Spare some pity for Funky the Clown, a peppy, round-faced entertainer who happens to ply his trade in the same part of Florida as the much creepier subject of Michael Beach Nichols’s documentary Wrinkles the Clown. All Funky wants is to make people laugh, yet all anyone seems compelled to do in the face of a Funky these days is to run screaming. “I just came from face-painting at a party, and six of the boys wanted to be Pennywise,” Funky grumbles as he puts on his own professional getup, which includes the traditional greasepaint, a rainbow wig, and a jumbo necktie. Googling him now suggests he’s rebranded himself as a party pirate, ceding the field to the Wrinkles of the world, not to mention the Jokers and the Its.
Wrinkles is not a movie creation. He’s the persona of a real, anonymous man from Naples, Florida, who wears a polka-dot costume and a mask that looks a lot like someone tried to put cheery makeup on a week-old corpse. He made his debut as an online phenomenon climbing out from under a little girl’s bed in a 2014 video that claimed to be CCTV footage. Sequels showed him lurking alongside a highway and menacing a suburban family, providing carefully calibrated doses of coulrophobia. But what really vaulted him into fame were the flyers plastered around Naples with his empty-eyed photo next to a number that parents could call to hire him to scare their misbehaving kids. (The number, 407-734-0254, still works, by the way, though one stern expert insists that even threatening to call it constitutes child abuse.) Wrinkles was the perfect weird news item, and his story quickly rounded local stations, went national, and then made its way onto Kimmel and Corden.
Wrinkles’s story was also not entirely true, which the film explores in greater detail, including a sly twist that highlights the fact that there’s more than one level to the Florida clown’s mythology. At 75 minutes, Wrinkles the Clown is just barely a feature, a wafer-thin effort that’s obviously hoping to get a boost from its proximity to Joker (which it shares a release date with). What it ends up inadvertently doing is providing a counterbalance to the alarmed-bordering-on-alarmist conversation that’s surrounded Todd Phillips’s movie for weeks now, this fear that internet fandom will translate into emulation, that the violence onscreen will be echoed in real life. Wrinkles, while never breaking through to the level of Momo, may have provoked a minor hysteria — the movie makes a case for his popularity spurring all the 2016 clown sightings, which in turn recalled something similar that happened back in the early ’80s — but his lasting legacy seems to be with kids, who’ve created a culture around him that transcends the original videos and press hits.
Wrinkles began as a local prank about scaring children, but it’s children who, the documentary proposes, have since made the character their own. The film pays visits to young fans in neighboring states who only know Wrinkles from the web and who’ve made him into a digital bogeyman, a scary story to tell in the dark about someone who might answer the phone if you call at the right time. For them, Wrinkles might be terrifying, but he’s the kind of terrifying you can embrace and learn to love. One boy, interviewed alongside his bemused parent, points out that while the original Wrinkles video frightened him into insisting on sleeping with his mattress on the floor (where no one can hide under it), it also enthralled him and eventually inspired him to make his own creepy videos. There’s a YouTube subgenre of people dialing Wrinkles’s number and listening to the voice-mail in delighted horror.
Wrinkles’s online fame garners him everything from death threats to dirty texts to declarations of affection, yet there’s a soothing purity to the fandom the movie uncovers — a wholesome reminder that not every odd online rabbit hole leads to somewhere deserving of panic. Clowns, murderous or otherwise, may really be having a moment right now, but being fascinated by the macabre is nothing new, and nothing that has to be treated as a cautionary sign in itself. And that’s something that’s tended to get overlooked in the most overblown aspects of the Joker discourse — that the character might be taken up by toxic communities, though it didn’t create them. Audiences aren’t as malleable as our most overprotective impulses might lead us to believe, which is why kids can both adore Wrinkles and shriek at Wrinkles and why the kids are all right.