As Stephen King put it during our exclusive interview with him, “Clowns are scary. There’s just no way around that.” And if anyone would know about the terrors of those pasty-faced circus entertainers, it would definitely be the best-selling author, whose 1986 novel It immortalized those figures as agents of unholy evil. Thirty-one years after its publication, and 27 years after it was first adapted for the screen (with 1990’s ABC TV miniseries), that horrific tale made its way to multiplexes Sept. 8 courtesy of director Andrés Muschietti and actor Bill Skarsgård, the latter of whom dons the silver-with-orange-buttons suit as King’s unforgettable killer clown, Pennywise.
Boasting a smile designed to chill one to the bone — whether he’s spied out in the open or in his favorite region, the sewers — Skarsgård’s balloon-toting villain is sure to be this Halloween season’s signature specter. Nonetheless, he’s not the first cartoonish-looking jester to frighten both young and old moviegoers alike. In celebration of It’s premiere, we’ve compiled a list of the top 15 scariest clown movies — a gaggle of ghoulish horrors guaranteed to give one sleepless nights.
[Editor’s note: The following trailers are largely NSFW.]
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Silent film legend Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera) stars as a small-time circus clown whose nightly routine involves being slapped by his fellow clowns — a situation that proves dark, twisted, tragic, and altogether unforgettable.
Tobe Hooper’s 1982 blockbuster is primarily a haunted house film. Yet arguably its most traumatic element (at least for those who first saw it as a kid) is the unbearably creepy clown doll that occupies Oliver Robins’s bedroom — and eventually attacks the boy.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
The Chiodo Brothers’ 1988 film, about a group of clown-like aliens who visit our planet in order to murder and consume humans, is a cult classic of a distinctly goofy variety. Nonetheless, its circus-freak villains remain some of the most memorably menacing ever committed to film.
Before finding fame with Jeepers Creepers, director Victor Salva delivered this Sundance Film Festival hit about a trio of deranged lunatics who prey upon a house full of kids — with one of the disguised killers played by none other than Sam Rockwell in his feature-film debut.
The Clown at Midnight (1999)
An opera house is plagued by a mysterious killer dressed as a clown — years after an earlier murder — in this 1999 slasher film, which is most notable for co-starring Margot Kidder and Christopher Plummer.
There are few cruder efforts in this horror subgenre than Killjoy, a blaxploitation-ish saga about a demonic clown with a fondness for bloodshed (and a taste for women). Still, its title-character villain is a cult favorite — and one who reappeared in four sequels.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003) / The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Rob Zombie’s first two features are tonally different beasts — the former more carnivalesque, the latter grittier. However, they’re linked by Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding, a psycho in clown makeup who serves as the parental figure for both films’ clan of unhinged sadists.
Mark Holton was dastardly in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but he’s outright abominable as real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy in this 2003 biopic, which naturally puts an emphasis on its subject’s habit of working as a clown at local children’s hospitals.
100 Tears (2007)
After being falsely accused of horrific crimes, a circus clown responds by perpetrating some legitimate ones of his own in Marcus Koch’s scuzzy 2007 indie — a saga that’s as bleakly absurd as it is unnerving.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his role as the Clown Prince of Crime in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight, in the process delivering arguably the finest villainous performance in superhero cinema history.
The Last Circus (2010)
With reckless abandon, director Alex de la Iglesia crafts a delirious horror-black-comedy with this Franco-era period piece about the battle for the soul of Spain — an allegorical war that’s waged, in large part, by murderous machete- and machine-gun-wielding clowns.
A perverted birthday clown accidentally dies at a kid’s party and is then resurrected by his demonic compatriots — sending him on a mission of revenge against the adolescents whom he blames for his demise — in this gory low-budget effort.
All Hallows’ Eve (2013)
A VHS tape obtained via trick-or-treating reveals three tales of murder and mayhem, all of it courtesy of a lunatic known as Art the Clown, in Damien Leone’s modern grindhouser, which will soon receive a sequel (Terrifier).
Before he took the reins of Spider-Man: Homecoming, director Jon Watts indulged his nastier impulses with this 2014 genre affair, about a man who puts on an ancient clown suit and then discovers that he can’t take it off — because he’s physically merging with it.
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