By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Tracy Perez and Aaron Christensen
Directed by Adam Krause
Written by Adam Krause and John Pata
The Line Film Company/Head Trauma Productions
It was inevitable that someone would make a movie revolving around the kind of creepy clown sightings that went viral over the last few years, and just as inevitable that this project would become part of the trend. When Adam Krause made the short film GAGS in 2016, he posted video of the titular, lurking costumed fiend on-line with no mention of the movie, and Gags became another freaky on-line icon. Now Krause has given Gags his own feature (a world premiere at the current Cinepocalypse festival), though it’s questionable whether this screen incarnation will inspire the same enthusiasm.
At least Krause has done something a little different with GAGS’ narrative, eschewing a slasher-flick format in favor of a found/assembled-footage approach that fits the inspiration. Set in Green Bay, WI on a May night starting around 6 p.m. (though it doesn’t get dark in May till about 8…too nitpicky?), GAGS opens with a trio of jerks having a parking-garage encounter with the menacing, balloon-toting clown that ends very badly for them. We then follow an assortment of locals through their various cameras as the week-old Gags-sighting phenomenon brings out different reactions in them. Local TV reporter Heather Duprey (Lauren Ashley Carter) pursues the story and tries to one-up a rival on another network; police officers Chrissy Renard (Tracy Perez) and Jake Gruber (Evan Gamble) respond to calls that draw them into Gags’ orbit; reactionary podcaster Charles Wright (Aaron Christensen) believes Gags is a public nuisance and decides to go vigilante on him; and Renard’s teenage stepdaughter Sara (Halley Sharp) joins her pals Chris (Squall Charlson) and Tyler (Michael Gideon Sherry) as Chris sets out to prank people in his own clown costume.
Beyond their interest in Gags, the one thing all these people have in common is that they eventually become tiresome to be around. Like too many found-footage films, GAGS devotes too much of its running time to its characters arguing with and throwing insults at each other. Can’t anyone in Green Bay get along? This is especially disappointing when it comes to Heather, since Carter is one of the shining lights of independent horror cinema and has done fine, empathetic work in movies like JUG FACE, DARLING and IMITATION GIRL, but can’t do much with the foul-mouthed, abrasive role she’s given here. The three youths are pretty much insufferable from the start, and the cops don’t seem terribly good at their jobs. The only character who registers is Wright, an ex-Marine with an American flag and rifles on his wall, given a nicely self-possessed, self-absorbed reading by Christensen—though even he is reduced to diminishing-returns trash-talk matches with his cameraman Wayne (Jake Martin).
All this quarreling has the effect of crowding Gags himself (Eric R. Heuvelman) out of his own movie. He’s largely a background presence, appearing and disappearing from the outer reaches of the frame, which works for a little while to make him a figure of mystery. As GAGS reaches the hour mark, though, killer-clown fans may become frustrated that he doesn’t really do anything, and isn’t seen often enough for him to feel like the omnipresent threat he’s supposed to be. Krause does stage a spooky early scene when the cops venture into a dark, empty theater, and another halfway through in a similarly gloomy restaurant, yet both setpieces turn out to be red herrings.
Krause also throws a lot of postproduction glitches into the handheld/body-cam footage, which play as annoying distractions that aren’t necessary to establish the vérité atmosphere. And by the climax, all the crosscutting between the different points of view works against sustained tension. When the survivors finally make their way into Gags’ lair, the movie achieves a few chills (a bit of cheesy CG blood notwithstanding), and this villain’s particular game is an inventively nasty one with real possibilities that should have been explored more. Too bad that in the end, the scare potential of Gags, and GAGS, proves as elusive as those fleeting fearsome funnymen on YouTube.