9th November 2020 (UK VOD Premiere)
An unidentified man in Green Bay, WI has captured worldwide attention for roaming the streets dressed as a clown. Many write it off as a harmless prank, others aren't so sure. When a group of friends cross paths with the clown everyone calls Gags, his true intentions are revealed.
Lauren Ashley Carter, Tracy Perez, Aaron Christensen
From the silliness of Killer Klowns From Outer Space to the more menacing incarnations such as Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT (both the 1990 Mini-Series and the big-budget 2017 remake), these evil screen versions of beloved carnival figures have scared many generations. I even made a list about them.
The disorder even has its own name – Coulrophobia. Sufferers are known to have panic attacks, feel nauseous and break out in a sweat whenever they see one. Luckily, they could prevent such an event occurring by simply avoiding the films containing the offending characters and steering well clear from the circus when it rolls into town.
That is, until 2016.
Sightings of the painted face pranksters began being reported throughout the world. Not only that, but many were using the disguise to potentially attempt vicious attacks on the public. An incident in Plymouth, England saw a man confront a hammer-wielding clown with a beer bottle. It became a genuine widespread panic, with multiple police forces issuing warnings and alerts to stay safe. But where did it all begin? Well, there’s a high chance you’re looking at the culprit right now.
No, not me! Gags The Clown! Or at least, the short film which inspired it.
To promote the film, the titular character stalked the streets of Green Bay Wisconsin. Carrying 4 black balloons, it cast an ominous presence and scared the snot out of anyone who spotted him just by standing around. It wasn’t revealed until much later that it was a marketing stunt, but the damage was done. Wheels had begun turning to set in motion copycats around the globe. The ploy had worked better than the filmmakers could have ever imagined. Arguably too well, with reports of crimes being committed by those under the guise of similar masks.
By the end of the year, sightings and indeed interest had petered out. Even so, it solidified the thought of there still being a market for killer clowns in horror, so the Gags The Clown short became a full-length feature – which smoothly segues into the review of said picture.
Gags is told as a found-footage like film from multiple perspectives of residents from Green Bay, Wisconsin, a town which is being plagued by a sinister clown terrorizing the population. First up, there’s the local news reporter, Heather (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her cameraman Dale (Wyatt Kuether), who have been tasked with keeping track of the clown’s whereabouts under the crudely named segment “Gags Watch”. Across town, a group of youths try to make the most of the madness by having one of them also dress as a clown. Then there’s Charles Wright Aaron Christensen). He’s the host of the podcast The Wright Stuff and has just about enough of these shenanigans. Broadcasting live to his faithful followers, he sets them a challenge: if the video of his intent to hunt Gags gets 500 shares, he’ll head out to find him.
We also follow Police Officers Deighan, Sarah and Jacobs as they respond to calls of suspected Gags goings-on. All their paths will eventually collide in a nightmarish finale.
Largely unfolding over the course of one evening and told through various camera formats, Gags’ impressive multi-pronged approach feels very much like an anthology film, with the clown acting as the string to tie them all together. And, like anthology films, the individual segments are extremely hit and miss.
Attempting to straddle the line between horror and comedy, Gags The Clown never really pitches its big top tent in either camp. I could see where it was trying to be funny, mainly with its exaggerated characters and their traits, and the ingredients for scares are present, but it depends too heavily on gimmickry to be effective. Take, for example, whenever Gags is around. The camera flickers to varying degrees to signify interference. It’s an overused distortion technique and does not help the film at all. The use of music does more harm than good too. It’s a shame, because at one point, underneath the “flashy” post production effects, there’s a genuine eerie sequence inside a banquet hall. Another sees Officer Jacobs attending a call from a worried mother who is concerned for her daughter. It’s a great moment that is dulled by hokey tricks and should have been given time more to build tension.
Performances are positively amateurish from 90% of the cast, but the absolutely unquestionable standout is Aaron Christensen as Charles Wright. Any segment with him or his Podcast filming involved is dynamite and I could easily have just watched the 30 or so minutes of screen time that it has and be happy with the final product. Lauren Ashley Carter’s journalist Heather irritates and continues my belief that it is impossible to depict fake news stories or channels in films without it looking completely inauthentic. The bodycams of the Officers are a neat touch, but not particularly interesting, and the trio of teens (or early 20’s) has its moments but never really grabbed my attention.
Looking at the bigger picture, I felt Gags The Clown is as much about its location as it is about the creepy clown. It’s a town where very little happens. So when something substantial does occur, it encapsulates the bored residents. An entire news segment is made from it. Podcasts dedicate episodes to the phenomenon. Much like The Blair Witch Project, Gags The Clown is an examination, albeit a surface level one, of small-town hysteria and how mythos can be born from the smallest of seeds. Unfortunately, it does not remain as mystical as Blair Witch. It would have greatly benefited from sticking to word-of-mouth reports of its creature rather than giving it a face.
Overall then, Gags The Clown is a forgettable affair whose hype far exceeded the expectations of its filmmakers. So while the big screen debut will likely be dismissed as a poor imitation of iconic clowns, Gags will forever be known as one of the fathers of 2016’s Clownpocolypse.
Commendable multi-pronged approach to telling its story
Charles Wright's "The Wright Stuff" Podcast segments
Banquet Hall scene
Clunky script with mostly amateur performances
As a horror comedy, it's neither.