Studio: Doppelganger Releasing
Director: Adam Krause
Writer: Adam Krause, John Pata
Producer: Sarah Sharp, Robert Patrick Stern, John Pata
Stars: Lauren Ashley Carter, Tracy Perez, Aaron Christensen, Wyatt Kuether, Jake Martin, Michael Gideon Sherry, Halley Sharp, Squall Charlson, Evan Gamble, Eric R. Heuvelman
A reporter, a podcaster, two cops, and three teens cross paths with a strange clown silently terrorizing Green Bay, Wisconsin.
You might remember a minor brouhaha back in 2016 when strange clown sightings started cropping up across the country. Originating in Wisconsin, unnerved residents complained to police about a clown carrying black balloons who simply stood around town doing little more than looking sinister. Similar stories picked up enough steam to garner national news coverage. Some suspected something dangerous was looming while others suggested they were mere marks for a viral marketing stunt.
Those who guessed the latter were correct. The initial prank was part of a promotion for Adam Krause’s short film “Gags” about an evil clown doing exactly what was described above. In a meta move, Krause fleshed out his concept by incorporating the media attention as a plot point and two years later his feature film “Gags the Clown” arrived.
The fictional story stays somewhat true to life. Over eight days, random sightings of an ominous clown called Gags ignite frenzied fascination among Green Bay residents, newscasters, and law enforcement alike. Heather Duprey and rival reporter Rebecca Chambers compete for coverage of the growing craze. Gun nut podcaster Charles Wright turns it into an opportunity to publicly promote his vigilante claptrap. Three teens capitalize on the fright factor by impersonating Gags and recording their own pranks on video. Meanwhile, multiple police officers patrol the city responding to strange reports as an elaborate plot orchestrated by Gags seems to build toward a big event.
“Gags the Clown” plays out as an assembly of “found footage” although no one should be quick to dismiss it as another half-assed “Blair Witch” or “Paranormal Activity” knockoff. Rather than one phone or camcorder, footage comes from a collection of police officer body cams, street surveillance systems, online live streams, and field reports from newscasters. The mix of sources makes the movie feel more organic and less messy than some sloppy handheld effort.
Envisioning “Gags the Clown” as a traditional movie, I’m not convinced “found footage” is the optimal framing device for the narrative. But it would be harder to argue against how effective the format is at adding an air of voyeuristic authenticity.
I was also apprehensive about Lauren Ashley Carter playing reporter Heather Duprey. Carter is of course a highly regarded actress in indie cinema. But I have a hard time buying fictional TV personalities in films because actual newscasters have specific voices and speech patterns that are difficult to emulate for people outside of that profession.
I should have known Carter would come to her role fully rehearsed and researched. The timbre of Carter’s voice still isn’t on target enough to be camera ready for an average ABC affiliate. But she has the rhythmic cadence down pat. Since she’s playing a local on-the-street reporter and not a national network anchor, it becomes easier to accept that she could be Green Bay’s most pleasing nightly news personality.
One under-the-radar scene showcases Lauren Ashley Carter’s subtlety when she ever so slightly adjusts her expression to add disappointment and then consternation as she gradually realizes an interviewee is a crackpot. Carter’s character then heats up even further when the live camera turns off in another moment highlighting how much personality she can wring out of a role.
Two writers receive screen credit and a good portion of “Gags the Clown” does indeed appear to be scripted. You can tell by some of the stiff line delivery, particularly from the cops who are clearly not professional police officers offscreen. Inexperience melts away the more the cast warms up however. And enjoyable banter between people like Heather and her cameraman Dale could be off-the-cuff riffing given how natural their exchanges feel.
“Gags the Clown” comes billed as a horror-comedy, but it isn’t comedic in an overt sense. Early jokes are so low key, I’m still not certain they definitely are jokes. For instance, the podcaster comments that a particular post must be popular because it received 14 likes. A drunken teen at a party also briefly reenacts Buffalo Bill’s mirror monologue from “Silence of the Lambs.” The only possible purpose behind such inclusions must be for momentary amusement, but maybe not?
Then about a third of the way through the runtime, “Gags the Clown” becomes definitively nuttier. Carter’s character interviews a weeping woman in a purple wig and red nose lamenting the damage Gags has done to her clown community in a scene structured purely for snickers. Around the same time, the film starts giving itself over to the growing cast of characters going about their individual arcs. Gags himself becomes less of the film’s focus and scariness subsides as a consequence.
Some humor still hits. As obvious as it is, a self-deprecating dig where someone theorizes the clown sightings are probably “for some dumb horror movie no one is ever going to see” is a good goof. “Gags the Clown” also takes a snarky potshot at a South Carolina story about an attempted clown kidnapping that tried piggybacking on the original publicity in 2016.
The shame about dark humor swinging the spotlight is that setting up scenes for suggestive eeriness is one of director Brian Krause’s stronger abilities, but he doesn’t turn it all the way up to eleven. Krause exhibits an excellent eye for positioning flashlight beams, street lamps, and other illumination sources just right to surround Gags in insidious shadows. Put Nicholas Elert’s simple yet unsettling score underneath and imagery easily induces chills. I personally would have preferred to see “Gags the Clown” subdue its silly streak and go all-in on the horror instead.
Most of the movie takes place outside, offering an open-air trip around Green Bay that feels like a terrific nighttime tour highlighted by hit-or-miss humor and a boozy splash of horror. Roughly 65% of the movie more or less works, so that seems like a fair overall score. At any rate, “Gags the Clown” certainly ranks in the upper third percentile as far as micro-indie “found footage” goes.
Review Score: 65