killer-klowns
A&E

When Santa Cruz County Became Klownsville

How the 1980s cult classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space ended up shooting in Santa Cruz and Watsonville

“Killer Klowns is multi-generational now,” special effects master Edward Chiodo says. “We’re flattered and surprised that [the film] has made such an impact on pop culture.”

The movie’s opening credits flash block letters with an icy-blue glowing outline. The background is dotted with stars against the nighttime sky. An ominous soundtrack, which sounds like a big band on ether performing a loose variation of circus music, accompanies an orchestra of menacing laughs in the distance. The culmination leads to the title credit—“Killer Klowns” leaps on the screen, vibrant red font with sharp corners reminiscent of fangs. “From Outer Space” appears below.

The soundtrack with the eerie laughs screeches to halt. Then quintessential circus music shreds crisply on electric guitar with Steve Vai-precision, kicking off the title song, written and performed by SoCal punk rockers the Dickies.

The shot pans down from space onto a busy Saturday night in Anytown, U.S.A., centered around a teen hotspot aptly named Big Top Burgers; the credits continue rolling, as the song’s lyrics offer some foreshadowing: “Everybody’s running when the circus comes to town.”

When we stumbled across it on cable TV, my brother and I—he was 6, I was 11—watched speechlessly for 90 minutes as Killer Klowns from Outer Space blew up in our faces like a giant red and white-striped balloon full of severed fingers and teeth bursting above our heads.

The quick and dirty plot summary: An alien spaceship lands on earth. The spaceship resembles a circus tent, and the aliens resemble clowns. Scary fucking clowns, but clowns nonetheless. Using clown-like birthday party tricks—including puppet shows, balloon animals and shadow puppets—the aliens easily fool inconspicuous townsfolk, who they gelatinize in cotton candy cocoons, and later feast on with “silly” straws. However, a few locals catch on to this strange clown activity and take on these extremely dangerous beings whose perma-smiles are spookier than fangs.

Scared shitless, yet mesmerized by the film’s aesthetics and effects, Killer Klowns became much more than a campy movie that we stumbled on one uneventful Saturday afternoon. It was one of those few unforgettable childhood movies that ended up inspiring us both in unexpected ways for years to come.

“It’s really like nothing I had ever seen, especially as a 6-year-old,” recalls my younger brother Daniel, who now creates special effects for Disney rides. “I ended up seeing it many more times, because I love the creature effects. I have to believe in some way, even indirectly, it helped me discover what I wanted to do as a career, eventually working at Disney.”

Thanks to the Chiodo Brothers—Stephen, Charlie and Edward—Killer Klowns from Outer Space has affected millions since its 1988 release. Since the early ’80s, the Chiodos’ independent company has been a one-stop shop for special effects—clay modeling, creature creation, stop-motion, animatronics, costumes, makeup, and everything in between. Their mantra: “Bring fantastic characters to life.” While Killer Klowns is their sole feature-length film, the Chiodos’ effects can be seen in dozens of Hollywood films and television shows, including Elf, Critters and multiple episodes of The Simpsons.

When I Zoomed with Edward and Stephen Chiodo—Charlie couldn’t make it—they used stills from Killer Klowns as backgrounds, changing scenes every so often.

“We create characters and worlds according to what producers would like to see,” Stephen Chiodo says. “We don’t have tons of feature film credits, but the ones that we do have, we got lucky. We’ve gotten to do the highlight-the-key effects or the takeaway effects that people remember.”

One of their most well-known effects of all time remains “Large Marge” from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

“The way Tim [Burton] directed that sequence, it was a great ‘boo’ cut,” Stephen recalls. “We were lucky to work on that; [Pee Wee] is such an iconic character in a classic film. The Large Marge scene is only 26 frames, about a second. But it’s memorable. It’s the thing people talk about 35 years later. The ’80s was a great time for traditional effects in monster movies. We were fortunate to be involved in projects that have inspired people to keep on making them.”

Killer Klowns from Outer Space was the Chiodos’ debut film; Stephen directed, Charles and Stephen wrote the screenplay, and all three were producers. It was filmed almost entirely in Watsonville, with some scenes shot at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and other local spots. So why did the Chiodos choose Santa Cruz County for their debut feature?

“The film was so absurd that if we shot in L.A. with palm trees, it would have a Hollywood feel to it that would have made it feel artificial,” Stephen explains. “We wanted to make it more about that East Coast look—a more serious location for something so absurd to happen. We also wanted a pine tree forest and an amusement park by a pier and water, which reminded us of summer days at Rye Playland, an amusement park we used to go to on the beach in Rye, New York.”

Santa Cruz had already been on the Chiodos’ radar after The Lost Boys, so they set off on a scouting trip to check out the Boardwalk and the pier, which they felt could be the ideal spot to film a couple of Killer Klowns’ most essential scenes. On the way to downtown Santa Cruz, they hit Watsonville, which would become the fictional town of Crescent Cove.

“[Watsonville] had that small-town feel we were going for,” Stephen says. “We wanted the klowns to attack a small town in America; it could have been anywhere in the United States. Then, we shot the end parade sequence in [downtown Santa Cruz], and the Big Top Burger location was on the Boardwalk.”

Watsonville buildings, streets and parks are recognizable throughout the film, including the Goodwill on Main Street, the building that once housed the Register-Pajaronian, the former police station on Union Street, and Watsonville City Plaza, where the Killer Klowns’ deadly puppet show scene occurs.

“[Watsonville] didn’t make us go through any hoops, and was totally open and amenable to production,” Stephen says. “In Los Angeles, you need two to four policemen, firemen—it’s a way for [cities] to make money, so they tack on a lot of extras. Watsonville wasn’t like that at all. They were very lenient, and our location fees were very reasonable, which allowed us to free up money to make the movie.”

The city was helpful in other ways: One of the unforgettable moments of horror in the film, simply dubbed “the shadow gag,” involves a klown putting on a shadow puppet show against a brick wall for a group of unsuspecting people waiting at a bus stop. The wholesome shadows quickly turn evil, and the onlookers eventually succumb to a shadow T-Rex that gobbles them whole. A bus was swiftly needed to make the scene happen. Within minutes of the request, the city provided a public bus.

Logistically, the slew of challenging effects made Killer Klowns a complex film to complete. On top of that, the film takes place during one night, mostly outside, so the shooting schedule involved working primarily exteriorly from sunset to sunrise, six days per week.

Meanwhile, the crew transformed a giant newly constructed warehouse in Soquel into the klowns’ spaceship’s interior. Much of the klown-world aesthetic was created by Charlie Chiodo, who employed a lot of Memphis Design, a style characterized by specific primary colors, geometric shapes and repetitive patterns—think Pee Wee’s Playhouse. A series of tubes, cubes and balls, easy to rearrange at any time, made up most of the set, enhanced by hanging cotton candy-like pods stuffed with congealed dead bodies. Art designers created seamless matte paintings that stretched to the ceiling, but the cool coastal April weather became another hurdle in the middle of production. The paint hadn’t dried by the following morning.

“We got so far behind on that first day on set, so we decided to keep the company on at nights, so the art department could create during the day,” Edward says. “So, it ended up being six six-day weeks, all at night.”

From the warehouse, the shoot moved to Cooper Street in downtown Santa Cruz. The streets were just wide enough to get wide shots with buildings on both sides—the tight thruway between buildings was essential.

killer-klown
“Once you make a movie and release it, it takes on a life of its own,” Edward Chiodo says. Photo: Courtesy of MGM.

“[Downtown Santa Cruz] was perfect for shooting Klownzilla and the klown invasion,” Stephen says. “You could see the buildings, get that urban feel and a small-town feel all in one shot.”

The last day of shooting was May 30, 1987. When the film opened in 1988, critics expressed mixed feelings.

“A lot of reviewers didn’t get it,” Edward says. “But it was generally well-received by people who love that genre. It’s an homage to those ’50s and ’60s monster movies that we loved growing up.”

Stephen adds, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the cocoons; Forbidden Planet with the ‘Power Chamber’; The Blob with Steve McQueen—if you follow the plot, I thought it was the perfect 1950s sci-fi movie. We took that through-line and substituted it with clowns from outer space. I think a lot of people picked up on that. It has kind of a nostalgia feel. Many people think the acting was bad—it was a ’50s movie made in the ’80s, and it was exactly what we wanted. We played with that genre.”

Around the middle of the film, Killer Klowns’ campy comical schtick effortlessly transitions into more horror territory in one of the film’s most vile moments involving a klown using Deputy Curtis Mooney—played by John Vernon—as a human ventriloquist dummy.

“It was kind of a light, sci-fi comedy, then got into horror,” Stephen explains. “As soon as we get on the chase, and Mooney gets killed like that, it gets darker. I didn’t think it was a real horror film, but the horror community says that it has enough horror elements to satisfy that group. But no matter how serious we tried to make a film, I think it ends up being funny.”

Since the earliest days of the Internet, Killer Klowns has taken on a life of its own, thanks to fans.

“Over the last 35 years, we’ve enjoyed the evolution of the klown lore,” Edward says. “Some of it involves basic backstories of who they are and why they’re here—it’s quite entertaining for us to see the theories now.”

Many Killer Klown threads regularly trending on Twitter, Reddit and other back alleys of cyberspace still want to know if there will be a Killer Klowns sequel. 

“This is where we get in trouble every time we talk about it,” Stephen says. “If there were to be a sequel, 3D would be perfect for clowns, but the business is complicated. MGM, who controls the copyright, wasn’t the original studio that made the movie. There’s always a conversation, but it’s always complicated on the genre title, something like Killer Klowns, because it was not a box office success.”

In addition to video rentals, the way my brother and I happened upon Killer Klowns—a happy accident on cable television—is how a vast majority of fans first saw it. Despite a large following that continues to grow, a Killer Klowns sequel is not an easy sell.

“It’s tough to relaunch a franchise on cult classics,” Stephen explains. “Studios want something that made $50 million in a weekend.” Still, he admits, “We’ve been thinking about a sequel since we made the original.”

In 2020, Funko Pop! even released a set of Killer Klowns vinyl collectibles. The toy company contacted the Chiodos for the klowns’ names. They realized they never gave any of the klowns official names; during the shoot and on set, the crew used descriptors like “the tiny clown interacts with bikers” and “the fatso clown sucks the cocoons with a silly straw.” The tall clown was simply referred to as “Stretch” in the screenplay. Those names were just used so the costume designers and other crew members could keep track of them.

“Over the years, fans have named each of the klown characters; they’re not the names we had on set, but we let them have that now,” Stephen says. “For us to say, ‘That’s not what we called that klown?’ Fuck that! It’s great that [fans] embraced it, and it’s theirs. We made a decision not to change the names from what fans think they are [Jumbo, Shorty and Spikey are a few examples], and that’s what the Funko toys are named.”

Edward adds, “Once you make a movie and release it, it takes on a life of its own. Fan interpretations and meanings are almost as valid as our inspirations because that’s what it means to them now.”

After nearly 40 years, the Chiodo Brothers’ company is one of the oldest stop-motion outfits in Los Angeles. From stop-motion, it broadened into what the company is now: a “character-designing company with an expertise in special effects; from animatronics to miniatures to costumes.”

These days, the Chiodos are busier than they’ve ever been, as younger generations yearn for more traditional effects in the films they’re watching.

“Now, younger audiences seem to like those tangible effects that were popular in the ’80s,” Stephen says. “They like puppets, they like stop-motion, they like those physical effects as opposed to CG. It’s like a cycle like anything else. It comes back.”

Over the last two years specifically, the Chiodos have seen an explosion of demand for stop-motion. They worked with Jon Favreau on Netflix’s 2020 Alien Xmas. They recently finished work on Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, an indie stop-motion film voiced by Jenny Slate, Isabella Rossellini and other notables, currently playing the festival circuit with hopes for a wide release in 2022. The Chiodos have other projects in the works they’re not at liberty to discuss yet.

“When the time is right, we always let our fans know what we’re up to,” Stephen says. “It takes a long time to put deals together, and it’s not real until you’re sitting in the theater watching it. One thing’s for sure: we’re not going anywhere.”And it doesn’t appear as though the Killer Klowns are heading back to outer space anytime soon.

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