From its opening scene, Damien Leone’s Halloween slasher is thoroughly entertaining and delightfully morbid, capitalizing on its small budget and its talented team of performers and production crew.
Through a masterful performance by David Howard Thornton as Art the Clown, expert effects chock full of blood and bone, and jolting cinematography that keeps the plot moving at a frenetic pace, Leone’s Terrifier is arguably the most effective and grisly slasher film released within the past decade.
Coupled with Paul Wiley’s outstanding soundtrack, an echo of the synth-driven scores of many a horror picture from the 1980s, the film combines gore, thrills, and dark humor to impressive, bone-chilling effect.
Terrifier opens with a framing device that will make audiences question exactly how the film is going to end.
An attractive news anchor is in the middle of interviewing a woman with severe facial injuries, the tragic victim of a Halloween-night massacre of which she remained the only survivor. While the news anchor appears sympathetic to the poor woman’s plight, a private phone call in her dressing room reveals her secretly callous nature. Much to the audience’s shock and horror, the injured woman explodes from the shadows and viciously murders the news anchor in the first of many gruesome scenes.
With Wiley’s soundtrack pulsing in the background, the disfigured, blood-splattered woman begins to laugh, delighted over her bloody handiwork, the mutilated body of the news anchor crumpled on the floor before her.
Terrifier then takes audiences back to the fateful night of the Halloween massacre to show them what events could have led to such a horrific outcome.
After drinking too much at a Halloween party, blonde-haired Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) and raven-haired Tara (Jenna Kanell) make the wise choice to sober up before attempting to drive home. They encounter Art the Clown on a deserted city street, a black trash bag of rusty weaponry tossed over his shoulder, his face covered in eerie clown makeup and his lean physique dressed from head to toe in black and white circus garb.
Art is fascinating to watch. Grinning one moment and sour-faced the next, he does not speak or make any sounds; even his laughter remains silent. Thornton’s performance is the film’s highlight, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s recent hypnotic turn as the Joker.
But to their credit, both Corcoran and Kanell do an admirable job in their confrontation with Art later at a pizza parlor, neither one of them sure of the strange clown’s intent. Dawn pays the ultimate price for her flirtatious mockery of the twisted clown, while Tara’s cautiousness keeps her alive long enough to pose a genuine threat to the killer’s well-being.
As the narrative takes the two women into the bowels of a rat-infested industrial building, what follows is an action-packed hack-and-slash featuring a handful of other collateral victims (including a well-intentioned exterminator and a homeless woman and her rather unusual “offspring”).
All throughout the mayhem, Terrifier is shot with grimy intensity, every scene filled with shadow and grime and blood-tinged filth, while Wiley’s score consistently generates suspense with fuzzy synths, rapid electronic drums, and startling stingers.
As the body count rises, Art becomes a see-saw of emotions and physical reactions. On the one hand, he can be relentlessly savage and cruel, eviscerating one victim to such horrific extent that for some viewers the film may be difficult to watch. On the other hand, the killer can be over-the-top and sardonic, his face erupting into a weird cannibal grin as he taunts and stalks his victims (or even poses for a cell-phone picture with one of them).
In a scene during which Art uses a gun to put the finishing touches on one of his kills, his expression is so bleak and empty that Thornton captures the genuine existential suffering of the character. Later, as one of Art’s potential victims gathers enough strength to retaliate against her attacker, Art bursts into a silent scream, an effective way of showcasing the villain’s pain while still maintaining an almost supernatural bent to his existence.
In addition to these conflicting behaviors and mannerisms, at various points in the movie Art seems to recognize that his killings are senseless and pointlessly barbaric, a theme that Leone will hopefully explore in the sequel (currently in production).
Although there is no question that Art is a psychopath who delights in the murder of young women, Terrifier makes a few attempts to show a shred of humanity lurking beneath the killer’s ghastly face-paint and cold-hearted exterior.
It is this small but unique touch to Leone’s script that elevates Art above the more traditional, more emotionless horror-movie villain.
As Terrifier reaches its conclusion, audiences will discover the identity of the disfigured woman from the opening scene. Like many a great slasher before it, Leone’s film ends with the suggestion that Art will rise from the gut-strewn carnage of his latest massacre to wreak havoc on more unsuspecting souls (in the denouement, Wiley’s killer soundtrack magnifies the clown’s resurrection, underscoring Art’s preternatural power and the possibility of his immortality).
However, due to the movie’s framing device, the sequel to Terrifier should amplify the stakes as there is now at least one character determined to have her own revenge against the psycho-killer. Here’s hoping Terrifier 2 will feature this ultimate showdown, pitting an evil, indestructible clown against a lone and rage-filled survivor.
In Art the Clown, Damien Leone has gifted horror fanatics with an iconic character, a silent and sadistic killer whose backstory is yet to be explored and whose very presence on the screen evokes chills and laughter in equal measure.
Terrifier stands on its own as a mini-masterpiece, but also promises even greater terrors to come.
Terrifier is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Epic Pictures Releasing, while the Terrifier soundtrack is available as both a vinyl and digital release from Forever Midnight (temporarily unavailable, but you can email for notifications when it is back in stock).
Written by Josh Hancock, Morbidly Beautiful