“Terrifier 2” doesn’t try to ‘elevate’ the genre; it’s a love letter to the blood, gore, and brutality we love — served at the public table.
A chill has fallen across the neighborhoods of America, and the crunchy footfall over fallen autumn leaves will soon be replaced with a muted march over frosted sidewalks. The porchlights have been turned off, the Jack O Lanterns have been snuffed out, and the Halloween candy has been hidden somewhere in the home so that it can be reasonably rationed out to the kids without fear of upset stomachs. For a number of film fans, they won’t see another horror movie until October of next year.
Fortunately, it’s been quite a stellar spooky season thanks in large part to the surprise success of Terrifier 2, a low-budget, ultraviolent slasher film produced by Dark Age Cinema and Fuzz on the Lens Productions that cost $250K to make and amassed more than $5M over three weeks in the theaters. During that time, it also held tightly to a spot in the box office’s Top 10, an outlier of genre filmmaking that some suggest may represent the future of horror.
But we’ve got some particular bodies to put to rest before we can reach a conclusion like that one.
Picking up where the last Terrifier film left off, the sequel finds Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) mysteriously resurrected to resume his bloody swath across Miles County. The movie then fast-forwards an entire year as we meet Sienna Shaw (Lauren LaVera), putting the finishing touches on her Halloween costume, designed for her by her late father. It’s Art the Clown’s favorite night of the year, and it is inevitable Art will cross paths with Sienna and her family before the night is out.
For those aghast with writer-director Damien Leon’s 2016 splatter slasher Terrifier, they likely struggled to understand how the sequel could raise the bar.
But raise the bar, Terrifier 2 does.
The supporting cast is capable enough with what little they are given to work with, too often meant for little more than the vicious experiments orchestrated by Leon, the physical effects crew, and Thornton himself, whose Art is the blood-soaked star of the show.
Terrifier 2 has a good memory of what was violently accomplished in the last film so as not to repeat itself. As a result, the kills are tremendously more brutal than before. And as gut-wrenching as Art’s violence can be, the clown’s impish behavior still defuses the film of outright nihilism until the next scene of flesh-shredding depravity.
It’s only in this way that Terrifier 2 doesn’t entirely devolve into a production fascinated by its own ability to disgust and disaffect, but it certainly toes the line.
However, extremity horror – that brand of genre filmmaking less concerned with violence and gore that looks realistic and more concerned with sometimes absurd forays into the aggressively obscene – is nothing new to horror aficionados.
The difference here is that most horror film fans don’t know where to find cinematic examples of extreme horror; certainly, it’s never been so accessible as the local movie plex before.
Most horror film fans share only a vocabulary in the mainstream releases – found footage film franchises like Paranormal Activity (2007), the Warren adventures in The Conjuring (2013), and the juvenile dread of dolls in The Boy (2016) – but not the bone-snapping intrusiveness of extremity horror.
The violence of Terrifier 2 isn’t novel – it’s simply new to the larger number of viewers sitting in the audience, providing only a handful of unexpected shocks for veteran horror fans.
So despite insinuations that Terrifier 2 is the next step in the evolution of horror, the film is nothing new — except for how it deviates from some of the horror tropes of the many past decades.
One of the first tenets of the traditional horror film is the runtime, which is generally economical because the movie is bloated with jump scares and violence, not exposition. Universal Monster pictures in the 1930s hit a window of about 70 to 80 minutes, and most horror films for the past 50 years barely surpass 90 minutes. The 2015 meta-horror comedy Final Girls even makes a joke of it.
Yet, some exceptions exist. Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) clocks in at 146 minutes. And the 2018 remake Suspiria tops out at 153 minutes, an hour longer than Argento’s original film. Meanwhile, Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) is a 171-minute juggernaut of folk horror filmmaking. These films used that extra time to flesh out particulars that usually get in the way of the anticipated scares when most horror films don’t bother.
Slasher films, for better or for worse, have little to say beyond the carnage. And were it not for some of the excruciatingly extended kills of Terrifier 2, the film wouldn’t run for an entire 138 minutes.
Few scenes of violence in the picture are brief, for Art the Clown takes his time at each opportunity, adding bloody after bloodied insult to injury, contributing to the over-the-top cruelty of the film.
If traditional horror films maintain a short screen time for a lack of character development, Terrifier 2 withdraws a surplus of time and uses it to disturbing effect, not only to inject the film with some unexpected character and story but also to annihilate both its characters and the resolve of its audience.
Because when it comes to Terrifier 2, the blood is clearly its lifeblood.
Many horror films are produced with an understanding of self-censorship, working to earn the more marketable R rating and avoid the box office kiss of death that is NC-17, gutting their film’s content in order to screen in as many theaters as possible.
But Terrifier 2 wasn’t produced under those guidelines.
Bypassing the MPAA, the film would screen as unrated and was initially planned for only 850 theaters nationwide for four days. It was a daring move on the part of distributor Bloody Disgusting, but the gamble would pay off, earning additional theaters and an extended theatrical run.
Films under a similar framework haven’t been as lucky. Writer-director Adam Green, for one, has sidestepped the MPAA and distributed his slasher Hatchet franchise in various ways, and they’ve earned a respectable cult status, deservedly so. His films remain a throwback to the camp of 1980s slasher films, seasoned with excessive violence and some self-aware humor but certainly not as unsettling as Terrifier 2 due to the frenetic cinematography of the kills.
Meanwhile, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), famous for the brutality that the film’s title suggests, does not show the visceral violence on screen. One doesn’t see the hook penetrate the victim’s flesh nor see the chainsaw mangle a body. The violence is insinuated and made more palpable through the viewer’s imagination.
But in Terrifier 2, there is no nuance when it comes to savagery. There is no subtext. The movie appears altogether distinctive from other horror films because it is not artful. Again, it may not appear unique to an audience that subsists on a healthy diet of horror, but the theaters in the West Chicago suburbs or the Midwestern capital of Des Moines or nestled within a shopping mall in Nebraska have never seen something quite as terrifying as Terrifier 2.
Ultimately, that’s what makes its arrival on the big screen so remarkable – a cinematic jetliner crash landing when all we’ve ever known were minor fender benders on the roadway.
In this fashion, it’s natural to envision Damien Leon’s latest as something revoltingly fresh on the horror landscape, a film of its ilk that seemed to crack a long unbroken code of access. The marriage of its independent upbringing and its undeniable success should serve as inspiration to other genre filmmakers who fight to ensure that their movies see the light of day, let alone discover unbelievable success.
But it’s difficult to also not see Terrifier 2 as the product of luck – of being in the right place at the right time – when horror film audiences have seen the same stories played out similarly for the past two decades and more.
Like the film’s barbaric villain that refuses to relinquish its hold on our hearts, minds, and throats, the ingredients behind Terrifier 2 have always been lying in wait, like a seemingly innocuous clown at a circus –
– Hiding in plain sight.