[Review] Gags the Clown

The story around Gags the Clown is actually more interesting than the movie. It all began in 2016, when people of Green Bay, Wisconsin thought they were being stalked by a creepy clown. A series of photographs were posted online and went viral, showing the clown in various parking lots and under bridges in Green Bay. News outlets swooped in and it became a national story before it turned out that it was meant to be viral marketing for a movie called Gags the Clown.

But this event was, in some ways, the inciting incident for a world-wide phenomenon of clown sightings that eventually escalated into a rumored clown-initiated “purge” to take place on Halloween 2016. Insane stuff. And I feel that there could be an absolutely fascinating documentary about how the world, for a while, was enveloped in some mass Coulrophobia.

Gags the Clown is not that movie.

It’s instead a pretty standard found footage film with some inventive narrative structuring that keeps it mostly engaging. After a gore-splattered cold open that introduces our titular villain, who lingers in the periphery while holding a quartet of black balloons, we are quickly introduced to the problem. Pictures and video of a clown the locals have dubbed Gags has been showing up all over Green Bay. It’s gripped the city in fear, as parents don’t feel safe, the police seem inept at helping and pranksters are on the rise, taking advantage of the precarious situation.

Gags the Clown takes place on a single May night and has a rotating cast of stock characters. We have TV reporter Heather Duprey (Lauren Ashley Carter) who is on her producer’s last nerve and feels like finding Gags might be the only way to save her job. She’s also trying to one-up her reporter nemesis Rebecca Chambers (Zarai Perez) who seems to have the gift of being at the right place at the right time and scoops her story. We have a number of police units, including Chrissy Renard (Tracy Perez) and Jake Gruber (Evan Gamble), who we follow through car and body cameras, as they race around town trying to respond to 911 calls.

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Then there’s a group of twenty-something-teenagers that include Officer Renard’s stepdaughter Sara (Halley Sharp) and her two male friends Tyler (Michael Gideon Sherry) and Chris (Squall Charlson), who spend the night taking advantage of the situation and try to scare everyone they can. Rounding out our cast is right-wing reactionary Charles Wright (Aaron Christensen), who is pissed that this clown is allowed to walk the streets. He makes racist comments about his time serving overseas, sexualizes his gun collection and says things like, “Americans have to take our country back.”

We follow these different motley groups of people as they crisscross each other and run afoul of Gags (or his aftermath) until everything eventually (and inevitably) comes to a head.

The story, written by Adam Krause (also the director) and John Pata, creates an interesting structure that keeps the movie feeling mostly fresh and uses its meager budget to really sell the chaos gripping the city. None of the groups have all of the information and watching the stories pass each other or chase after each other provides for some interesting dynamics. Unfortunately, instead of following one brain dead group of annoying found footage tropes, we’re following four.

Don’t expect character growth. Which…I know, sounds like a silly complaint for a movie about a clown with exploding balloons. But it has such a slow pacing in the second act that is relatively scare-free that you would expect at least some sort of character development. Instead, the narrative meanders with no real sense of rising action or urgency, with only a couple creepy/gruesome moments punctuating the otherwise scareless second act.

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The moments that do work are effective and add to the unearthly feel of Gags and his handiwork. Self-mutilation, white powder-causing illnesses and worse add a feeling of unease and worked to keep me unsettled as to what was going on. I just wish there were more moments like this.

From a technical standpoint, there’s a lot to appreciate here. The imagery is oftentimes unsettling and, for a found footage film, competently shot. It makes use of typical city locations, but adds a veneer of rot to it. Everything feels slightly off-center. Shout out to John Pata, who had to edit together multiple angles from a variety of sources (body cam, surveillance, car cameras, phones, etc.) and stitched together a cohesive story. It keeps the narrative from completely losing steam and there’s some incredibly inventive sequences that must have been a pain to create.

Things improve as it crests into the third act, as it gets a bit more surreal and goes into some weird directions, but it still keeps us at an ambiguous distance. I’ve mentioned a number of times that found footage isn’t really my jam and Gags the Clown hasn’t really done anything to change that feeling. So while it ends with a…well…gag that had me laughing at the darkly absurdist surprise, I’m not sure the journey to that moment was worth it. Your mileage may vary.