The True ABCs of Death: K is for Klown

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Suggested Audio Cotton Candies ♫

 

[1] Jerry Goldsmith “Poltergeist”

[2] The Dickies “Killer Klowns from Outer Space”

[3] Richard Bellis “It”

[4] Insane Clown Posse ft. Danny Brown “When I’m Clownin”

[5] Noir Deco “All Hallow’s Eve”

[6] Melanie Martinez “Carousel”

[7] John Carpenter “Halloween”

[8] Insane Clown Posse “Jump Around”

 

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Before you all go grabbing your dictionaries, let me start by saying that I am fully aware of the correct spelling for the word “clown”. However, I have no intention of talking about the jolly jesters responsible for tickling our funny bones today. You see, “klowns” are an altogether different strain and any laughs come at our expense only. These cantankerous fiends are still known for their sense of humor and love nothing more than to play to an audience. But they’re not to be trusted under any circumstances whatsoever as their techniques are a long way from kosher. Horror is a second home for them and there’s a reason for that too as many of us have an illogical fear of their painted faces. For me, the ringleader of this rowdy circus was Tobe Hooper and, given that he had already made Texas a far from welcoming holiday destination a decade earlier, I guess I should have seen those klown shoes coming.

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In 1982 he teamed up with Steven Spielberg for big budget crowdpleaser Poltergeist and provided me with another reason not to sleep soundly in my bed each night. Poor Robbie Freeling came off worst as it was his wits that were frayed as a result of the ominous smiling assassin perched on the chair at the end of his bed. As if it wasn’t disheartening enough fending off wayward tree branches as he attempted to grab his eight hours, the klown in question decided to pile on the agony by playing a little game of hide-and-seek with the youngster for its own sick shits and giggles. We all know how it played out by now and, should we not have had the dubious pleasure, Gil Kenan offered a gentle reminder in 2015 with his by-the-numbers studio reboot. Alas, second time around was far less of a charm and, like everything about the remake, it lacked the raw terror of Hooper’s sideshow. However, the damage had already been done by that point.

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“Klowns” were now squarely on my radar alongside porcelain dolls and other suchlike smiling assassins. Being the shameless chill seeker that I am, this didn’t stop me from harboring a deep fascination with harlequins as I hang out for reasons to be fearful and they supply plentiful motivation. Fortunately, I wasn’t made to wait long before the circus came to town once again as Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro had itself something of a doozy. However, this particular joker wasn’t hell-bent on tormenting pre-teens and, instead, granted the darkest wishes of young Tony Phillips. Moreover, there was no stuffing or inanimate status. This pint-sized Pierrot was very much real and had plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

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So how’s this for starters? A far less than benign wobbly hammer and a razor-sharp kaleidoscopic yo-yo. Not impressed yet? Okay then, how about the ability to turn Tony’s toys into vessels of destruction? That’s right, a 7ft Action Man complete with bayonet and bolt-cutters was just one of the tools in his armory. Then there was a murderous tank capable of firing authentic shells. Shit, he may have been dwarven but he even had space for a prowling panther in his inventory. However, perhaps most disparaging for anyone other than Tony, was this klown’s personal collection of extraterrestrial oviums. He converted Tony’s bathroom into his very own henhouse and there wasn’t a rooster in sight to clench its buttocks. Instead, wall-mounted au-pair Analise acted as a life-sized Pez dispenser and spawned said eggs from a giant phallic chute situated dead center of her cocooned haunch.

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Tony was positively thrilled with his new best friend and it provided him with the best pastime while waiting for his estranged father to pop by and give him an alien love bite. Had I mentioned that his pops had recently been reborn fully grown after years of anal probing aboard an intergalactic vessel? Must have slipped my mind. You see, Xtro was chock-full of bizarre moments such as middle-aged men chomping through their own umbilical cords and all the better for it. Moreover, “klowns” were here to stay and I was all-in way before the flop was ever necessitated. Unfortunately, it took a little while before other filmmakers cottoned on and, by 1988, I was beginning to lose heart. That was until Stephen Chiodo weighed in and even got the spelling correct to boot. Killer Klowns from Outer Space played it strictly for laughs but did so with a straight enough face to pull it off convincingly.

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Once again, the big top in question was amidst the stars on the outskirts of our solar system only, this time, the terror was pluralized. Granted, tongue was never far from Chiodo’s cheek as the town of Crescent Cove became a carnival of carnage but the titular klowns certainly weren’t playing. Armed with toxic cotton candy, carnivorous shadow puppets, and bolshy balloon animals, the circus was anything but charitable towards the unwitting locals and it was left to resourceful teenagers Mike and Debbie to put the skids on their reign of destruction. Ordinarily I’m not a fan of horror laced with knowing humor but Chiodo struck the right balance and the stars of his show were just macabre enough to achieve the desired effect. It’s all in the smile you see, there’s something to be said for an antagonist who is visibly having a ball at your expense. Leatherface barely ever cracked a grin and that was all well and good as he got by on being one hench motherfucker with a meat tenderizer and rickety sliding door to play peek-a-boo from behind. Not to mention a fully tanked chainsaw and meat hooks. But klowns lulled us into a false sense of security before hitting us with their spring-loaded boxing gloves when we were least expecting it.

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Victor Salva’s Clownhouse arrived a year later and decided against sublunar shenanigans for a trio of more earthy terrors. Three disguised escaped mental patients made life a living hell for young Casey and his two older brothers. Salva’s film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival but went on to become known for entirely different reasons. Its director was charged with sexual abuse towards one of the child stars and served 15 months jail time after being found guilty. This controversy overshadowed the film itself and, truth be known, this wasn’t hard as it was fairly unremarkable fare. That said, it is worth tracking down for a rainy day view as long as a lack of grue doesn’t faze you. Knowing that these particular klowns were mortal nutbags made for a relatively tense affair and they certainly weren’t fooling around.

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However, in 1990, they were all but forgotten as another joker entered the fray and this was the last klown on earth you’d wish to spot in a storm drain clutching balloons. Tommy Lee Wallace’s three-hour plus made for TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It was something of a game of two halves and frittered much of its momentum as it careered towards its mildly preposterous conclusion.

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However, one factor Wallace got bang on the money was the casting of Pennywise The Dancing Clown himself and Tim Curry was no stranger to spending hours in a make-up chair, having already gifted us Dr Frank-N-Furter and the Prince of Darkness himself previously. This inter-dimensional predatory life-form boasted the ability to transform into the very worst fear of a group of outcast kids called The Losers Club. It turned out, their name was somewhat fitting as luck was something they were shit out of once Pennywise introduced himself.

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Hapless six-year-old Georgie came off worst as he fell for the oldest trick in any klown’s book – the candy/balloon bargaining tool combo and ended up a human toothpick. Speaking of which, I’m not convinced about Pennywise’s dental plan as any tooth fairy would require additional danger money to compensate him for any spent incisors. Curry was a truly terrifying proposition and, with horror about to enter into an extended hiatus, left us with an interminable stain for our psyches to carry forth into the new millennium. Indeed, the nineties offered little work for klowns and, by 1999, desperate measures were taken. To his eternal credit, Brad Sykes somehow managed to build his long-running Camp Blood series around a machete-wielding klown but that’s about all the kudos I can spare as this was bottom of the barrel stuff and hardly the comeback we had been hoping for.

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On a budget of what one would presume was a whole bunch of favors and a $500 payday loan, Sykes took the old-school slasher route and Camp Blackwood offered the playground for some decidedly low-rent slash and stalk shenanigans. Only the truly hardcore need apply as Camp Blood is many things and most of them aren’t repeatable at bible study. However, for as much as it sucked more than Monica Lewinsky at a Punch & Judy show, there can be no knocking his entrepreneurial spirit. Hell it even spawned a musical titled – drumroll – Camp Blood: The Musical. Given that work was so thin on the ground for klowns come the turn of the century, at least they were back on the agenda.

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Before the millennium streamers could be taken down, Craig Ross Jr. got in on the act with the similarly questionable Killjoy. Once again, quantity was preferred to quality and three sequels followed, all churned out by Charles Band’s production house Full Moon Features. Admittedly Ángel Vargas played the klown of the title with great relish and, regardless of the film’s numerous foibles, wasn’t lacking in the presence department. However, the moment when a street hood empties a fair few clips into a jovial Killjoy only to discover that he wasn’t the only one capable of busting caps and come a cropper to an oral drive-by courtesy of the klown’s machine gun motor mouth, pretty much says it all. Was this what it had all come down to? It was high time that somebody stuck their neck on the line and restored a little pride before the joke wore thin.

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Enter Clive Saunders who, in 2003, adopted a different approach with his biographical-drama Gacy. Telling the tale of notorious real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, this was made all the more unsettling by the truth of its origins as Gacy was seen as a model citizen and even volunteered at a local children’s hospital, parading as a harmless clown. With the bodies of over thirty teenage boys unearthed in the crawl space beneath his home, this sicko was crying out for cinematic representation and Saunders’s film did a reasonably astute job of reminding us never to trust a man in size twenty-six shoes. However, the klown resurgence was slight and the early noughties became a breeding ground for cheap and cheerful time wasters. Kevin Kangas’s Fear of Clowns and Rick Walker’s The Fun Park were the pick of a fairly rancid crop that also included the likes of Hellbreeder, Mr. Jingles and ropy anthology When Evil Calls. Then, in 2007, it finally ended in tears and Gurdy had 100 to share.

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Renowned FX Maestro Marcus Koch’s 100 Tears made up for what it lacked in bankable sheen with some decidedly dastardly demises and Gurdy wasn’t found wanting when it came to meanness of spirit. Wielding a ludicrously oversized cleaver and with one helluva shoulder chip to share, this hulking horror made short and messy work of anyone who walked in his path and didn’t stop there either. Indeed, paraplegics weren’t shown special favors and, after decapitating one such wheelchair-bound wantaway atop a stairwell, he added insult to injury by releasing her brakes and not-so-gently ushering her chariot southbound. Koch found just the right balance between humorous and sinister and Gurdy was absolutely no laughing matter. The result is a film which any self-respecting Gruehead should consider affording an audience as blood flow is never a concern here and practical effects are something that Koch has proved to be a dab-hand in time and again.

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Also arriving in the same twelve month period was Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn’s spirited slasher Drive-Thru and, while some way from a classic, splatter was the order of the day and that was precisely what fast food restaurant mascot cum vicious killer Horny The Clown served up. With a name like Hella Burger, ketchup was never likely to be in short supply and Horny provided numerous quick-witted taunts and inane innuendo as additional side relish as he cut all manner of disposable teens into fries. Should you be easily pleased, then Kuhn’s film will likely turn your frown upside down although, much like the fast food of this particular eatery, you’ll be famished again ten minutes after the credits roll and likely sporting mild gut rot to boot so don’t go bursting a brow vessel tracking it down.

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John Simpson’s 2008 film Amusement opted for an anthology-style approach and largely fell flat, despite showing no end of early promise. That said, the second vignette charting the plight of Tabitha was easily the most effective on offer and riffed on the age-old inanimate harlequin in a chair in a thunderstorm number à la Poltergeist only, this time, there was no toy box large enough to banish it. Simpson made the very most of a fairly basic scenario and drew things out admirably before going in for the kill. Granted, this amounted to little more than the expected empty rocking chair revelation but, where klowns are involved, that’s all it takes to encourage a coronary. The film isn’t half bad but much of its potential has been squandered come the closing act. However, for twenty minutes or so, it can’t be accused of not earning its stripes.

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While we’re on the topic of bite-sized scares, Michael Emanuel’s entry from five-piece 2012 anthology Scary or Die simply named Clowned was utterly priceless. If Corbin Bleu was looking to shed his Disney image, then playing a drug dealer who develops a hankering for human flesh after receiving a bite from a birthday party klown by the name of Fucko is a considerable step away from High School Musical.

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Moreover, Bleu is excellent as the ill-fated Emmett and Emanuel’s story succeeds in far more than simply scaring its audience. Indeed, his plight was more tragic than anything else and, by the time his metamorphosis was complete, I just desired to hire somebody whose safe keeping wasn’t particularly important to me to give poor Emmett a hug. There have been better anthologies but few better joy nuggets than Emanuel’s and I implore you all to offer it your consideration.

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Continuing the theme, Damien Leone’s 2011 short Terrifier is now being converted into a full-length feature as Leone looks to develop Art The Clown further and with damn good reason. Alarmingly, I have read precious few kind words about his grossly overlooked 2013 compendium All Hallow’s Eve and this saddens my soul as it has ominous atmosphere to spare and is only concerned with one solitary thing, that being to unsettle and sicken in turn. We are presented with two klowns for the price of one and I would have absolutely no intention of running into either of these hell fiends in the dead of night.

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Whatever this film’s many detractors were smoking when they passed their judgement, it evidently wasn’t a patch on what I was smoking when I granted it 83 minutes of my time and, needless to say, it receives my full and enthusiastic endorsement. Should you not have a good time then some uncomfortable questions and a wagging finger will be your penance from Keeper. It’s that black and white on this occasion.

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Leone’s dick may be supremely tasty but I feel obliged to suck Conor McMahon’s too while I’ve got my lip gloss on. You see, in 2012, he gave the world Stitches and also got it bang on the money. Played with great vigor by popular English stand-up comedian Ross Noble, Richard “Stitches” Grindle was a delight to share 86 minutes with and, despite a tendency to spout one-liners and reach for our funny bones with hit-and-miss results, had far too much charisma to hold accountable.

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Moreover, he used every trick in a klown’s repertoire to make his point and, when he did, it was in no uncertain terms to the tune of numerous instances of glorious gushing grue. This entailed balloon animals being fashioned from freshly plucked intestines, dishing up brain food with an ice-cream scoop, using umbrellas as javelins and opening them on impact to achieve spectacular geysers, pumping enough hot air into craniums to make the weasel go pop, and using his wanderlusting red nose as a tracking device as he searched for another victim to obliterate.

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The fable of Stitches is fascinating in itself as it involves a ritual whereby each perished klown receives their own painted egg and this allows them to return from the grave and exact their harsh revenge for as long as said yolk isn’t spilt. However, where intriguing folklore is concerned, Jon Watts had it licked with his well-regarded 2014 chiller Clown.

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When real-estate agent and devoted husband and family man Kent McCoy decided to don a clown suit he found at one of his properties after his son’s birthday entertainer cancelled at the eleventh hour, he must’ve felt like daddy of the decade and he still wore that shit-eating grin as he fell asleep on the sofa, exhausted from the day’s exertions. However, he hadn’t banked on the “Cloyne”. To those of you unfamiliar, the Cloyne was an ancient Northern European incubus which lured children to its lair to devour many years ago. Alas, for Kent, the label on his costume read Cloynewear, which made him an unwitting accessory to bouts of all-too-tempting kid slaughter.

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At first, it appeared as though his most pressing concern was the fact that Cloynewear wasn’t fitted with a handy zipper for moments when one’s bladder exceeds capacity. Then there was the red nose and Technicolor perm, both of which fused with his own flesh and refused to budge. With no news being good news, learning that the rest of his short existence will be devoted to hunting down pre-scholars and licking the marrow from their bones was the very last straw and Kent was forced into hiding while he searched for a solution that simply didn’t exist. All the while, his stomach was growling ever louder and his son Jack was beginning to resemble a rack of ribs in sticky barbecue sauce. Like the aforementioned Clowned, Watts managed to tug a fair few heart-strings en route to the film’s bloody conclusion and, with Eli Roth impressed enough with his endeavor to take on production duties, it made for a slick and entertaining package.

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Meanwhile, Joe Dante’s 2009 blockbuster The Hole may well have been deemed as family friendly fodder but, given that Dante’s back catalogue includes the likes of Piranha and The Howling, he was never likely to pass up the opportunity for slightly less than mild peril and there were some genuinely scary moments amidst the usual PG-13 shenanigans and none more so than those involving a certain cunning jester puppet. This was dreadful news for ten-year-old Lucas who unwittingly found himself the sole of focus of said klown’s attentions as it pulled the old Poltergeist musical statues trick to typically disconcerting effect. Perched on the cellar steps with a look of “I’m going to floss with your giblets” and “your plucked eyeballs would make the most delightful lychees” grin, there was nothing mild about this particular peril.

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Of all the recent klowns however, none have been so effortlessly unnerving as Twisty the Clown from the fourth series of hugely successful FX series American Horror Story, namely Freak Show. If Pennywise owned the monopoly on tooth decay, then Twisty was surely most at risk of gingivitis an account of possessing no discernible jaw to keep them in-line.

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Known for unsolicited outbursts of brutal violence and numerous counts of kidnapping youngsters, Twisty was also fairly handy at covering ground in record time and showed no leniency whatsoever whenever the opportunity for bloodletting presented itself. This sicko would think less than once before bludgeoning the life out of you with his bowling pins and make sure that the last thing you ever saw were the bloodshot whites of his glaring eyes as he did so.

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I’ve left two of my favorite klowns for last and the first is most likely to be found skulking around in the shadow of Gotham City. There have been many Jokers in the rich history of Batman but none quite as chillingly devilish as the late Heath Ledger for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Earning him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar posthumously, it remains one of the finest dramatic performances in modern cinema and played a major part in making sure Nolan’s sequel totally eclipsed its already excellent original. Taking method acting to a whole new level, Ledger became so at one with his character that the darkness began to bleed through and many say that he never fully recovered from the undertaking. Now that is what you call commitment Grueheads.

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However, it feels too sombre ending on such a sad note so our final destination is ironically Texas and a decidedly chipper gas station attendant just as likely to book you in for a colonoscopy with Dr. Satan as he was to pump your fuel. When Captain Spaulding wasn’t applying the finishing touches to his Museum of Monsters & Madmen, he could normally be found knocking about at the House of 1000 Corpses with suchlike deviants. Rob Zombie owned this particular freehold and decked it out with all manner of undesirables for our personal pleasure.

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However, good old Cap’n Spaulding was on meet-and-greet and there could be no finer ringleader for Zombie’s exploitation carnival. Refusing to make it a one night only affair, The Devil’s Rejects then provided more of that Southern-fried center stage goodness and all eyes were on three things: the brace of nectarinal buttocks belonging to Sheri Moon-Zombie’s Vera-Ellen “Baby” Firefly and Sid Haig’s full grill of yellow teeth.

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In the interest of keeping the circus swinging for just a dash longer, a couple of other harlequins have just popped up in my frontal lobe and it wouldn’t seem fair to snub them their bragging rights. First up comes courtesy of Mark Rosman’s above-par 1983 dorm slasher The House on Sorority Row and, in truth, was little more than a supporting role as the klown in question didn’t even enter the fray until well into the closing act and was presented with merely a single moment to shine. That said, the chance didn’t go a begging and, of all the reasons never to venture into my dusty attic, this one was up there with the box of shady home movies from Sinister.

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Our final prankster offered proof that klowns recruit at any age and John Carpenter’s Halloween didn’t make us wait for front row seats as it introduced troubled six-year-old Michael Myers to his mother’s cutlery and placed us right inside his mask as we ogled his older sister Judith’s perky pink pellets through means of POV. Personally, I think his inexperience showed here as I would have hung back in the shadows for a further twenty seconds in case of a bush breakout before plunging that elongated kitchen knife three inches into her bare chest. While I’m fairly assured that six is too young for self-defilation which gets him partially off the hook, don’t invite us inside your head space and guzzle dessert before we can lick the cream on the sundae Michael. Typical selfish brat spoiled our fun and that’s absolutely no laughing matter. What you got to say in your defence Myers?

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Nothing, look at that face. Bang to fucking rights you little pipsqueak. Klowns are not to be trusted under any circumstances whatsoever. Sure, the morose Michael Myers aside, they may look like their game for a laugh or two. However, they’re also inherently evil and will think nothing of making you sorry for ever placing them under the spot light. I think the key is deciphering them from their benign clown counterparts and, thus, have compiled a check list to adhere to when selecting your harlequin for the purposes of harmless frolics. Should they be grasping a huge domestic blade, oversized meat cleaver, or clutch of balloons then they’re rotten to the core and beyond and should be granted as wide a berth as humanly possible. Remember the dental check too as it’s a myth that they can’t afford monthly teeth whitening. The more yellow and jagged those gnashers, the greater chance that they have designs on your rump.

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Most critical however is this little nugget of wisdom: clowns can’t keep still for a solitary second on account of all those ants in their pants. Should they be mobile then, unless they possess Twisty’s running sneakers, chances are they won’t be looking to place you in jeopardy. It’s the seemingly inanimate ones you have to watch Grueheads, especially if there’s a storm brewing and your little sister is downstairs fondling TV static. Perhaps that’s the reason I stuffed enough printed pornography beneath my mattress to provoke wet dreams through smut tremors alone. Actually, that’s a blatant lie. You show me a twelve-year-old who discovers his monkey and doesn’t wish to spank it on loop and I’ll show you a klown you can trust. That said, I only perused said magazines during daylight hours and I’m fairly assured I can blame Poltergeist for that one so poke it you klown fucks. Come to think of it, pages 12-47 of my favorite edition of Hustler mysteriously meshed into one around the same time. You see what I’m angling at? Not…to…be…trusted.

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One last thing while I’m on a hot streak. Ronald McDonald fits into this particular category and don’t be fooled by his promise of savory nuggets either. You think he doesn’t head back to his trailer after a hard day’s promotion and crank one out to vintage snuff? All that cheap and cheerful cuisine is just a ruse and likely seasoned in rat poison to boot. Have you ever noticed the crippling stomach ache you receive around fifteen minutes after chowing down on your Big Mac? That’s his date rape drug working its conniving magic on your renal system. Don’t blame me if you wake up face down on a springy mattress with Ronald’s fist milking your prostate for all its worth and more besides. How else do you think he gets those milkshakes triple thick? Stick with Kentucky Fried Chicken but don’t give Colonel Sanders an inch either as he’s likely a wrong ‘un too. But next time you pass your local McDonald’s drive-thru, feel free to dash inside and punch their mascot in the kidneys. Then remember to run for your life as he can make three steps for every one of yours. They don’t call it fast food for nothing.

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Click here to read L is for Lacerate

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Rich- you have outdone yourself again. This was the best treatise I have read on the phenomenon of klowns. Kudos for throwing in Gacy & Xtro!
    This exploration was also timely considering the klown shenanigans of last year. It is interesting to me how something associated with humor can be intertwined with the horrific.
    Great job!

    1. You love Xtro too? Wow, you simply have to read my appraisal. One of my very first so it’s a tad dated but you’ll find it in my appraisal archive on the home page. Appraisal #10. Actually what am I thinking? https://riversofgrue.com/the-quills-appraisals/
      Thank you so much, I’m really glad I nailed this one down as there are so many clowns in horror and I didn’t want to miss a single bright red hooter.

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