- Comic performers who entertain with eccentric costumes, exaggerated features and/or various forms of physical humour.
- The single most evil and horrifying creatures of all-time. Ever.
It’s safe to say clowns are divisive, but regardless of where you stand on the entertaining/terrifying debate, there’s simply no denying their cultural significance. From their origins as court jesters to innocent, child-friendly entertainers, and eventually horror icons as sinister, child-eating movie monsters, clowns have remained a permanent fixture in cinema since it began.
With David Ayer’s Joker-led Suicide Squad on the horizon, I’ve cast my eye over years of cinema to compile film’s best clowns; whether they’re the banana-skin-slipping funnymen simply trying to make us laugh or the menacing evildoers more interested in hurting us really, really bad.
Stitches (Stitches – 2012)
Stitches, in a surprise turn from Geordie comic Ross Noble, is a clown you’d regret hiring in life, but in death, he’s a clown you’d regret crossing.
We meet him as a tragic, drunken children’s entertainer bumbling through lazy routines like Krusty or Bobcat Goldthwait’s Shakes the Clown, but after falling foul to a prank and literally falling onto a knife, he’s resurrected for an encore; getting his revenge. Armed with killer one-liners, painful puns, and a bottomless bag of murderous tricks, Stitches combines Freddy’s piercing charm with Jason’s savagery to become one of cinema’s great slasher killers.
Lou Costello (37 films – 1940-1959)
Lou Costello’s clownish antics are comical on their own, but it’s when his childlike demeanour collides with Bud Abbott’s acerbic wit as a caustic straight-man that always brings the most laughs.
The joyous camaraderie, hilarious hamminess, and genius wordplay of this little and large duo – exemplified by their signature routine “Who’s On First?” – was a huge success ever since their vaudevillian origins, but it was after a transition to the big screen where Abbott and Costello became household names as masters of the straight-man/clown partnership.
Dumbo (Dumbo – 1941)
Memories of Disney’s charming animated classic of a shy circus elephant with supersized ears are ingrained in a generation of moviegoers, but it’s easy to forget our little Dumbo was in fact a clown; albeit an elephant dressed as a clown.
It’s far from a pleasant experience mind you, as Dumbo is exploited, humiliated, and placed in incredible danger for the ringmaster’s cruel acts, but all of the torment ensures that the joyous crescendo when our remarkable hero realises his potential, overcomes adversity, and reunites with his mother is all the more fulfilling.
Killer Klowns (Killer Klowns From Outer Space – 1988)
Clowns have always harboured a dark side, but it was after a real-life “Killer Clown” shocked America in the seventies where they became really scary; typically the film industry reacted.
The titular antagonists from The Chiodo Brothers’ sci-fi horror were one in a long line of killer clowns to emerge from this new subgenre of horror cinema. They may not be the most famous, but as a species of malevolent aliens with grotesque drooping smiles, revolting makeup, and a myriad of crazy weapons hell-bent on harvesting humans for food, they’re certainly the most peculiar.
Clown Doll (Poltergeist – 1982 / Poltergeist – 2015)
Another member of film’s horror clowns, and arguably the first, is the Freeling siblings’ spine-chilling doll. When we see that sinister grin and those dead eyes at the beginning of the film we all know what’s coming, but that doesn’t stop the possession sequence at the end of Tobe Hooper’s original film being one of horror’s scariest moments.
The demonic Poltergeist clown is so iconic that it was used as the figurehead of the marketing campaign for the Sam Rockwell-led 2015 remake.
Buster Keaton (59 films – 1920-1966)
After a chance meeting with one of cinema’s original silent clowns, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a young Buster Keaton abandoned thoughts of Broadway, opting instead for a career in moviemaking; he never looked back.
“No one falls like Buster”, because his comical and daring stunts were unlike anything film had seen before. By performing his own acrobatic and often ridiculous stunts, all the while maintaining the same deadpan expression, Keaton mastered the art of slapstick and “The Great Stone Face” rose to become one of the most popular and successful comic actor/directors of the silent era.
Laurel and Hardy (106 films – 1927-1951)
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; those loveable vagabonds, whose legacy as film clowns still remains today.
They complemented each other perfectly and shared an unrivalled chemistry with Laurel as a thin, nervous blunderer and Hardy as his plump, overbearing counterpart reacting furiously to and often exaggerating whatever fine mess they’d gotten into.
But what made these silver screen jesters such legends of the screen was their longevity. Unlike so many silent clowns they successfully negotiated the decline of silent cinema and embraced the talkies to continue working together for many years, creating over 100 films and securing their positon as the greatest comedy double act of all-time.
Pennywise (It – 1990)
The reason why the relatively new phrase coulrophobia, a fear of clowns, was coined. Stitches, Killer Klowns, possessed clown dolls and many others have frightened audiences over the years, but no onscreen killer clown scares like Pennywise.
Supremely portrayed by Tim Curry, the all-singing, all-dancing, all-killing monster at the centre of Stephen King’s tale is that of nightmares. It’s a shapeshifting terror that manifests itself as it’s victims’ worst fears, but spends most of its time as Pennywise the Clown; which suggests clowns are universally terrifying… they are.
Curry’s performance set the bar for all evil clowns who dared to follow and with New Line Cinema’s planned remake of It side-lined it may yet be a while until we see it bettered.
The Tramp (12 films – 1914-1936)
One of cinema’s most iconic figures born from the mind of a genius. With his ill-fitting clothes, swinging cane, toothbrush moustache, and that funny little walk, Charlie Chaplin’s melancholic, naïve character clown was beloved around the world during cinema’s silent era; whose legacy remains today.
As a luckless, accident-prone victim of circumstance, The Little Tramp’s slapstick antics provided countless laughs in films such as The Kid, City Lights and Modern Times, but what set Chaplin apart from all other clowns was his seemingly innocent physical comedy was laced with a biting political satire and powerful social commentary.
He moulded The Tramp into a similar-looking character for The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first talkie, and while his transition from silent cinema wasn’t entirely successful his parody of Hitler and his fascist regime would be remembered as one of cinema’s greatest.
The Joker (Batman: The Movie – 1966 / Batman – 1989 / Batman Forever – 1995 / The Dark Knight – 2008 / Suicide Squad – 2016)
Batman’s green-haired, purple-suited nemesis has been terrorising audiences since the sixties, but over various iterations in film one thing has remained the same; whenever The Joker is present – whether it’s Cesar Romero’s light-hearted, practical jokester, Jack Nicholson’s mad killer, Heath Ledger’s ruthless, Oscar-winning anarchist, or, hopefully, Jared Leto’s tattooed maniac – he always steals the show.
With a maniacal laugh, chemically-bleached white-face, and perma-smile, The Joker is certainly a clown, but he’s no fool and it’s his genius criminal mind that makes him not only film’s longest serving clown, but also one of it’s most iconic villains.
From using basic joke-based traps to terrorising an entire city, Gotham’s cruellest has grown ever darker over the years and his fourth interpretation looks set to be the darkest yet as he’s finally let loose for his own film as leader of the Suicide Squad.