Watch Terrifier and Be Terrifiered
Two young women stumble home drunk from a Halloween party. A mute, psychotic clown chases them into an abandoned building. Terror ensues. As does hilarity.
I don’t exult in highbrow horror flicks the way I do in low-rent trash. Trash that somehow exceeds the limitations of its crippling budget is a rare thing, but when it happens it is like finding good black metal on Bandcamp — a miracle. The Exorcist, Hereditary, The Shining: These are all wonderful stories filmed by masterful aesthetes, and long may they reign supreme in the halls of horror. The only problem that they share is that, while they flaunt beautiful photography, sympathetic characters, and a pleasant minimum of plot holes, they are just no fucking fun.
Damien Leone’s Terrifier (2017) contains plot holes, a single semi-sympathetic character, and no photographic compositions worthy of mention. It is a low-budget, low-concept, unsentimental hunk of gutter skuzz. And it rules.
My assistant and I came across it at seeming random on Netflix and watched it under duress (i.e., on one of those depressing nights that fall between the season finale of one thing you actually wanted to watch and the season premier of another). About fifteen minutes into the film, I turned to her and said something along the lines of: “This is better than eighteen of the last twenty horror films we’ve paid to see in the theater.” She agreed. Almost all horror that makes it to the theater these days is irredeemably tepid, and I can say this with authority because we are obsessed with horror and we have no children to ruin our lives so we see almost all horror that makes it to the theater. Even when a wide-release horror is so bad that it insults your intelligence (Slender Man, The Bye Bye Man, Rings, Annabelle, Lights Out), it results in a better experience than most other theater films, not to mention most of the indie horror drivel that washes up on the feculent shores of Netflix (The Babadook: ugh, just kill that fucking kid already…).
Terrifier aims to insult your intelligence most brutally, yet somehow fails, and therein lies its appeal. Or, well, its appeal actually lies in competently built tension and a killer synth soundtrack and so, so much stabbing, not to mention torrents of blood and guts, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The film opens with a bit of a janky framing device: The camera pans slowly in on an old television set playing an interview with a woman whose face is terrifyingly mutilated. The purpose of the device is to disseminate the information that the killer clown responsible for mutilating the woman’s face may still be on the loose — which is confirmed when a clown shoe kicks the TV. The setup is a bit ham-fisted, but it plays out minutes later in the type of gruesome twist that is usually reserved for the last minute of a dumb horror flick that was made for no better reason than to execute a twist. If you aren’t hooked by this scene (which I will not spoil), then I guess just go watch The Vampire Diaries or something.
The quality of lighting and image in this opening sequence is on the low side. And it remains so throughout. But don’t worry. By the second murder scene, you’ll understand that 90% of the budget went into gnarly gore effects, and you will be thanking Mr. Leone for making that sacrifice.
You might also soon be thanking him for having the integrity to hire a couple of capable actresses (Jenna Kanell and Catherine Corcoran) instead of incompetent hacks you can’t wait to watch die. Not saying the acting is spectacular — just that it is passable enough to sell the textured dialogue of the early scenes. At least one of these two characters — the chatty one with the filthy mouth — is destined by horror tropes to die. But Leone is in no rush to kill any main characters. He allows their personalities to build, for them to become likable (or at least believable), while the dread induced by the appearance of a silent, creepy-ass clown named Art builds and builds. He follows the girls to a pizza joint. He sits down and smiles at them like a ghoul. He never blinks. He mimes some jokes. One of the women is amused; the other is terrified.
If you’re the kind of asshole that cannot stand a measured set-up, calm yourself, for Terrifier‘s body count will eventually sate you sick, sick lust. The film’s centerpiece is a kill scene so unflinching and extravagant that it kind of makes me want to hate the movie the way I hate Hostel, Saw, and every one of the pointless sequels they spawned. I love slashers but detest gore porn. The latter never fails to misunderstand what the former knows: that there is a fine line between horror and sadism. Terrifier teeters on the right side of the line, more or less, and yet the real reason I cannot stay mad at the film is the performance of David Howard Thornton as Art the Clown. Once you see his deranged, humorless grin, you’ll fall in love. While all the blood and guts are flying, he pulls off a series of Chaplinesque gags that will have you spitting out your beer–that is, if you are not so awe-struck that you forget to laugh. It wouldn’t surprise me if Thornton were a clown in real life. What did surprise me was that his performance was superior to that of Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in last year’s It.
Beyond a certain tipping point, Terrifier is murder and gallows humor all the way down. There are a couple more big twists that seasoned horror fans will probably see coming but, as I mentioned earlier, this is not a set ’em up and knock ’em down kind of story, so the pleasure is not so much in waiting for the twists as in watching Art the Clown work.
So, to recap: Characters you’d like to see survive, authentically eerie atmosphere, superb gore on a budget, and a clown that is actually scary and — even more impressive — actually funny.
Terrifier is streaming on Netflix this very instant. Watch it. It’s terrifiering.