Terrifier 2 is a breath of fresh horror air, hilarity, melodrama, brutality, and unhinged schtick rolled into one grisly package, all of it supported by a refreshingly unnerving lead performance.
There’s nary a genre more done to death than horror, save perhaps the Hallmark holiday film; both forms, regardless, can be interpreted as exercises in or denials of wish fulfillment, speaking to an indispensable need to identify with or against the characters and scenarios on-screen. In horror’s case, the millennial turn has always, somehow, disappointed relative to its preceding decades. Tropes have been tried, bad guys have been good, good ones bad, and subversion — it would seem — has on the whole been contained. Call it structuralism, or literary theory outsmarting ground-up praxis, but successive remakes and reinventions always seem to tone it a notch or two down: from Tim Curry as Pennywise to Bill Skarsgård as Poundfoolish (the remake of Stephen King’s It, this critic maintains, simply doesn’t cut it the way the mini-series did), or from the first of the Conjurings / Insidiouses, to God knows when, what, or why, blood spurts more frequently and things go bump in the night way more often, but the potency of the horror picture’s image and sound rarely lingers beyond the end credits.
As with fetishes, different horror audiences will have their different kinks and aversions, and killer clowns prove no exception, but rather the norm. Recent clown outings, however, have been on the downside vis-à-vis dolls, ghosts, possessions, and more thematically explicit fare — quantitatively and qualitatively. It’s little wonder, then, that Damien Leone’s Terrifier burst onto the scene, guns akimbo, with its gleefully violent and borderline illegal presentation of a clown’s killing spree. Not just sadistic and not just mute, Art the Clown is also a mime; painted and clad in traditional black and white, his head uncannily shaped in an oblong, he targets unsuspecting young women around the Miles County area on Halloween night. The first Terrifier, released in 2016, pretty much delivered what it promised. In under 90 minutes, a decrepit apartment complex undergoes an irreversible transformation into grindhouse central as Art (David Howard Thornton) hunts his victims down, decapitating and maiming them one by one in what can only justifiably be termed a bloodbath extravaganza.
Terrifier 2, when announced, garnered raves and much renewed interest, in no small part due to Leone’s promise of a lengthier runtime. Set one year after the events of the first, the 138-minute long slasher finds Victoria Heyes (Samantha Scaffidi) — the sole survivor of Art’s previous rampage — disfigured and, additionally, institutionalized after mauling a talk-show host. The community is already talking Art the Clown costumes and memorabilia, with many trick-or-treaters rumored to dress this way for the coming season. Sienna (Lauren LaVera) and her younger brother Jonathan (Elliot Fullam), still mourning the mysterious death of their father, begin to experience intense paranoia after some unexplained visions present themselves to the duo. No one believes them, of course, and the siblings don’t get off on the right foot, so it’s naturally too late when they figure out if and when their lives are in mortal danger. And despite their welcome resourcefulness, especially in the film’s second half, the clown is seemingly always one step ahead.
Onto the real bits of interest: the meat of Terrifier 2 rarely turns stale despite its prolongment, because Leone commits to a ridiculously sophisticated weaving of suspense, gore, and facial dexterity. That is, it’s little exaggeration to highlight Art’s mimic gestures and expressions as the star of the show; in foregrounding the elements of comic relief onto a stage of unrelenting and amoral brutality, the film tactically emphasizes this latter quality, daring its viewers to wince and be enthralled simultaneously by a conscious and therefore crazy clown. Relative to Michael Myers, for instance, Art knows why he’s doing what he’s doing, and he loves it. There’s a new character of note I won’t spoil here, but Art’s interaction with them — which informs the narrative substantially — is no little, or laughing, matter. It’s hilarity, melodrama, and unhinged schtick rolled into one.
In terms of the meat sans juice, Terrifier 2 inevitably loses a bit of steam past its ninety-minute mark; not because the kills get any less grisly, and not even because of viewer desensitization, but because Leone’s own vision — to “grow as a writer and see how much [he] could bring to the table; better, more dynamic characters and a greater story with a more intricate plot” — doesn’t have the same oomph when actualized. The lore in both Terrifiers is predominantly one of rural and retro anxieties, especially when set ostensibly in the modern era. Cellphones, locked doors, knowledge of horror films and what not to do when in one, both implicit and overt; none of these can quite scale up to the terror of a supernatural entity not quite senseless, but senseless enough to rearrange your insides and defile the order of human anatomy with Chaplin-esque grace and Keaton-esque charm. To its biggest boon, Terrifier 2 doesn’t dwell in pretensions over social justice in the grating way the typical Sundance award-winner would (by capitalizing, one can imagine, on Art’s famous dissection of a woman in half via bonesaw, in the first film, as thesis statement on misogyny in the art world). Leone makes a good old slasher, almost too good and too bone-chilling for most — so naturally it’s hard to imagine the film placing an equally weighted emphasis on its intellectual (and way less literal) deconstruction.
The good news is that there may be more Terrifiers in the pipeline (wherever that may be — God forbid they open a theme park there). Speaking less as critic and more as horror aficionado, I’d wager that’s about as good a sequel deal as horror gets. Thornton’s silent performance ranks among this year’s contenders as one of the most refreshingly unnerving ones, affronting the otherwise sensible claim that killer clowns and slashers both have depreciated permanently in value: unnerving in spite of its lack of inherent motivations, or because of it.