Why are we so afraid of clowns? Hell, I don't know, do I look like a psychiatrist? OK, maybe coulrophobics can't shake the painted-on forced whimsy or the eternal grimace of a grin, maintained even in the face of unspeakable horror... yikes. It's hard to say what makes these supposedly child-friendly jesters terrifying, but horror moviemakers knew gold when they saw it. Just in time for a new spin on Stephen King's IT (see above), here are seven great examples that speak to why we fear clowns, and how they've become an antagonistic staple of horror cinema.
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7. Poltergeist (1982)
This one claims the bottom spot not because it's a lesser film -- indeed it's one of the finest haunted house movies ever made if it's me you're asking -- but because the clown only takes up a very small segment of the funhouse of horrors. Director Tobe Hooper (or Steven Spielberg, who produced and reportedly pulled strings behind the scenes) keeps the ghostly thrills coming, from a tree to a closet to a swimming pool, but one of the most memorable jolts arrives when young Robbie Freeling tries to fall asleep with a horrific clown doll staring right at him. I won't spoil the surprise, but let's just say it right now: No child should ever have to look at this specific clown doll. Especially on a stormy night. Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, VUDU, and YouTube.
6. House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
I'm not the biggest fan of musician-turned-director Rob Zombie's films, but there's no denying that Sid Haig's go-for-broke over-the-top performance as depraved clown Captain Spaulding in 1000 Corpses is something akin to a sweaty force of nature. The rest of the freaky family, who delight in tormenting a pair of wayward couples, are fairly uninspired. But there's something palpably unhinged about Haig's performance that stands out amidst the carnage. Where to watch it: Stream it on Starz Play or Tubi TV.
5. IT (1990)
This two-part ABC mini-series seems to hold a lot of nostalgia value among horror fans of a certain age... and I'm betting that a lot of those people haven't sat through the entire thing recently. The four-hour horror tale is a little on the dry side, but one thing that does stand out (in a big way) is Tim Curry's memorably creepy performance the sewer-dwelling, kid-terrorizing, scene-stealing Pennywise the Clown. Only time will tell if Bill Skarsgard's turn in the upcoming theatrical reboot will haunt the nightmares of future generations, but it's safe to say that Curry's certainly did. Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, or Vudu.
4. We All Scream for Ice Cream (2007)
One of the more memorably enjoyable Masters of Horror episodes, this bizarre mini-movie features the great character actor William Forsythe as an undead clown who is back from the grave in order to exact revenge on the children of the people who caused his bizarre demise. Plus he's doling out ice cream that makes mean parents MELT. That's just insane. Director Tom Holland (Fright Night) strikes an amusing balance between horror and humor, and the makeup/gore effects are pretty darn impressive. Where to watch it: Rent on Vudu.
3. Stitches (2012)
If you enjoyed the "clown that comes back from the dead to wreak revenge" premise from that last one, check out this impressive Irish import that, like We All Scream for Ice Cream, manages to combine hardcore horror with some legitimately funny dark humor. British comedian Ross Noble does a solid job with the title role of Stitches the maniacal clown, and director Conor McMahon (From the Dark) keeps all the craziness moving at an appreciably brisk clip. Where to watch it: Streaming on Netflix.
2. Clown (2014)
It sounds like a pretty ridiculous premise: a man puts on a cursed clown costume only to discover that he cannot take it off. And that's probably because it is a fairly weird idea. But hey, better something new and weird than yet another spin on the whole "angry clown back from the dead" concept, right? What sounds like a premise for a 25-minute short, at best, somehow plays perfectly fine in feature length. Producer Eli Roth deserves some of the credit, of course, but Clown succeeds in large part due to its consistently unpredictable screenplay and director Jon Watts' playful approach to such bizarre material. Plus Peter Stormare shows up. Where to watch it: Streaming on Netflix.
1. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
If there's a Casablanca of killer clown movies, this is it. Often dismissed as a bad movie because of its goofy title, this is actually a very good b-movie homage/parody/throwback that succeeds on its clever screenplay, funny set pieces, weirdly creepy murders, and some truly eye-popping set design, costumes, and special effects. It may be a little cheap in some regards (and some of the acting isn't exactly Streep-like) but there's more than enough creativity and good humor to be found in this tale of interstellar clown monsters who invade a small town. Where to watch it: Streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu. But you should own this one by now!
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Scott Weinberg is a film writer and critic who has written for outlets such as Playboy, FEARnet, and Nerdist. He tweets @scotteweinberg but ignores mean people.