Aliens, Clowns & Geeks (2019)

“Maybe just a worthless novelty, but maybe the key to the universe,” says Professor von Scheisenberg (French Stewart), some way into Richard Elfman’s Aliens, Clowns & Geeks. Scheisenberg is describing the phallic obelisk which protagonist Eddie Pine (Elfman’s son Bodhi) has just brought into his laboratory to be identified. This alien object, which uses Eddie’s anus as a trans-dimensional portal for entering – and eventually exiting – the world, is the film’s MacGuffin, pursued by green extra-terrestrials, space clowns, rogue Chinese soldiers and men in black, all in search of its immense power, with the fate of Planet Earth at stake. Yet for actor Eddie, who is – at least at first – less concerned with saving the world than with getting his rocks off, his pockets lined and his TV series back on air, the obelisk is just a pain in the arse. In his misadventures, Eddie joins forces with Scheisenberg’s sibling Swedish assistants Helga (Rebecca Forsythe) and Inga Svenson (Angeline-Rose Troy, who also plays Eddie’s ‘crack whore’ mother), with his trans sister Jumbo (Steve Agee), and with a crazy ensemble of bouncers, burlesque artists and bums in a wild ride through Los Angeles’ back passages.

Richard Elfman has been an amateur boxer, a percussionist, a stage actor and director, the founding member (in 1972) of experimental musical theatre group The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo – eventually taken over by his younger brother Danny and renamed simply Oingo Boingo – but in the late Seventies, Elfman decided to turn his hand to filmmaking. The result was Forbidden Zone, a monochrome (although the Director’s Cut was colourised in 2008) realisation of a stage show by the Mystic Knights, as transgressive and taboo as its title suggests, and the very first film to be scored by Danny Elfman. Falling somewhere between the trashy sensibilities of John Waters, the libertine pastiches of Jim Sharman and the more outré aspects of Jewish-American life, this musical comic fantasia was as scabrous as it was surreal, and fast became a fixture with the Midnight Movie crowd. Cut to four decades later, and Elfman’s latest is refreshingly unchanged in its anything-goes approach to plotting and its unashamed eschewal of good taste.

This is very much a family movie, with Elfman’s son in the lead rôle, his brother composing the soundtrack and his wife Anastasia appearing in a number of rôles (wannabe actress turned escort Cindy, Eddie’s mother in flashbacks, a portaloo-using nun and a burlesque dancer). There is even careful product placement of the novel The Strawberry Fields of Heaven (1983) – written by Elfman’s mother Blossom – whose themes of sexual freedom here form part of the improbable reading matter for a priest (George Wendt).

What is new here is a strong element of metacinema, in a story whose main character is a struggling actor, whose events unfold under the Hollywood sign, and whose reference points include the Chiodo brother’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996) – the last featuring a similarly jaunty, theremin-filled score from Danny Elfman. Aliens, Clowns & Geeks is also composed of stock movie sequences, each coming with a subversive spin. There are car chases (one involving a clown), Swedish martial arts and ‘Jew kung fu’, a nauseous episode at a coroner’s, Wilhelm screams that can be heard in space, illegal dwarf tossing, comedy cops, mad scientists, and of course a man dressed as a giant chicken (also Steve Agee) – and it is all regularly punctuated by absurd multi-positional softcore scenes reminiscent of the one from Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police (2004). 

As a cheap, bottom-feeding Troma-esque caper, maybe Elfman’s film is just a worthless novelty – but in all its self-conscious crassness, perhaps this low invasion of America’s margins is also the key to a postmodern universe. For if the Trumpian era in which Aliens, Clowns & Geeks was made was an age of idiocy, then this film is both its effect, and its undermining antidote, delivered in the form of a giant suppository for the world. 

strap: Richard Elfman’s sort-of sci-fi ALIENS, CLOWNS & GEEKS is an outrageous L.A. caper, part Hollywood satire, part anal probe of the American psyche

© Anton Bitel