'Wrinkles the Clown': Film Review

WRINKLES THE CLOWN - Publicity still - H 2019
A Magnet Releasing
Amusing enough, even if it doesn't make its subject seem worth the hype.

A mean clown tells his own story, sort of, in Michael Beach Nichols' documentary.

Part prank, part semi-serious documentary, Michael Beach Nichols' Wrinkles the Clown explores a phenomenon that will be new to many viewers who don't drift much in the currents of viral online content: In Naples, Florida, a man with an ugly-clown costume allegedly hires himself out to parents, scaring their unruly kids into behaving. The man who calls himself "Wrinkles" may well have duped reporters at The Washington Post and elsewhere, and moviegoers looking to retain their illusions for a while should skip everything after this paragraph. While it hardly sells Wrinkles as a culture-shaking phenomenon, this modest doc will play best to those who enjoy being creeped out by him enough to suspend their disbelief.

Nichols puts his scariest foot forward, showing a popular YouTube clip of Wrinkles at work: A nannycam in a young girl's room shows a child asleep while a large drawer beneath her bed slowly opens; a clown climbs out of it, hovers over the girl and places a doll beside her before turning toward the camera and extinguishing it.

If your first response is to list the several ways this clip sheds doubt on its own veracity, then you are not in Wrinkles' demographic, nor, really, in this film's. Nichols spends a bit of enjoyable time with an academic, discussing the ways kid-centric folklore has changed in the digital era: No longer just the stuff of slumber parties and campfires, ghost stories (and weird rituals like chanting "bloody Mary" in a darkened room) are fodder for an infinite stream of online videos — from purported evidence of the supernatural, to would-be dissections of such phenomena, to clips of kids reacting to such stories as they hear them.

We meet kids scattered across America who experience this kind of frightened attraction to Wrinkles: They watch clips of him standing in someone's backyard, creepily waving, or crossing the street with a bunch of balloons; they call him on the phone and film their overacted horror at hearing his voicemail message. Some identify with him, some hate him for his alleged atrocities. (In addition to the scare-for-hire biz, the internet rumor mill claims he kills children and paints with their blood.)

All this is set against footage of the man himself — an unnamed retiree who lives in camper-van squalor and won't let Nichols film his face. He started off as a normal party clown, but couldn't make a go of it; when he discovered the melty-faced mask he now wears, which makes his eyes look like empty black sockets, he thought maybe there was a commercial niche for scary entertainers. But viral success has brought him more crank calls than paying gigs.

We're trying to reconcile all this with the filmmaker's staged material (moody scenes that envision the evil myths surrounding Wrinkles) when the doc does an about-face, revealing that much it has told us isn't true. Wrinkles the Clown now turns into a half-satisfying cousin of the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop: The actual man behind the clown mask is younger and more intentional, referring to Wrinkles as a sort of art project.

Nichols films him in silhouette and with a distorted voice, keeping the performer's identity hidden (lest he be blamed for the turmoil creepy-clown sightings caused starting in 2016). The Naples Daily News has suggested this man may be an amateur filmmaker named Cary Longchamps, but Wrinkles isn't interested in the whole truth. It rations out bits while the man discusses both the particulars of his famous film clips (we go behind the scenes a time or two) and his interpretation of the public's response.

The real Wrinkles thinks it's "kinda messed up" that a parent would threaten his child with the prospect of a visit from a killer klown. Then again, parents have been scaring children with talk of Hell for ages, and that's not a myth many kids can repurpose for their own enjoyment. Closing scenes show that, as much as they claim to fear or hate the evil Wrinkles, lots of youngsters are in on the joke.

Production company: Topic
Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Director-director of photography: Michael Beach Nichols
Screenwriters: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
Producers: Jennie Bedusa, Mike Dill, Jon Lullo, Lowell Shapiro
Editor: Christopher K. Walker
Composer: T. Griffin

78 minutes