Between the new IT movie and the presidency of Donald Trump, horrifying clowns are all the rage these days. But in a way, this has always been the case. Clowns have always walked that line between silly and spooky, and horror cinema has made a point of nudging clowns toward the latter. Think about it: we all have a LEAST one friend who puts their foot down and drops a hard NOPE when clowns are even mentioned. The World Clown Association (yes, that is a real thing) has even officially condemned American Horror Story and IT for their portrayal of clowns. Pam Moody, head of the WCA, had this to say about Pennywise:
“It’s a science-fiction character. It’s not a clown and has nothing to do with pro clowning.”
She further cites the loss of clowning work due to children now being afraid of clowns instead of enchanted by them. But wasn’t it P.T. Barnum who said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? King’s response is one of almost complete detachment to the supposed problem. He tweeted:
“The clowns are pissed at me. Sorry, most are great, BUT … kids have always been scared of clowns. Don’t kill the messengers for the message.”
I think I’m with King on this one. And really, my life has no use for clowns outside of horror movies, so if the WCA wants my business, they’d better hit up he spiky fake teeth section of the Halloween store, and how.
So in the interest of celebrating a cinematic perversion of a timeless performance art, I would like to share with you some of my favorite spooky clowns of the silver screen.
Captain Spaulding (House of 1000 Corpses & The Devil’s Rejects – 2003, 2005, dir. Rob Zombie)
I met Sid Haig, the man behind Captain Spaulding, at a horror convention when I was about 17 years old. I was taken aback by how kind and jubilant he was, as well as how utterly terrible he smelled. As an equally festive and grimy man, who better to cast as a festive and grimy clown? The novelty of using a grindhouse staple in film which is very much a stylistic homage to the exploitation horror of yesteryear is dissolved by how fully Haig embodies Spaulding, whose clowning almost feels more like a fetish than a tool of the murder trade. Sure, he uses the face paint and costume to catch his victims off guard, but it’s such a thin visage that it barely gains him anything but internalized joy at subverting his greasepaint smile.
Sergio the Happy Clown and Javier the Sad Clown (The Last Circus – 2010, dir. Álex de la Iglesia)
The Last Circus is a mixed bag, but deserves credit for committing to a truly bonkers idea. When a sideshow performer finds herself the love object to two competing clowns (one happy, one sad, both insane), the artifice of the circus becomes absorbed into real life, resulting in some truly gruesome, upsetting horror. The sad clown, defined by his sadness, takes “woe is me” to an absurd level, while the happy clown rides his “positivity” to a state of pure mania.
The Klowns (Killer Klowns From Outer Space – 1988, dir. Stephen Chiodo)
What if a clown wasn’t just a performer in a suit, but an alien who kills children using circus-themed weaponry? Is it still a clown? Nope, it’s a KLOWN, and as silly as it seems, the imagery and imagination on display in Killer Klowns From Outer Space scared many a youngster with its campy frights. Made by the Chiodo Brothers, famous for their puppeteering and claymation work on things like Team America: World Police and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Klowns works better as a showcase of their craft than it does as a conventional movie, but that’s why camp films exist. No lie, the Klowns inhabited many a nightmare of mine as a young lad.
The Clöyne (Clown – 2014, dir. Jon Watts)
I always felt bad for Tim Allen’s character in The Santa Clause. That movie registered as a lighthearted comedy for most, but it always played as a body horror movie for me. Clown takes the same concept (man puts on costume, can’t take it off, becomes costume) and switches the Santa suit for a clown suit. When a real estate agent borrows a found clown suit from an unsellable house to don at his son’s birthday party, he welcomes a mythical demon, the “Clöyne” into his body. Much like Pennywise, this clown has an insatiable appetite for children. Nobody saw his movie (I suspect the “produced by Eli Roth” tag was instrumental in this — people love to hate that guy), but more should. It’s kinda great.
The Clown Doll (Poltergeist – 1982, dir. Tobe Hooper)
IT never made its way into my life until my teenage years, so my most formative experience involving monster clowns has to be Poltergeist. What’s scarier than a clown? A doll coming to life. What’s scarier than a doll coming to life? A CLOWN DOLL COMING TO LIFE.
This haunting sequence is the payoff to an earlier one in which young Robbie Freeling, freaked by the clown doll which resides on the rocking chair in his bedroom, covers its face in a jacket to avoid making contact with its soulless eyes. It’s exactly how a kid would react to such a thing, operating on an irrational fear that the doll may come to life. Except in Poltergeist, it DOES come to life, and if not for the doll’s comedic end (Robbie ripping it to shreds with his bare hands while screaming “I hate you! I hate you!”) adolescent me may have never made it through Poltergeist.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.