Top 10 Clowns in Film

Why is that most clowns in film are either terrifying or suffering some kind of emotional trauma..? Prepare yourself for Top 10 Films’ favourites…

Here’s a pub quiz question for you: What is the clinical term for a person’s abnormal fear of clowns? I’ll give you a clue – it ends in “phobia”. Answers on a postcard (or maybe just add a comment in the box below). It isn’t surprising a fear of clowns exists. It is particularly prevalent in adults – we all know someone who hates these types of circus performers – and the reasons are hardly implausible. After all there’s a certain element of dishonesty inherent in a painted-on smile. And just what is it hiding?

Clowns in film have often played on the notion that there is something not quite right about them. Even in a film as wholesome as James Bond’s Octopussy we see the first secret agent to don the suit and make-up end up deposited in a river with a knife in the back. Elsewhere, from the Joker’s personification in the Batman films to mechanical incarnations such as Saw’s menacing puppet, clowns aren’t to be trusted. When they aren’t causing havoc or carrying out mass murder, they are attacking children (Poltergeist), robbing banks (Quick Change), or suffering depression and alcoholism (Shakes the Clown). They are presented as entities to stay well and truly clear of.

What are your favourite clowns in the movies? Which clown has scared you the most? Here’s my top 10 favourites from the world of film…

10. James Bond in Octopussy (Roger Moore)


Roger Moore has been criticised by his James Bond detractors for clowning around in Bond. In Octopussy he took that remark literally, dressing up as a circus clown to save the world from nuclear war.

9. Rollie Tyler’s mechanical clown in F/X 2


Ace movie effects technician Rollie Tyler builds a mechanical clown he can manipulate and control from a body suit that he wears. When an intruder invades his home with every intention of sending Rollie to see his maker, he dons the suit and lets the clown do the talking.

8. Clown in Zombieland (Derek Graf)


Anyone with a fear of clowns will testify to the fact they’re terrifying whether they are happy-go-lucky circus clowns or twisted, mass murdering psychopathic clowns. In Zombieland we have a zombie-clown which is most assuredly a frightening combination.

7. Clownhouse (Various)


Twelve-year-old boy Casey, like many people, has an intense fear of clowns (known as coulrophobia – yes, I had to look that up). When a trio of mental patients escape the lunatic asylum, they happen across a group of circus clowns. They kill the clowns and don their make-up and costumes. Twelve-year-old Casey’s worst nightmare is about to begin.

6. Grimm in Quick Change (Bill Murray)


One of Bill Murray’s most underrated films. Here he plays a down-on-his-luck bank robber who can’t catch a break. He uses the clown disguise to rob a bank in Manhattan before making a getaway re-disguised as one of the hostages.

5. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (Various)


Aliens that look like clowns land on in earth in a small American town and start killing everyone in sight. Taking its cues from the likes of Gremlins and Critters, filmmakers the Chiodo brothers have seen their film become a cult favourite amongst horror movie buffs.

4. Shakes The Clown (Bobcat Goldthwait)


Bobcat Goldthwait (who plays Zed, the guy with the screeching, inarticulate voice in Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment) writes, directs and stars in Shakes the Clown as its eponymous character. Criminally underrated, like most things Goldthwait does, Shakes the Clown is a darkly comic tale of a birthday-party clown struggling to deal with depression and alcoholism, who is framed for murder.

3. Joker in Batman (Jack Nicholson)


Jack Nicholson is the suave, sophisticated and deviant Joker of Tim Burton’s Batman. Here, Gotham City’s chief villain dons clown make-up to hide his disfigurement after falling into a vat of chemicals. This, of course, gets Joker very, very mad, particularly at Batman who he blames for his disfigurement. Cue a classic battle of good versus evil that differs greatly from Christopher Nolan’s later Batman films but in story construction and style.

2. Joker in The Dark Knight (Heath Ledger)


Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s breathtakingly brilliant superhero movie The Dark Knight is astonishing in its complexity and poignant in its posthumous relevance. Indeed, Ledger has never been better. Joker’s personification through clown-face is gleefully sadistic, aptly bringing together the disguised deviance behind a painted smile. The genius behind the Nolan/Ledger character is the twisted, dishevelled nature of the make-up – splashed across Ledger’s face as if applied by torture.

1. Pennywise in It (Tim Curry)


There’s no clown quite as menacing, or indeed memorable, as the Stephen King monster Pennywise. Tim Curry plays the “Dancing Clown” who stalks the children of Derry by luring them into the sewers under the town never to be seen again. Adapted from the chilling novel “It” by Stephen King, this entertaining TV film is essential viewing thanks to Curry’s marvellous performance.

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. le0pard13 Reply

    Great list, Dan. So good hear you’re a fan of the underrated ‘Quick Change’. Such a great little cast and story.

  2. mark Reply

    One possible addition:

    Brian Dennehy as John Wayne Gacy in the 1992 TV movie To Catch a Killer; Gacy used to perform as Pogo the Clown for the young kiddies as a community service and then rape and kill teenage boys for kicks.

    His official body count was somewhere around 33, but the film – mainly via a chilling performance by Margot Kidder – suggests there were many more.

    Interestingly, he was still on death row when the telemovie was made (from memory I think he was finally executed in 1994).

    As for the coulrophobia thing, one of the funniest portrayals of someone with this infliction is by James Spader in an episode of Boston Legal.

  3. Chris Reply

    Tim Curry is definitely the scariest clown from my childhood. I haven’t dared put that film on since (:

  4. filmdrivel Reply

    Coulrophobia! I have it sort of mildly. Couldn’t go very near one. I prefer Heath Ledgers joker overall, but definitely find Nicholsons scarier, I’ve had nightmares about him before. Definitely the right choice for No.1.

  5. Colin Biggs Reply

    Brings up all those terrifying feelings from when clowns were you first exposed to them as a child. Creepy bastards.

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