Written and directed by: Damien Leone
Starring: Lauren LaVera, David Howard Thornton, Jenna Kanell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Who's laughing now?
The great thing about the horror genre is that it’s always prone to a shock to its system. No matter how cynical or desensitized audiences may get, there’s always bound to be some movie that comes around and garners attention simply for being all kinds of fucked up. Every generation has and deserves at least a few of these, and few of us genre vets can claim we didn’t once feel the draw of this kind of movie. At a certain point, most horror fans go through a gorehound phase simply to test the limits of what they can stomach, with certain movies becoming badges of honor. I have to admit I thought I was past this kind of thing, if only because I’ve increasingly found that schlocky transgression often tends to be empty calories—they’re fulfilling in the moment, but you eventually realize they’re just kind of gross once you’ve had enough of them, leaving you with a nauseating aftertaste you can’t shake.
But, as you may have heard, Damien Leone’s Terrifier 2 has simply been too ubiquitous to ignore for the past month. Its word-of-mouth, grassroots campaign—which catapulted this crowd-funded indie to multiplex success—invokes the golden age of exploitation, where filmmakers would simply promise to show you something gross or weird to earn your money. Despite having the opportunity to watch this at home, I couldn’t pass up a chance to see it on the biggest screen possible when it came to my nearest theater: no matter what I might ultimately think of the film itself, I couldn’t help but think I would miss out on a rare moment by settling to watch it at home. All these years later, here I was wanting to wear Terrifier 2 like a badge of honor, and for good reason: even if this sequel’s brand of sophomoric provocation is too silly to take seriously, it’s an undeniable experience. As the buzz suggests, it really feels like you just have to see Terrifier 2, if only because there’s not much else quite like it—for better and for worse.
Following the events of the previous film, the impossibly resurrected Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) butchers a few more victims at the county morgue before heading to a laundromat to wash off his suit, which is bad news for the other lone patron of the joint. After vanishing for a year, he resurfaces once again just in time for Halloween, this time to stalk and terrorize high school student Sienna Shaw (Lauren LaVera) and her friends and family. Sienna and her brother Jonathan (Elliott Fullam) have had a rough year following the loss of their father, whose sketchbook full of drawings hold some bizarre connection to Art’s latest rampage.
While the cryptic mythology building at work here means Terrifier 2 features more plot than expected (and certainly more than its predecessor); however, the big question that looms is whether it’s enough to justify a 138-minute runtime that feels downright imposing considering the subject matter. Conventionally speaking, it isn’t, not when this sequel is primarily invested in staging the outlandish acts of mayhem and mutilation that inspired its infamous reputation. However, Terrifier 2 isn’t exactly a conventional movie, and its excess is a feature, not a bug. Everything—from the prolonged gore sequences to the psychotronic freakouts—is engineered to linger on past the point of discomfort, as Leone leaves an impression via sheer force of will. There’s an audacity to this enterprise that’s impossible to deny, and there’s certainly enough odd flourishes in the storytelling that compel you to give Leone the benefit of the doubt. Unlike its predecessor, Terrifier 2 isn’t just a glorified effects reel—there’s a sense that there’s some method behind this madness, no matter how vague it seems to be at the moment.
Make no mistake, though—this one still makes for one hell of an effects reel, which answers the major question raised by Terrifier 2’s reputation: is it really that unhinged? Or is this just a case of a generation experiencing Baby’s First Gore Movie? Let me just say this: out of the hundreds (thousands?) of horror movies I’ve ever seen in wide release, Terrifier 2 is easily the goriest, and it’s every bit as fucked up as you’ve heard. I know some of the real degenerates out there will scoff, contending that some truly underground, fringe productions are far more transgressive and offensive, and they’d be right. This isn’t exactly the likes of Violent Shit, but I also highly doubt you’ll ever see an Andreas Schnaas film play on 1,000 screens and garner mainstream press coverage. It’s a different weight class, and it’s a silly debate anyway. Rest assured, this one will have normies blowing chunks, and it might even make the true sickos among us wince a little bit. There were certainly some moments that made me squirm in my chair, if only because Leone is adamant that you see every gross detail as his camera captures nearly every hack and slash.
Leone’s effects background ensures that the gags are top notch, not to mention realized practically. It should come as no surprise that this was part of the film’s ethos, going as far back to its Indiegogo campaign, which was launched with the express purpose of funding one particularly violent outburst. To that end, he makes everyone gets their money’s worth by stretching the limits of body mutilation on screen. It’s not enough for Art to simply murder most of his victims, who die slow, torturous deaths, allowing Leone and his effects crew to capture every painstaking, grotesque detail. You rarely see this kind of messy, splattery gore, much less in a movie that plays in wide release around the country, and I suppose it’s a delight for the gore crowd because of its gross-out spirit. Sure, it’s pretty grim stuff, watching characters die in horrible ways, but it’s ultimately so cartoonish that the bit becomes a little tired.
This brings me to my biggest issue with Terrifier 2: it wants to shock, appall, and delight in equal measure, a bizarre blend that never quite finds its footing. The gore gags are simply too outrageous to be truly offensive, but they also linger far too long to be truly delightful. Effective gore should be like a magic trick, a gag utilizing sleight of hand and brevity that leaves the audience marveling before it vanishes into the ether. Leone, on the other hand, wants to rub the audience’s nose in every nasty nook and cranny, making. Much like Art returning to literally rub the salt into the wound of one of his victims, Leone seems to take a sadistic pleasure in making the audience squirm. He’s obviously well-versed in the rhythms of a slasher movie, and he’s out to completely disrupt it by staging scenes that linger past the point of discomfort. And I get it—at this point, sheer excess might be the best way to shock the system. Mere decapitations no longer suffice, so we have to watch as Art snaps a girl’s arm in half before scalping her and flaying her alive in a scene that becomes more ridiculous with each escalation. It starts to feel like someone straining to repeat a joke, and the returns diminish with each repetition of the punchline—and this is not to mention that the humor often comes at the expense of characters that don’t deserve such a fate. There are moments when you feel compelled to laugh at how ridiculous it all is, but then you’ll wince during a scene where a kid discovers his mom’s head has been liquified by a shotgun.
Ultimately, it’s tough to shake the mean streak lurking throughout Terrifier 2, a movie that recaptures the exploitative approach of vintage 80s slashers but rarely harnesses their playful spirit. The most entertaining films of that era thrived on a light touch, which is odd to say about a genre dedicated to spilling guts and shattering skulls. There’s nothing especially light about Terrifier 2, and its brand of sophomoric nihilism is embodied by Art himself, a truly despicable maniac whose playfulness only heightens his deplorability. Loene leans into the paradox of a killer clown, allowing Thornton to go with a big, broad theatricality without ever making so much as a sound. If Art were a chatterbox like Pennywise or a wise-cracker like Freddy Krueger, the effect would be wholly diminished—there’s something genuinely unsettling about Art’s silence, and Thornton’s dead-eyed mean streak makes him even more contemptible. I don’t know that Art will ever occupy the same space of other horror icons, if only because he earns the audience’s disdain in a way those others don’t. You absolutely want to see someone give this motherfucker what’s coming to him because he’s a real asshole.
Thankfully, Leone completely obliges here with the introduction of Sienna, whose plucky resolve is a rare glimmer of hope in this franchise. Her relationship with her brother (who is sort of a weirdo and a little too into Art the Clown) and her mother (who’s still broken by her husband’s recent death) is raw, messy, but also real.These struggles bring an crucial dimension to Terrifier 2 because there’s suddenly something very human at stake here, which wasn’t always the case with the original film. Sienna’s encounter with Art becomes an epic, destined showdown, and, even though the mechanics of all of this are vague, it becomes quite a rousing underdog story of this resilient cosplay badass facing off against pure evil. LaVera’s radiant presence pulls Terrifier 2 back from the brink, injecting it with an unexpected sweetness, and I hope this proves to be a breakout role for her. I might have reservations about Art’s place in the horror icon pantheon, but there’s no doubt Sienna is one of the great final girls in recent memory. Her tale vaguely echoes the dynamic of the Elm Street sequels because there’s a sense that only she and her brother truly comprehend this ordeal, essentially pitting them against the world and making them easy to root for. A magic sword is also involved, which is the sort of weird mythology you might see introduced in a much later sequel. Leone’s fast-forwarding right to the weird stuff with his franchise, though, and, you know what? Good for him.
If there’s one thing Terrifier 2 isn’t lacking, it’s audacity, and it’s ultimately what makes it such a singular experience. Yes, a lot of that is tied to the outrageous gore, but Leone’s temerity extends beyond that. There’s a bolder style to this one, especially when compared to its relatively artless predecessor, whose rawness heightened its abrasiveness. While the camerawork and lighting in this one don’t blunt the edges, they at least suggest that Leone is capable of more than mere provocation. Terrifier 2 boasts genuine ambiance and atmosphere by embracing its All Hallows trappings, particularly when its climax unfolds at an abandoned carnival. Leone goes especially bold here, paying off the weird digressions earlier in the movie, like a bizarre nightmare sequence that finds Art gunning down the cast and crew of a commercial. Many of these flourishes—including a confounding mid-credits sequence—aren’t exactly lucid, but there seems to be some purpose behind them beyond the shock-and-awe theatrics.
Whatever is going on in Terrifier 2, it’s being done with absolute, total conviction, and that’s the true backbone of exploitation movies: a commitment to a bit, and this movie is nothing if not completely committed to its unhinged provocation. Honestly, it would probably be more my speed if it were more of a restrained, rollicking slasher movie; however, it definitely wouldn’t be Terrifier 2 in that case. This sequel is a great example of warts-and-all filmmaking proving to be more interesting than safe, refined filmmaking because it doesn’t go down easy. It’s so nasty, ugly, and altogether vicious that you can hardly believe its most outrageous gambit: an insistence that all of this can also house the weirdly sweet tale of a kid confronting and vanquishing evil, apparently fulfilling the prophecy of her dead father. One thing’s for sure: Terrifier 2 is quite an experience, and it’s cool to live through a seminal moment in horror history that’s sure to become genre lore.
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