Saturday, October 22, 2022

Drop On By the Clown Cafe


As someone old enough to remember when the sight of an arrow puncturing Kevin Bacon's throat in the original Friday the 13th was considered shocking rather than quaint, I found writer/director and FX artist Damien Leone's Terrifier 2 to be quite the "gee, times sure have changed" experience. Obviously there have been many films since those more innocent days that have raised the bar when it comes to splatter, whether we're talking about Re-Animator or Dead-Alive or whatever so it's not like Terrifier 2 is playing to audiences who haven't already seen their share of over the top gore but that said, I feel safe in saying Terrifier 2 is still enough to give even jaded horror fans pause. 

I know there is a segment of viewers who will take any on-screen atrocity in stride but for those who haven't gone entirely numb to violence or who aren't sociopaths, Terrified 2 is really something to behold. It is a full year's worth of old school Fangoria covers in one movie. The body count in Terrifer 2 is actually not all that high but when just one of your kills equals 20 kills in a normal slasher movie, that's fine. It's about quality, not quantity. 

As much mutilation is on display in Terrifier 2, Leone somehow avoids making it feel mean-spirited. I know others will disagree on that count and I get that (I mean, there's no question the movie is fucking ghastly) but I felt that it hit the right tone of ghoulish fun. Leone is making a live action cartoon here. This is not a True Crime story. The kills in Terrifier 2 are so extreme, Leone is one step away from going full Itchy & Scratchy and having someone's tongue tied to a rocket and having it pull all their organs out through their mouth as it blasts off into the stratosphere. 

Even though there are a couple of kills here that reference Tom Savini's work in 1980's notorious slasher Maniac, Terrifier 2 doesn't share any of the same sense of seediness as that film, in which we're forced to wallow in the diseased psyche of Joe Spinell's character. Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) isn't some real life psycho sleazeball with mommy issues, this guy is either a full on demonic creature of some kind or someone that's been inhabited by an evil force and it's Art's detachment from the real world that allows Terrifier 2 to play as a comic book style horror fantasy rather than as gritty torture porn. The splatter here is presented in the same prankish spirit as the scene in Summer School (1987) when the class is done up in gore makeup. Terrifier 2 is an incredibly violent movie but it isn't a malicious one. It wants to shock you, not make you suffer. Art may be a sadist but, as a filmmaker, there isn't a mean bone in Leone's body. For such a grisly movie, Terrifer 2 is remarkably affable.   

Beyond the gore, Leone improves on 2016's Terrifier by increasing the humor, by building up the supernatural aspects, and in introducing a strong adversary for Art in the form of high schooler Sienna Shaw (Lauren LaVera), one of the best Final Girls in ages. Leone is out to horrify us with the various gory spectacles Art unleashes, sure, but there's no mistaking the fact that Art is very much the bad guy here and he's not meant to be seen as an anti-hero in any way. Leone wants our sympathies to lie with Sienna.

Great horror heroes that are as memorable as their adversaries, to the point where they also have their own signature, cosplay-ready look, are rare and the care that both Leone and LaVera have put into developing Sienna is an aspect of Terrifier 2 that further elevates the movie's comic book vibe, lending it a mythic Good vs. Evil quality. Sienna isn't just a spunky teen with a knack for survival, she's a true warrior princess, dressed for the part like a bad ass and wielding a special sword of unknown origin imbued with magical properties. 

Post-2000 there have been several attempts to introduce slasher icons for the new millennium but none of them quite stuck. Audiences in recent years have preferred the ectoplasmic appraritions of franchises like Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring to maniacs with signature weapons. The stunning word of mouth theatrical success of Terrifier 2, however, has pushed Art to the next level. When a movie scores headlines about how audience members are fainting and vomiting and paramedics are taking people out of the theater on stretchers, you're officially big time. Art is getting the kind of foothold in the wider pop culture that a character like Victor Crowley wasn't able to. 

With the original Terrifier functioning as a proving ground, Leone has been emboldened to cut loose with the follow-up. Across the board, Leone has gone bigger and better in Terrifier 2 while Thornton continues to impress as Art. Typically slasher villains either operate in silent mode, like Michael Myers, or deliver quips and one-liners like Freddy but Art represents a unique combination of the two approaches in which he doesn't say a word but yet is able to show a lot of personality and be funny. What the future holds for Art (outside of a guaranteed Terrifier 3) is uncertain but one thing that is sure is that any discussion of modern horror will have to include him. In the A24 era we've been in where horror that indulges in deep thoughts and ruminates on trauma has dominated the conversation, Terrified 2 is a reminder of the catharsis that straight up horror can deliver (I have to say I slept like a baby after watching it). It may not be elevated but Terrifier 2 is a work of Art.  

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