Collins’ Crypt: Killer Clowns Are Horror’s Go-To Villain

The new release Terrifier adds "Art" to a pantheon of frightening funnymen

Thanks presumably to an early childhood viewing (OK, probably a few viewings) of Poltergeist, I suffered from a mild case of Coulrophobia as a kid, as that damned clown doll terrified me more than anything else in the film. The 1990 miniseries of It didn't really help much, nor did Clownhouse when I saw it at around 13. But over the years that fear went away, for a number of reasons, the main one (I think) being that I just grew out of it, same as I did my fear of the dark and Ninjas knocking on my window. It was also replaced by other fears, which by now are largely centered on my son (what do you call a fear of your kid choking on literally everything that requires chewing? I have that), making things like being afraid of a guy in facepaint carrying around some balloons feel rather silly when I think about it. But every now and then those old fears resurface for a bit thanks to some other solid entries; Pennywise may be the king, but it's not like he's all alone in the killer clown hall of fame.

Back in the Horror Movie A Day... days, I would check out all the killer clown movies I could find, hoping to find a really good one that could join the titles I saw as a kid - was it possible for one to scare me as an adult? Or was it just my nostalgia putting those few entries in such high regard? A quick perusal of the HMAD archives shows that I watched about a dozen, though that includes dreck like Amusement, where a killer clown was showcased on its marketing but didn't really play much of a part in the film itself (alas, I don't remember any of them being as scary as the new It, natch - but some were pretty damn good, and I'll be getting to them below). But I am surprised there weren't more, actually - I checked IMDb's "Killer Clown" tag and it turns out I didn't miss much either; most of the list is devoted to various Batman movies and episodes of the '60s TV show (yeah, Cesar Romero was always murdering people on that one).

I also noticed how obscure most were, as they almost all went DTV or limited release here in the US. After It, the most famous of the lot is probably Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and that's probably largely due to the catchy title (and even catchier Dickies theme song). It's also more of a comedy than a horror film; there are a couple of moments that might unnerve a young kid (the finger puppet scene freaked me out when I was like 8 or 9) but it's largely a loving tribute to movies like The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers than something that could be considered an It rival. It wasn't a huge box office hit, but it's lived on; the Chiodo Brothers' designs for its various clowns have become T-shirt/toy/etc. staples at conventions, and there seems to always be a remake or sequel attempt in the works.

Then there's Clownhouse, which unfortunately is more famous for its production history than its ticket sales (for those unaware, it was the film that Victor Salva was making when he molested its young star), but if you, like me, managed to see it before knowing that horrid info, you might agree it was effective for what it was. Focusing on three young brothers (including Sam Rockwell in his first film) who go to a circus and attract the attention of a trio of murderous clowns (escaped mental patients who have killed/replaced the real ones), the film is a bit slow to get going, but the back half, starting with a chase from the circus back to their home, and the subsequent home invasion, is an incredibly suspenseful and occasionally terrifying chunk of horror, on par with the much lauded first act of Salva's later Jeepers Creepers. But, you know, it's not like you can recommend the movie (or even find it, as the DVD is long OOP and I can't imagine any distributor having the desire of putting it out there again), so let's move on from it.

Rob Zombie has contributed a lot to the sub-genre, with varying degrees of success. His first two films, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, focused on Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding (though he doesn't use the clown getup all that much in Rejects), the foul-mouthed patriarch of a group of backwoods killers more or less swiped from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. Then, following the original film, his Halloween remake had young Michael Myers wearing a clown mask before switching for the Shatner, though he still has the clown suit on when he kills his family. Zombie gave clowns a break for his next two films, but then came roaring back to the field with 31, which depicted a sort of Running Man-style "game" where a group of hapless carnies had to survive for twelve hours against a group of, you guessed it, psychotic killer clowns (their names, for the historical record, were Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, Death-Head, and Sex-Head). I didn't mind it all that much, but as a few people noted, it was almost like Zombie had decided to make the exact kind of film his critics often lambasted him for, and it was a big step back after his woefully underappreciated Lords of Salem. He's currently making a 3rd entry about the Firefly family, but since Spaulding and the others were shot and killed at the end of Rejects, I assume they will be undead demons of some sort, and thus Sid Haig is not likely to get the facepaint on again. But who knows? I'll be there to find out, that's for sure.

The others I enjoyed aren't as well known, but should be. Stitches is famous (to me) for being the last new movie I watched for Horror Movie A Day before calling it quits on the "A Day" part of the site, and it was something of a victory as it was the best killer clown movie I watched for the site, allowing me to go out on a high note. The film is about a party clown who is tormented and then accidentally killed by the obnoxious brats at a children's birthday party, and as horror movie villains are wont to do, he rises from the grave to take his revenge. Alas, he doesn't do it like, the next day, so we don't get to see the guy mowing down ten year olds - he waits six or seven years to get them when they're traditional slasher age, i.e. high school seniors. It takes a while for his revenge mission to really kick into gear, but the kills are fantastic, and much like Dr. Giggles used medical instruments in all of his attacks, Stitches kills everyone with a clown-like trick. So he'll pull a rabbit out of someone's throat instead of a hat, or turn them into a balloon animal - and all of the kills are done practically, so *swoon*. I ran a Twitter poll about people's favorite ones besides the above standards, and was dismayed that only one or two people name-checked this one - I can only assume it's because folks haven't seen it, so please track it down.

The Eli Roth-produced Clown seemed like it would be on the same lines, but instead of a slasher it's actually more of a body horror film, closer to The Fly than any masked killer flick. Our tragic hero is a dad who is forced to put on a clown costume for his son's birthday after the clown they hired didn't show, and - just his luck - the costume he finds is a cursed thing that bonds itself to his body, and can only be removed with the sacrifice of five children. There are some tonal shifts that don't quite work, but it's a peculiar and largely successful approach to the standard killer clown movie, and cemented director Jon Watts as a talent to watch (the film was made in 2013 but only got released in 2016 - after he had already booked Homecoming). And 2007's Frayed, which apes Halloween but with a more psychological slantseems to be polarizing due to a late-game twist (and an admitted bloated length - it's just under two hours), but I was quite impressed by it when I saw it back in 2009, and continue to hope its two directors, Rob Portmann and Norbert Caoili, will reteam for a sophomore effort, but it seems Portmann has disappeared from the industry (Frayed remains his sole IMDB credit) and Caoili now has a Youtube channel devoted to the Seahawks, so I won't hold my breath. I also had a lot of fun watching 100 Tears, a splatter-y slasher with a huge body count and not a lot of class (in a good way); definitely worth tracking down if you're into Troma type excess.

As for the rest, it's a pretty sorry lot, as the '00s were lousy with DTV flicks that at best were bad and at worst made me want to quit watching horror movies forever, and I kept optimistically trying them only to wonder why I bothered within minutes. I believe there are even more now, but I watched the Killjoy "trilogy" over a period of a week or so back in 2012, and while the first at least had a few good moments and a decent pace, the sequels were interminable bores that made me retroactively hate the original as well, for having led to the followups' existence. Then there was Drive Thru, about a fast food mascot named Happy who steals the plot of the early Nightmare on Elm Street films (an undead guy killing the teenagers of the people who killed him) but takes later "jokey" Freddy's shtick and dials it up to even more insufferable levels. It was, for a while, the film I considered to be one of the worst that I watched for the site, though to be fair I said that quite a bit at first, until my barometer was properly calibrated due to vast amounts of data. 

2007's The Fun Park is notable for being one of the early entries in the insufferable modern trend of starting a horror movie at the end, with the survivor telling their story - except it wasn't done to trick us or make a twist work, it literally just tells us who survived and she tells the story. Dawson's Creek uberfans might find some entertainment in Final Draft, in which James Van Der Beek plays a struggling screenwriter who saw a clown have an accident as a kid and decides to, well, basically write the plot of Stitches, with the clown coming back to get revenge. But then he starts hallucinating the clown invading his real life, going after his agent and his ex girlfriend and what not, which  is actually a decent idea but it's an impossibly slow movie that burns off its goodwill long before the credits roll. Another one that sent my eyes rolling was Dead Clowns, which had an appealing title and a potentially interesting Fog-esque plot, but was glacially paced and clearly made with about a tenth of the budget the script probably called form, turning it into an exercise in "how much leeway can I give an indie horror film before I start feeling like I got sold a bill of goods?" 

Potentially good ideas with a botched execution is kind of a long-standing tradition in the sub-genre, as it turns out. There might be an older one somewhere, but the earliest "killer clown" movie I know of is 1976's The Clown Murders, which is usually lumped in with horror even though it's more of a melodrama with thriller elements. The title is actually kind of a spoiler, as the murderer - who is indeed wearing a clown mask - only kills one person in the film's final five minutes or so, and the film spends far more time on its protagonists (one of whom is a young John Candy) yelling at each other than anything you'd consider traditional killer clown terror. The plot concerns a group of guys who don clown masks and kidnap a woman to prevent a real estate deal from going through, only for a clown-masked stranger (or one of the four?!?) to start antagonizing them and occasionally freaking them out but largely not really doing anything. Besides a nifty scare scene involving an electric fence, it's only really worth seeing to enjoy Candy in one of his few non-comedic roles, though the plot could be spun into an effective remake if anyone wanted to capitalize on the recent uptick of interest in such fare.

Thanks to It's success we're not likely to see a drought of murderous mimes over the next couple years. New to Blu-ray from Dread Central and Epic is Terrifier, in which the lone survivor of a massacre (now crazed herself) recounts the horrible night that a cannibalistic clown named Art wiped out six or seven people in/around a late night diner and office building. The kills are all practical and, like 100 Tears, the film feels like a sincere attempt to revive '80s splatter flicks from Troma and the like (complete with those films' frequent flaws, such as woozy pacing), which will make it an attractive prospect for genre fans - especially those who felt It didn't offer enough on-screen gore and violence, as the film leaves almost nothing to the imagination. The Blu-ray is jam-packed with bonus features too; always nice to see for a modern film as such packages tend to be offered only for library titles or giant blockbusters like Last Jedi. I also liked that it practically took place in real-time, focusing on two friends who are about to drive home from a party when they find their car is incapacitated. One calls her sister to come get them, and it's while they wait that the terror begins, with the sister arriving about 30 minutes later. Most slashers span a day or two (or even a week or so, in Scream's case) so I was intrigued by the idea of setting one over the span of only two hours.

Of course, your mileage with all of these will vary depending on how much or how little you genuinely fear clowns. Either version of Pennywise can probably make anyone at least a bit unnerved, but if your Coulrophobia is extreme, even the comedic likes of Killjoy and Drive Thru might rattle you. It's a nice shorthand for filmmakers (or pranksters), as unlike a hockey mask that is unthreatening in its native context, or demonic makeup that might end up looking silly, any clown (mask or makeup) can suffice as a villain and already get at least a few pulses racing just by showing up. I am of the belief that a normal looking clown (like Tim Curry's Pennywise was, for the most part) is scarier than one that's clearly a horror movie villain on sight, such as our new pal Art (who first appeared in an anthology called All Hallow's Eve), but any can and often will do in a pinch. I can probably redo this article in 10-15 years with a completely different list of movies (indeed, I didn't name them all, and I can't wait to be insulted for "forgetting" one), and our children's children will have their own Poltergeist or It to keep them wary of carnivals well into adulthood. Keep em coming, I say - maybe someday there will be one terrifying enough to make my fear come back.