real life encounter with the "Killer Klowns". I watched the DVD on my home video as a kid and was shocked and appalled at the absurdity of the title and poster design. A true coward who cried at Legoland at the time and hated everything from roller coasters to haunted houses (but mostly clowns), I went home, obsessively read and re-read the IMDb synopsis and refused to watch the movie.

It wasn't until I was about 20 years old and waiting in line for two hours at the Universal Studios attraction that I realized how popular the Killer Klowns really were.

Looking around, I was surprised to see dozens of people wearing Killer Klowns t-shirts and Killer Klowns hoodies adorned with Killer Klowns patches and enamel pins. The red and yellow ribbons of the circus tent could be seen on the horizon, surrounded by pine trees that gave off an incredible glow. Carnival music and distant demonic laughter emanating from an invisible speaker. In the shadows, the figure of a clown slithered by the entrance, waiting to strike when they least expected it.

Inside, hanging from the ceiling, were giant pieces of cotton candy covered in sticky, gelatinous Invasion of the Body Thieves human faces. The walls, painted bright pink and the lights yellow, suddenly gave way to the wrinkled, grotesque faces of the clowns, who appeared with the startling sound of a car horn saying, "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Clowns you followed , but they also gave you pizza, silly puppet shows, and threw popcorn at you. It felt like a Nickelodeon fever nightmare, and when it was over, I went straight home and watched the movie, which on one or otherwise was even slower, funnier and more.-higher than I expected.

I was hooked.

Halloween Horror Nights Creative Director John Murdy was a teenager when he first saw Killer Klowns at a midnight showing in his limited theater. He decided to watch it because he was a big fan of The Dickies, the San Fernando Valley punk band that wrote and performed the film's iconic song.

"I loved it, then I worked at a video store in high school and college and saw the beginning of this cult, and then it was released on VHS at the time," he told the Los Angeles Daily News last month. “When I did Maze in 2019, I didn't know how popular it was and I was surprised to see the number of fans that flocked to this Maze, as well as Stranger Things, which was the hottest thing at the time.

Universal reinvigorated this year with a Killer Klowns barbecue stand, and Spirit Halloween stocked entire shelves with Killer Klowns merchandise, including masks, candy cane guns, life-size animatronics and snowballs. The movie had the biggest increase in Google searches last month after the announcement of Outer Space: The Game's Killer Klowns, a consolation for fans anxiously awaiting a sequel.

"We didn't predict this in a million years," Stephen Chiodo told SFGATE. “We tried to make a film that we like, something that we want to go see in the cinema. And we're amazed at the response we get to something that people have shared all these years that we love.

"Now 'Killer Klowns' has become a pop icon in its own right."

This is not a fun house

When the Chiodo brothers tried to find a place for Killer Klowns in the late 80s, not everyone was enthusiastic about the concept. Originally, they wanted the film to have a certain setting on the east coast: a wooded area with pine trees nearby. a fun boardwalk that reminds you of the beach and Rye Playland you went to as a kid in New York.

Trans World Entertainment, the distribution studio they were working for at the time, suggested Santa Cruz County, where they had just finished another project. The Chiodo brothers agreed that it checked off all the boxes and set their sights on Capitol City.

"But when we asked for our approval, it was rejected," film producer Edward Chiodo told SFGATE.

Then Police Chief Don Braunton sent a memo to Capitola City Council members a few weeks before filming began strongly opposing it.

"Do we really want a movie set in the Capitol called 'Killer Klowns from Outer Space?'" Braunton wrote. "It seems to me that it could irreparably damage the reputation of the Capitol City."

Ultimately, the city rejected the "Killer Klowns" proposal due to concerns about the potential disruption of downtown street closures. "Capitol Councils Cancel Space Landing of Killer Klown," headlined the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Luckily, Killer Klowns was set in nearby Watsonville, where Edward Chiodo said "80% of the movie was shot." (They managed to film a scene on a street near New Brighton State Beach in the Capitol.) The cost was low, and they were able to shoot in a variety of locations during the six-day shooting schedule, including Union Station Street Post Office (now the Department of City Parks and Community Services). , Goodwill, and the Main Street Park observation deck, which still stands today. The fictional but convenient Big Top Burger restaurant on East Lake Avenue still stands, but empty. The team also used a newly constructed warehouse to design the interior of the Klowns' upper spaceship and shoot special effects.

throw clowns

Some of the final scenes were filmed in Santa Cruz at the Pacific Garden Mall and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – the hot dog stand that appeared in The Lost Boys a year ago was also featured in Killer Klowns, and you can visit it today . The Chiodo brothers notably also tapped into the local talent pool: 20 of the 27 roles were filled by Santa Cruz, including the clowns who had no lines. According to a 1987 Mercury News article, about 80 percent of the film crew—about 75 people—were from the Bay Area. Stephen Chiodo noted that some of the researchers were from San Francisco.

"For us it was about on-site recording," said Stephen Chiodo. "It would have been too expensive to get the whole crew and actors and everything together, so we started casting very small and very large people."

(Courtesy of Chiodo Brothers)

Locals recruited to represent the Clowns ranged from 4-foot-10 Geno Ponza to 6-foot-8 semi-pro basketball player Steve Rockhold.

“It is a unique experience. I had the opportunity to work with an almost famous actor, John Vernon. You know, the dean of Animal House,” the late Rockhold told the Mercury News at the time. "I have to have it in my lap."

Harrod Blank, the son of noted documentary filmmaker Les Blank, said at the time that he was an aspiring actor and had recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in film and theater. When he showed up to cast extras, he remembers seeing hundreds of people.

"I knew I had to take notice," Blank told SFGATE. "Then I came to the audition in my art car."

Blank, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, arrived in a brightly colored 1967 Volkswagen Bug with a rooster painted on the driver's door, sunflowers blowing in the wind and a bunch of artificial berries tied to the hood. "Oh my God!" nickname It was the first art car at Burning Man, and Blank believes it helped him land a role in Killer Klowns as well. The Chiodo brothers asked him to stay to see if he was ready to become a clown. Blank, who is now a filmmaker and runs an art car museum in Douglas, Arizona, ended up portraying several characters, including Stretch, the giant clown who chased Debbie and Mike with a gun and Chubby the clown who drinks human blood. cotton candy with a silly straw.

"I played with clowns every day for two weeks. I guess it worked because I was a clown at the time,” he laughed. Of the costume, which featured an animatronic head with a motorized mouth and eyes, he added: "I don't think it's for everyone. You can't see, you can't breathe and you sweat like a crazy, but hey worth it… It's amazing that the movie has legs like that, it's really weird how it all happened, and even weirder that after 30+ years this thing became a cult classic.

Marin-based animator Justin Kohn, who later worked for San Francisco's Skellington Productions on The Nightmare Before Christmas, was responsible for animating Killer Klowns' iconic "shadow gag," in which one of the Klowns kills a crowd of a swallow bus stop. With a shadow puppet in the shape of a T. rex.

They ran out of money for the movie and asked me if I could do them a favor,” Kohn said.

He was delighted: he had known the Chiodo brothers for years and said they helped him get started when he moved to California to pursue a career in animation, even if he stayed alone in their studio. "There was a lot of this sit-down cinema back then. We were all trying to make it work," he said. “So I said yes in exchange for $200 and the right of first refusal, and it became one of the most famous scenes in the movie.

Interestingly, most of the budget was allocated to transportation and the Chiodo brothers allocated about $80,000 for special effects.

"It's ridiculous in light of the number of things we had to build and operate," said Edward Chiodo.

However, it's the practical effects that the film is remembered for, and it's even more impressive to see what the Chiodo brothers accomplished in the blink of an eye. Most sets are created and built by Pic 'N' Save. An old van was turned into a giant vacuum cleaner, which the clowns used to suck up their victims. Toys R Us Super Soakers have become Klowns' weapon with a few extra embellishments and sell for around $10 each. (The popcorn gun was a notable exception, costing $6,000 and taking six weeks to make, mainly because it had a cylinder that fired popcorn).

“We had many challenges, working at night with a limited budget and limited equipment. We didn't have modern camera cranes or anything," said Charlie Chiodo, the film's production designer, who was also responsible for casting the lead actor Klown Klownzilla. “Budget cinema is about solving problems. The unexpected happens. "

"was buried"

When Killer Klowns was finally released in 1988, it suffered some setbacks, despite favorable reviews cited by then-LA Times film critic Leonard Klady.

"Behind their bright dresses, painted faces and latex expressions, the dozen clowns are a marvel," Klady wrote, praising it as a nod to the 1950s monster movies the Chiodo brothers grew up with. "The combination of their toy store arsenal and their nefarious intentions proves to be a delicious combination, and the outlandish things they put together for the film often rival the best of Cirque du Soleil."

The Santa Cruz Sentinel was nothing but enthusiastic about the film. "Yes, it was filmed in Santa Cruz, although there may be some debate as to whether that incident should be made public," says Rick Chatenever's review of the film. However, he admitted, "There is some inventiveness to this B-movie sci-fi horror spoof, both in its concept and its art direction."

"Killer Klowns" was also named LA Weekly's pick of the week, but by the time the review was published, the film had been pulled from theaters.

"They put us in the back of a multiplex on Egyptian Boulevard in Hollywood during the peak summer season," said Charlie Chiodo. “It would have been a perfect Halloween movie. Instead, they buried him.

He added that he and his brother were approached by producer Chris Bearde ("Sonny and Cher's Comedy Hour") about adapting the film into an animated series, but Trans World Entertainment was unwilling to own the franchise and the deal went through. in budget matters.

"It was our first film," said Edward Chiodo. "So when they brought us in for consulting and marketing, we've never done that before. We took them at their word that Trans World Entertainment would distribute it properly.

Instead, only a handful of prints were shown in a handful of major cities—"that was the bare minimum they had to do," said Stephen Chiodo—and the film was sold direct to video. Despite this backlash, Killer Klowns began to find an audience when it was released on VHS and aired on platforms such as HBO and USA's Up All Night.

After Trans World Entertainment folded in 1993 and sold its library of 150 titles, including Killer Klowns, MGM took it over and asked if the Chiodo Brothers would be willing to release the behind-the-scenes footage for a DVD reissue sign. Released in 2001.

The brothers realized that they were on to something after all.

"People started stealing VHS copies from video stores," said Stephen Chiodo. "You couldn't get 'Killer Klowns' anymore because people were ripping it off. And we started going to conventions and people were asking us to leave.

Snyder, who played Debbie, has noticed a similar increase in popularity for the film at these events, where the lines get longer every year.

"It seems to have a lot of staying power because of the depth of the characters and this really crazy idea they had," he told SFGATE. "I never thought of ghost art as it is today, but I think it's the special effects, the colors and that silly, upbeat carnival music that disarmingly combine to scare you or make you laugh. No, there's nothing that doesn't compare to this movie.

The clown continues

"Killer Klowns" was an unusual entry in the genre, playing with the duality of horror and comedy. When he created Klowns, Charlie Chiodo said he was inspired by the "madness and craziness" of the Looney Tunes characters. It is also worth noting that the Klowns were not clowns at all, and this was a conscious choice.

"Before Killer Klowns, there were scary clowns. But none of them had teeth like ours,” said Edward Chiodo. "We're not that happy with killing and hurting people and destruction. We grew up loving monsters and wanted the movie to be a fun escape.

Joshua Grannell (Peaches Christ, San Francisco drag icon) and filmmaker Michael Varrati, host of the Midnight Mass podcast, believe that "killer clowns" may be responsible for Captain Spaulding's cultural shift and the eventual proliferation of clowns. House of 1000 Corpses for Zeebo in Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and Twisty the Clown in American Horror Story.

"It's one of those cult movies that everybody knows," says Varrati, who first saw "Killer Klowns" on home video as a teenager. "Over the years, I've seen his career go from the talk of the town to the touchstone of the Halloween season … We get the '80s lies, we get these Hypercolors, and then we get Godzilla in the finale, basically .The Chiodo brothers in other cult movies took the best things that entertain us, put them in little circuses, showed us around and created a very unique experience that kept it going.

Grannell, who runs the Terror Vault at the Old Mint, believes the film also paved the way for scary clowns to become household names in their own spooky attractions. (If you visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, you'll find that some of the clowns never leave—they hide in a room at Fright Walk, the theme park's haunted attraction and the movie Wink.)

"I don't know if it was the first [evil clown movie], but it was definitely the one that mattered and definitely made the difference," Grannell said. "Look what everyone is talking about now – Art the Clown and 'Terrifier 2'. The spread and popularity of scary clowns started with 'Killer Klowns.'

Watch Killer Klowns from Outer Space for free on Pluto TV .

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