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The 5 best and 5 worst clown movies

Clowns: you may remember them from your childhood as the objectively terrifying middle-aged men in makeup who insisted on painting your face and twisting balloons into animal shapes. We always instinctively knew there was something off about them, and in more recent years, the veil has been lifted on their sinister ways. Popular culture has drawn back the curtain and, in so doing, exposed supposedly benign children's entertainers for what they really are: serial killers, extra-dimensional monstrosities, supervillains, aliens, and, in particularly severe cases, Jerry Lewis.

With so much relatively new information on the dastardly intentions of clowns being immortalized on film, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Luckily, there are still brave cultural champions willing to wade through the great primordial pool of greasepaint and honking noses, splitting the genius from the unwatchable. We're here to bring you the five best — and five worst — clown movies.

Worst: The Day the Clown Cried (1972)

There was a time in America when Jerry Lewis lorded over the landscape of comedy movies. His professors were nutty. He more or less had a lane.

And then, one day, he swerved hard and decided to make a World War II period drama called The Day The Clown Cried. It is a movie as infamous for its awfulness as it is shrouded in mystery. Lewis famously hated the end result so deeply that he had the movie buried. What was this masterpiece about? Take a deep breath and let's dive in.

Lewis plays a nutty ol' clown who gets (wait for it) nabbed by the Nazis after making fun of Hitler and ends up leading children into the gas chambers with his whimsy. Yeah, it was a drag, top to bottom. At least, that's what we're left to believe; The Day the Clown Cried never made it to theaters, and has only been supposedly seen by a small circle of people. The closest we've come to seeing the picture in full has been through the fragments that have been surfaced and interviews with Lewis himself — who called it, and this is a quote, "Bad, bad, bad."

Best: Terrifier (2016)

If you haven't seen Terrifier, congratulations on your ability to sleep a full eight hours without waking up in a cold sweat, but maybe stop bragging about it so much. 

An indie film that sat on the shelf for a few years before being released, Terrifier is one of those rare horror movies that doesn't seem to feel the need to over-explain its villain. The audience knows that he's a clown, probably with some demonic whatnots going on under his monochrome facade, and you know what? That's about it. He's silent, grinning, and more than delighted to go on a trip to Slaughtertown any time he can. He stalks, stabs, slinks, and smiles. He's a 21st century nightmare. 

Terrifier is a low-budget horror movie spinning off of an even lower-budget short film, and it's got "love letter to the good old days of horror" dripping off of it like viscera off a clown monster's chainsaw. It has gory practical effects. It has party girls getting mutilated. Darn it all, it has a clown turning a transient into a suit made out of skin. If you're down with the macabre, slasher throwback sickness, it's 100% worth looking up.

Worst: It (1990)

All right, knuckleheads, it's time for some tough love. 1990's It? Charming. A slice of horror filmmaking from a simpler time. And you know what else? Just a little bit agonizing to watch without the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia sitting on the end of your nose.

Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise is fantastic — it's the movie around him, hampered by a made-for-TV budget and content restrictions, that hasn't aged well. There's the barely-animated giant spider at the conclusion. There's the rough acting and the dramatic screaming about Pennywise being too mean and the painful realization that Seth Green may have been roughly the same age his entire life. There's the filmmakers' steadfast faith in the usually outstanding Harry Anderson's comedic stylings being able to carry the day, only to watch him uncharacteristically drop the ball like a cibophobic kid playing hot potato.

Just shy of three decades later, It holds a place in pop culture history as quite possibly being the reason that every other millennial seems to be afraid of clowns. Watched with fresh eyes, though? Not very scary at all.

Best: Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

The words "so bad it's good" have been thrown around so much that they've pretty much lost all meaning at this point. Cultural interpretations of what's camp and what's just vanilla-flavored lameness ebb and flow over time. Somewhere, floating atop the tides of our willingness to accept silliness, there is the unsinkable ship that is Killer Klowns from Outer Space. 

Killer Klowns is a tough movie to sell on paper. No two ways about it, it's the story of a species of alien invaders who look, act, and accessorize like clowns. Their ships look like a circus tent and they kill with an array of weapons running the gamut from popcorn guns to living balloon animal attack dogs. It's pretty much the perfect movie if you live in places like Washington, Colorado, or across the hall from a guy who introduced himself by asking if you're a cop. There are even rumblings of an upcoming sequel from the original creators.

Worst: Gacy (2003)

Throughout much of the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy sexually assaulted and murdered dozens of boys and young men, burying some in his crawl space and disposing of others in a nearby river. His list of atrocities is so long that we'll likely never know the exact number of deaths for which he was responsible. When the details of Gacy's crimes are laid out, the lion's share of humanity is inclined to instinctively recoil in horror and disgust — but a small sliver of the world's population veers left and says "Now that's a picture!"

Released in 2003 under the names Gacy and The Crawl Space, this true-crime depiction of the life of John Wayne Gacy juxtaposes his sadism against his gigs working as a clown for local events. Exploitative and sensationalist, it also stars the guy who played Pee-Wee's bully in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in the title role, cementing its place as a huge drag by making it hard not to wonder what Francis' real intentions were when he lured Pee-Wee into his house. 

Best: It and It: Chapter Two (2017/2019)

When it was first announced that Stephen King's It was being re-adapted for the big screen, fans of the 1990 TV movie might have been skeptical — but that lasted exactly as long as it took for them to see a picture of Bill Skarsgård in character as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, at which point they, like all of us, quit their jobs, changed their identities, moved across the country and hoped that he'd never be able to find them.

The new It movies aren't perfect. The CGI can be less than impressive, and there are unsatisfying moments. But as adaptations of million-page books about trans-dimensional ageless horrors go, they're just a gosh-darned hoot. They manage to pull believable performances out of the child stars, which is sort of the filmmaking equivalent of landing on Mars. Also, and this point can't be stressed enough, Bill Hader has never, not once, done anything but make everything he touches better by orders of magnitude.

Worst: Clownhouse (1989)

Oh, Clownhouse. You're the gift that keeps on… well, not giving. Existing. Nobody can ever deny that you exist.

1989's Clownhouse is a slasher in the same vein as every other low-budget entry in the genre from that era. It follows the story of Casey, Geoffrey, and Randy, three brothers being stalked by a trio of escaped mental patients dressed as clowns and lusting for blood. There are silly misunderstandings and merry mixups, as tends to happen in these situations. At one point, a young Sam Rockwell gets stabbed into unconsciousness. The movie ends with a title card reading "No man can hide from his fears; as they are a part of him, they will always know where he is hiding."

And you know what? That would've been a middlingly memorable ending to an unremarkable movie if it wasn't for the real-world horror happening behind the scenes on the set of the film. Director Victor Salva molested one of Clownhouse's child stars, and was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison — ultimately serving less than half of his sentence before popping back onto the scene to direct Powder in 1995. His career has continued with movies like Darkhouse, the Jeepers Creepers franchise, and a constant low-grade public curiosity as to how the hell this guy still has a career.

Best: Zombieland (2009)

There are arguably a number of characters in Zombieland who could be considered its star. Jesse Eisenberg is the audience surrogate, Emma Stone steals her scenes, Woody Harrelson is what every self-identified alpha male would see if they looked into a magic mirror that shows them their aspirations, and Abigail Breslin kicks ass in a part significantly removed from the Little Miss Sunshine situation she'd been associated with. And then there's Bill Murray's unexpected, legendary cameo, a magical scene that people still talk about a decade later. 

But maybe the real hero is that clown in the third act. More than just a final boss fight, he's the representation of all of Columbus' fears and self-defeating neuroses — a totem for everything that needs to be defeated. Through vanquishing him, Columbus manages to self-actualize and become a better man.

Also, it's just really cathartic watching him get smashed over the head with a carnival hammer.

Worst: Big Money Rustlas (2010)

Over the years, it has become almost a rite of passage for a successful band to dip their toes into the world of Hollywood. The Beatles had classics like Help! and Yellow Submarine. The Spice Girls irrevocably changed the geography and political structure of the Earth when they terraformed the planet into a newer, better Spice World. And in 2010, a posse of chemically imbalanced clowns proved once and for all that just because you can't figure out magnets doesn't mean you can't run a camera.

Big Money Rustlas is the long-awaited prequel to 2001's Big Money Hustlas, the first Insane Clown Posse movie, and tells the timeless tale of the previously mentioned Insane Clowns and their adventures in the American Old West. Visually, it appears to have been shot on a budget of whatever loose change was wedged into the cushions of their Insane Clown couches. The script seems to have been less "written" and more "found somewhere."

Big Money Rustlas was pretty obviously a movie made for the fans. It's goofy and weird. There's an objectively brilliant fight scene in which one of the combatants is replaced with a rag doll and smashed against stuff for what feels like an hour, but if you don't care about ICP, the whole thing is borderline unwatchable.

Best: Shakes the Clown (1991)

Bobcat Goldthwait is a national treasure. Once a comedian and actor known for his aggressively annoying persona, he's become a director whose movies tend to be tragic, complicated, peculiar, excessive, and agonizing. Before World's Greatest Dad and God Bless America, he wrote and directed a movie called Shakes the Clown, and it's been dividing critics and audiences ever since.

The elevator pitch version is that it's the story of an alcoholic birthday clown who's framed for murder and has to outfox the borderline Mad Max-level gangs of performers who rule the entertainment circuit. The more complicated version is that it's Goldthwait's representation of the comedy cliques that exist at every open mic community in America. It watches like garlic: you'll either hate it or want it on everything. Some critics called it amazing. Some called it terrible. Martin Scorsese called it the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies. Art is subjective, and there's no right answer, but if nothing else, Shakes the Clown is the only movie ever to feature a cameo by Robin Williams under the assumed name Marty Fromage.