A detailed look into clowning as blue-collar work, but Wrinkles the Clown is more Banksy than Bozo.
Whenever clowns have a pop cultural moment, times can get tough for those select few who take the art of buffoonery seriously. Since the publication of Stephen King’s It, clowns have skewed more toward unnerving horror trope than playful children’s TV show host, junk food mascot or birthday party entertainer. When the sinister Pennywise made his way to the big screen in 2017, professional clowns even blamed King for wrecking their livelihood.
Lurid killer clowns have dominated the box office so far this fall, with the disappointing mess of It Chapter Two followed a month later by Todd Phillips’ punishingly bleak and psychologically hollow take on Batman’s archnemesis with Joker. Bill Skarsgård and Joaquin Phoenix may get all the headlines and late-night talk show guest spots, but there’s only one clown appearing onscreen this fall who’s genuinely shocking. His name is Wrinkles.
Adorned in a drooping rubber mask with gaping pitch-black eyes—a mask that the man himself describes as a cross “between Michael Myers and my grandfather”—Wrinkles took the recent downturn of professional clowns’ economic outlook in stride and got innovative, ditching the party circuit to offer a unique service to the denizens of Florida (where else?): for a fee, he will scare misbehaving kids stupid. First marketing his services by plastering promotional stickers throughout the area (and by popping up in full costume along roadsides and other unexpected places), Wrinkles ascended to the status of urban legend made flesh as YouTube videos of him invading homes or emerging from under children’s beds went viral. Michael Beach Nichols’ documentary about the stir that Wrinkles has caused ostensibly gives us a glimpse at the man behind the mask.
Purposely keeping the man’s face obscured, the film nevertheless offers a detailed look into clowning as blue-collar work. Wrinkles is the grizzled, lunch-pail-toting type of guy who could’ve fit in naturally alongside Arthur Fleck’s coworkers in the clown-service locker room scenes of Joker. When he’s off the clock, Wrinkles tools around in the van he semi-lives in when he’s not bouncing between motel rooms. Having cornered a very specific market, he doesn’t claim to be an artist, instead bluntly stating that his “favorite scares are the ones that pay the most.” Though we see flashes of his dirty Santa beard and stained white tank tops, Wrinkles insists on speaking during interviews only in his raspy, Krustyesque performance voice. The gruff tone serves him well, as part of his racket is promoting a phone line that parents (or kids on a dare) can call to speak to him directly, whether to request his unsavory services or to simply get a quick thrill in an age where prank calls have largely become a thing of the past.
The film incorporates many dramatized and stylized interstitial sequences between the interviews with Wrinkles, contented parents and frightened children. In these scenes, Wrinkles acts out the violence that’s only benignly implied by his random appearances in bedrooms or backyards. At one point in these fictionalized moments, we see him painting the walls in blood. This adds a layer of feature-film horror to what is mostly otherwise a documentary, as the filmmakers also explore clowns as an increasingly malevolent figure in our collective imagination, touching upon cinematic killer clowns along while even bringing up John Wayne Gacy.
But until a gargantuan twist about two-thirds of the way in, a twist which renders Wrinkles as more of a Banksy than a Bozo, the most shocking aspect of the film is its exploration of how fear shapes behavior. Parents justify scaring their kids straight in a variety of ways, some going so far as to admit that this route is preferable to spanking because it doesn’t leave physical marks. We hear from children who say things like, “It kind of sucks to not be able to feel safe in your own house.” Expert talking heads claim “psychological maltreatment” of the children on the one hand, but others put into perspective the cultural shift in attitude toward greasepainted figures, declaring that there’s “a whole generation growing up without a positive image of a clown.”
Throughout its effectively slim 75-minute runtime, Wrinkles the Clown examines the genesis of coulrophobia by packing in a history of misbehaving clowns dating back to Punch and Judy, all while studying the captivating moral question of how fear drives us. That alone is worth the price of admission, but the movie does us one better with twists and turns as unexpected as a pie to the face.