“Wrinkles The Clown is a case study in how online media can take on a life of its own in unpredictable and often unintended ways,” says filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols. “There’s something incredibly exciting about how people came up with their own fantastical stories and projected silly or malevolent intentions onto this anonymous character. It reflected more about ‘the internet’ than it did about ‘Wrinkles’…and I love that.”
Back in 2015, a brief but very creepy video uploaded to YouTube sparked an unlikely internet sensation. The video was simple: a mere black-and-white CCTV grab of a disheveled, crumpled clown emerging from beneath the bed of a sleeping child, and then walking toward the camera to end the recording. Smash to black. What happened next? Did he kill the child? Or something worse? Who was the clown? What the hell was going on?
Then, the plot thickened. There were stickers plastered across Florida emblazoned with the unforgettable face of the masked Wrinkles The Clown, along with a phone number. From there, it snowballed further, with Wrinkles receiving millions of phone calls. Then, the creepy clowns started to proliferate. Wrinkles himself continued to appear in more YouTube videos, and was eventually revealed to be something of a public service clown, offering up his services to scare the naughty children of frustrated parents. The response to Wrinkles was ferocious, with some amused by his demented form of shock-and-awe child discipline, and others suitably horrified, bombarding his phone line with torrents of abuse.
Michael Beach Nichols, who documents the phenomenon in his fascinating genre-bender Wrinkles The Clown, was compelled by the response that this evil clown engendered. “In that spectrum of reactions, there’s a darker side where violence and racism and misogyny bubbles up,” he tells FilmInk. “I’m talking about the vast number of disturbing voicemails left for Wrinkles. This is certainly a reflection of what exists online right now. But to us, it also felt like a profoundly American phenomenon – not to mention the majority of voicemails were from American area codes – that fit the current Trump era perfectly. As Trump cries ‘fake news’ and foments distrust of the media while lying over 15,000 times in his first three years in office, there’s a blurriness surrounding the truth in American discourse. The Wrinkles phenomenon captured that and had some fun with it. But the stakes were relatively low. With deepfakes getting more and more sophisticated, I fear that we’re close to living in a time where we won’t be able to trust that what we’re seeing is real. Just the existence of that technology means that people can sow doubt. There will be more, much scarier and dangerous Wrinkles the Clowns in the future of the internet.”
Initially revealed to be the creation of a 65-year-old retiree and disenfranchised war veteran, the real identity of Wrinkles is actually far more complex than that, but it’s in the response to the figure that Nichols finds the real drama. In this way, the film makes for an interesting companion to Nichols’ 2015 Emmy nominated. Welcome To Leith, which tracked a small town fighting off a newly arrived white supremacist. “As I was making Wrinkles The Clown, I felt like it was a big departure from Welcome To Leith,” the director says. “But looking back at both films now, I can see some thematic similarities. Both films explore people’s reaction to fear – in Welcome To Leith, a community in North Dakota was grappling with an attempted white supremacist takeover of their town. They were terrified, and the film explored how they responded to that threat. In Wrinkles The Clown, we’re exploring how people online respond to a creepy clown purporting to scare misbehaving children. Fear is a central theme in both films. That makes sense in terms of my interests – I’m drawn to the dark and the strange.”
This is more than apparent when FilmInk asks Nichols for a list influences when it comes to his work and Wrinkles The Clown in particular. “My influences are America,” he says. “Horror films. The unknowable. I’m influenced by so many filmmakers too. Right now I’m obsessed with the work of Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and the Safdie Brothers; they’re all pushing the medium in thrilling ways.”
That fascination with the dark and the strange seems to be in the zeitgeist right now, with creepy clowns the order of the day, thanks to the marauding Pennywise in the Stephen King adaptation It, and Joaquin Phoenix’s award winning Clown Prince Of Crime in Joker, not to mention the continuing discussion of coulrophobia. “I think the fascination with clowns has been there for some time, simply because the clown character has such a rich light/dark duality,” Nichols offers. “But the success of Joker will likely prolong this fascination. I’m sure kids will continue to dress as clowns for Halloween for the foreseeable future.”
A canny, insouciant and finely judged mix of recreation, obfuscation and journalistic investigation, Wrinkles The Clown has been questioned in some quarters as not being a genuine documentary. “I find that laughable and limited,” Nichols responds. “But there are some critics that have made that claim more than once. But of course it’s a documentary; I didn’t make Wrinkles up. Everything in the film comes from real people – what we do differently, perhaps, is root the viewer in different POVs in order to underscore the film’s themes in the most cinematic and true-to-story way we could. For the first half of the film, the viewer is in ‘internet POV’, and that means visually portraying the imagination of children and parents. In the second half of the film, the viewer is granted Wrinkles’ POV. We wanted to honour the Wrinkles myth while also illuminating its creation; to do so, the film demanded a unique approach. The people that get pissed off about that approach aren’t people whose opinions I care about in the slightest. Documentary films over the past decade especially have infinitely expanded the possibilities of the form, and I find that exciting and inspiring.”
And while what Michael Beach Nichols is doing next is a little shadowy (“I have a couple of projects in the works, but both are too early stage to talk about. The big one takes place in Japan, though, and shares some thematic similarities with Wrinkles”), the current and future activities of Wrinkles The Clown – one of the new millennium’s most unlikely internet sensations, and a true lightning rod for discussion around issues of both truth and the web’s famed lynch-mob mentality – are even more nebulous…and appropriately so. “Wrinkles is currently in a transitional phase,” Nichols says. “He’s still active in terms of listening to voicemails and occasionally answering the phone, but he’s also figuring out what his identity will be post-film. The cat’s out of the bag, but he gets more calls than ever. I’m not sure what he’ll do next.”
Be afraid, be very afraid…
Wrinkles The Clown is available to rent or buy on Digital from February 5. Click here for our review of the film.