[Fantastic Fest Review] Documentary ‘Wrinkles the Clown’ is a Winding Psychological Case Study

Late November of 2014, a YouTube video titled “Wrinkles the Clown Caught on CCTV” by user HvUseen Wrinkles went viral, and put South Florida parents on high alert. The video, grainy home security footage, showed a sleeping girl oblivious to the creepy clown emerging from underneath her bed. The clown tucked her in before ominously ending the footage by taking the camera.

A series of videos featuring Wrinkles followed, a phone number was passed around that gave kids and parents a direct line to him, and the clown soon captured the attention of news outlets and media across the country. Wrinkles the Clown digs in deep to discover the truth and psychological repercussions behind the infamous Florida terror.

Directed by Michael Beach Nichols, the mind behind chilling documentary Welcome to Leith, Wrinkles offers up a very complicated answer to whether the eponymous clown at the center of it is real or not. The short and obvious answer is yes, but Nichols uncovers a series of complex questions from it. One of which is a study of fear, and coulrophobia in particular. Nichols gives a condensed history of coulrophobia, especially in horror movies, and ponders how Wrinkles might affect current perception of clowns.

Nichols also poses the question as to whether parents who call Wrinkles’ number as a means of punishment or keeping their children’s behavior in line constitutes as child abuse. He relies on a number of talking heads and authority figures to weigh in, while also interviewing numerous children across the country who have in some way been profoundly affected by the existence of Wrinkles.

An additional, lengthy layer of folklore and how that spreads is added to the mix. It begets another provocative question as to the effect growing up in the age of social media might have on children. All of which to say, that there are so many open-ended, intricate questions being asked that it’s hard to grab hold of this documentary’s overlying aim. The sole tether, of course, is Wrinkles. While Nichols is juggling some very heavy topics, there’s the identity of who is behind the mask and why they’ve created this character.

How all of these threads come together eventually is revealed, but until then it almost feels directionless. Nichols touches upon a lot of fascinating topics of discussion in his quest to unmask Wrinkles, but you barely have time to chew on them before another angle shifts the narrative. The question that prompted Nichols’ journey is answered to completion, but it creates many new questions in the process. The most confrontational of which go unanswered.

That Nichols’ thesis takes so long to congeal, leaving unanswered questions, is likely to frustrate some. There’s a major avenue left unexplored that disappoints, because it offers up truly unsettling inquiries about society. That’s not the story Nichols wanted to tell, though. Nichols wanted to get to the truth behind Wrinkles, and in the process, he unearthed the power of idea. Of belief. That in itself can be terrifying. He takes it a step further by making the audience an active participant in his psychological case study. Throw in a whole heaping of creepy clown imagery, and Wrinkles the Clown makes for a disquieting documentary perfect for Halloween. Just one that can be a bit too open-ended.

Wrinkles the Clown made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest and will be in theaters and VOD on October 4, 2019.