VOD film review: Terrifier 2 (2022)
David Howard Thornton’s performance as Art9
Queasily inventive gore9
Anton Bitel | On 24, Oct 2022
Director: Damien Leone
Cast: David Howard Thornton, Lauren LaVera, Elliott Fullam, Sarah Voight, Kailey Haymam, Charlie McElveen, Georgia MacPhail
Near the beginning of writer/director Damien Leone’s Terrifier (2016), Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) wrote his name on the wall of a pizzeria’s toilet using his own excrement for ink – and near the beginning of Leone’s Terrifier 2, Art again writes his name, and again spreads the word of his growing cult with a graffito. This time, the canvas is the wall of a morgue. Indeed, it is the very same morgue in which, at the end of Terrifier, Art had come back to life – despite having suffered the sort of grievous injuries that no mere mortal could sustain and having been declared dead at the scene.
Now, the medium with which he fingerpaints his name is blood from a hole in the back of his skull. Which is to say that by the time of this sequel, Art has travelled a similar path to Jason Voorhees and several other sequel-happy slasher kings, shifting from hard-to-kill to essentially unkillable, and always ready, in one form or another, for the next film and the next roster of hapless victims. Here, the writing is on the wall: art is immortal.
In fact, Terrifier was not Art’s first appearance. For the clown had already figured in several of Leone’s short films and in his feature anthology All Hallow’s Eve (2013) – but it was only when Thornton took over the rôle from Mike Giannelli with Terrifier that Art entered both the public consciousness and the pantheon of horror villains. It is not just the clownish guise Art shares with the iconic Pennywise the Dancing Clown from It, and which exploits the coulrophobia from which so many have suffered since childhood, but also, in keeping with both parts of his name, the way that he turns all his acts of mutilation into highly expressive comic/mimic performances.
Art, you see, is always engaged in art. Aside from his wall-painting (both the graffiti, and the abstract murals splattered in other people’s blood), he also likes to get creative on his victims, deforming and deconstructing their bodies into a pulpy, pliable clay which he often remoulds for grisly tableaux. Art’s very silence aligns him with mute movie murderers such as Jason and Michael Myers, but it’s just another aspect of his pantomime performance, as he transforms every injury, whether meted out or incurred, into extravagant comedy. He is the Marcel Marceau of mayhem and murder.
This is key to how both Terrifier films work. With their synth-driven scores, sadistic set-pieces and endlessly recycled horror tropes, they operate all at once as gleeful throwbacks to the 80s heyday of the slasher, while also being parodic pastiches – and the showmanship of Art as Master of Ceremonies constantly foregrounds these films’ status as entertainment, even as all the depravity, cruelty and misogyny being staged ensures that any enjoyment which the viewer might experience comes with a very uneasy edge.
These films are truly excessive, exulting in a parade of extreme violence and icky gore, and making the human body a canvas for Art’s malicious vision, typically perpetrated on his victims while they are still harrowingly alive. Art, for one, sure seems to be having a good time, with his mouth twisted near permanently into a maniacally grinning rictus – but in inviting the audience to share in his sense of deranged fun, Leone is maximising our discomfort. For much as Art often forces those whom he has disfigured beyond all recognition to look at his handiwork in the mirror, Leone too repeatedly confronts us with the ugliness that his film has imposed on us, repeatedly raising the question of just who we are to watch the unfolding of this atrocity exhibition for our own viewing pleasure. Art ironises everything that he does, but Terrifier 2 keeps asking us if – and why – we laugh along with him. This is what the horror genre does – and if you find this material distasteful, morally challenging or just plain repellent, that is probably a good sign.
Pitted against Art in Terrifier 2 is another artist, the college student Sienna (Lauren LaVera). Heir to her late father’s creative streak, to his propensity for mental imbalance and to his strange, supernatural link with Art, Sienna is painstakingly turning the design of a swords-and-sorcery character that Daddy sketched for her into a costume for Halloween – and if she is to survive the bloodbath over this long night (in 2018, a year after the events of the first film), Sienna will have to become that heroine fully, and take on her antagonist in a world of dream, fantasy and legend, as well as in the abandoned fairground haunt known as ‘The Terrifier’. Much as Sienna teams up with her twelve-year-old brother Jonathan (Elliott Fullam), Art also has a junior, similarly clown-faced companion (Georgia MacPhail) who is either a hallucination conjured by Art’s psychopathy (but mysteriously also visible to Sienna and Jonathan), or the demonic presence that grants Art his regenerative powers and cheers on his endless assaults.
These four characters appear bound to each other by an obscure destiny, and it is this irrational, somewhat impenetrable aspect of the sequel which makes it seem more saga than mere slasher. That sense that this is part of a grander epic is reinforced by the film’s unruly duration – which, at 2 hours and 20 minutes, is nearly an hour longer than your average slice and dice. This is not just more killing, but also the careful building of a narrative arc stretching backwards and forwards in time, which has not yet been resolved. In Sienna, Art meets his match – but far from being just a bog-standard final girl, she is taking on the mantle of mythic heroism (and madness) that her father has bequeathed her, while working through her personal demons. If the film represents both the realisation of Sienna’s nightmares and the awakening of her own inner strengths, it also, in the end, reveals a new Art – and promises another artful sequel.
Terrifier 2 is a film that is difficult to evaluate. Perverse, brutal and nasty, it utterly succeeds on its own terms – but those terms will not, and perhaps should not, be remotely agreeable to everyone, so caveat emptor.
This review was originally published during FrightFest 2022.