Last Monday, my own mother—a self-professed scaredy-cat and religious viewer of THE GOLDBERGS—asked me the most insane question she’s ever asked me: “Do you know what TERRIFIER 2 is?”
Pause. Hold on.
How the fuck did my mother know about the two-and-a-half-hour sequel to a 2017 sleazy cheapo slasher written, directed, edited, and make-up effects’d by some Long Island weirdo?
It’s not like TERRIFIER was beloved. Its killer, Art the Clown—a mime slathered in grease paint and craggy teeth dragging a trash bag of assorted blunt instruments—is one of the most desperate recent pleas to establish a modern horror icon. Though the block might not be chanting Art’s name like they do Chucky’s or Freddy’s, the savage jester has persevered in the subconscious as the patron saint of Redbox trash, fostering a minor horror convention legacy on the basis of its killer clown thumbnail on Netflix and Tubi—honestly impressive given the content overflow of the last decade, but by no means a cult phenomenon. That changed though in October 2022, when my mother asked me about the sequel.
“Mom, why do you know what that is?”
“I heard about it on Howard Stern.”
“You listen to Stern??”
As much as we’re treating it as such, TERRIFIER 2 is no longer an oddity: grossing upwards of $8 million on a crowdfunded micro budget of $250,000, more people will have seen TERRIFIER 2 than TÁR. Or TILL. Or THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN. Or the new James Gray movie, or maybe even, when the leaves settle, the 2022 Palme d’Or winner. As I type, 4 of 10 films in the U.S. box office are a new slate of horror flicks, including the clean sweep hit of the year, SMILE, an original IP (as original as smiling into the camera can be) made by a Chapman University grad that’s grossed $185 million worldwide. As will be true till the end of time, horror is never out of fashion, and it is so en vogue that you can strike oil on a zero-budget sequel to a streaming movie so nasty that no one really talked about it until they all saw each other at the same showtime. It’s usually a once per decade type of thing, and while TERRIFIER 2 isn’t making PARANORMAL ACTIVITY money, it’s making something more exciting: a consistent financial return. Horror geek word-of-mouth can only do so much, so what’s really driving this? Well, chances are that your sweet innocent mother tuned into the softer side of satanic panic on morning news and heard about all the fainting and vomiting happening in theaters. Jackpot.
So, this one’s for you, Mom. I’m here to tell you what TERRIFIER 2 is, and I’m proud to report that Damien Leone has accomplished the unthinkable: achieving the world record for most flat mediums in a two-hour time frame—a jumbo-sized feature with zero perspective and a dogmatic commitment to envisioning the stick figure storyboards that were drawn up at every shoot day’s dinner break. Its plot, a significantly plumper exploration of mental health and familial grief than the original TERRIFIER’s scant story of two broads getting trapped in a warehouse, introduces a brother-sister duo that, like us, end up trapped in a long-winded hike to the same destination as always.
TERRIFIER 2 has no interest in human interaction until the inevitable cruel action that punctuates each one. It’s certainly not 138 nonstop minutes of bloodshed, so how about we wrap up this turkey, brother, you’ve got all of us sitting here watching a straight-to-VHS rip-off of THE GUEST when we could all just be re-discovering THE GUEST. Dan Stevens arguably plays a better Art the Clown! Later in the film, our heroine is drugged with a tab of molly, and, don’t worry, the visuals never change to mirror her mania, but, doubly don’t worry, the effects of the drug wear off so quickly that the whole 10-minute sequence you just watched didn’t even effect the storytelling, but at least you got to spend more time with your scream queen? Lauren LaVera is a charming watch, but the camerawork is such horseshit that she often looks tossed into a shot as though she were a prop lamp.
Is Art anxiety personified? Is this about mental illness? Is Art her… Long-lost father? Y’know, the schizo dad we keep hearing about who had the type of brain tumor that makes you hit your kids. The self-congratulatory post-peak-horror Letterboxd heads have already rushed to crown TERRIFIER as the gnarly antidote to slow-burn trauma haunts, but minute-after-minute of this second installment evinces Leone’s rush to the podium to say his piece alongside them. The skin of an anti-establishment chaos agent is draped over the flesh of an earnest actor who wants to join the big boy club himself. The curse of crowdfunded movies is that some of these motherfuckers never got out of the pitching & rewards redemption grindset, the films often feeling like SHARK TANK pitches instead of encapsulating the supposed freedom attached to working outside of a traditional studio system. TERRIFIER 2 even pleads to place its try-hard mascot in the same ranks as Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. Creepy open-mouth smiles are easy, silent Jason Vorhees type costumed killers are easier, and clowns are the easiest. It’s the furthest thing from a boardroom, but every core decision is a business proposal.
Some of Art’s tactics conjure sense images of masochistic kink, but the character derives no sexual gratification from tearing off a woman’s torso and slinking it atop his own naked skin: he’s as amused at himself as Leone is. The big scene of the first TERRIFIER is when Art splits a woman in half; a classically ditzy blonde whore is hung upside down by her ankles and is vivisected with a hacksaw from the vagina downward, while the onlooking virgin innocent best friend screams in agony. It’s a sickening set piece on two counts: for one, it is true-blue exploitation filth that’ll make you want to join the local school board, and on the other, the splatter is so lackluster that it’s not worth the unease that comes from bearing witness to the concept. A single intestine falls onto the floor, while a juice box’s worth of blood squirts atop it, and Art keeps hacking at a prosthetic dummy when we aren’t cutting away from the action altogether. Vaginal mutilation and killing dogs are two types of violence you really have to earn, because if they end up in a less than stellar product, then I’m gonna want to kick your ass. Which might be what the soft-spoken, seemingly well-natured Damien Leone secretly wants! He’s an incredibly endearing interviewee and a warm convention presence, but his breakneck filmmaking style can provide a Freudian read on the man’s energy.
Based on the number of Q&As I’ve seen with Leone, the TERRIFIER productions were not easy shoots: dwindling money, sleepless weeks, freezing temperatures, condemned shooting locations, and an overworked director stretching himself thin by serving as the head of multiple departments so he can save some extra cash. I’ve been there. So while I’m flagellating his babies, I can’t deny the empathy coursing through my skin as I watch these labors of sin. The sticky coating of red-dyed corn syrup makes it so even if you try to comfort yourself in a brief moment of solitude, you’re probably going to ruin whatever blanket or garment you’ve chosen for your brief rest. Erasing a quarter of your shot list in the frigid autumn air of 4:47 AM New York with your assistant director barking that you only have 50 minutes left to wrap location, a sliver of that time until the sun comes up, and 10 minutes until we have to buy a second dinner for the crew. Night shoots can kill, and when it’s traceable cash linked to your loved ones taking one last gamble on you, the pressure can land a finishing blow. You cut, and you cut, and you cut, and what you have left are the bare essentials of your vision. Independent filmmaking is as much a psychological teardown as diamond mining, with 90% less of the physical anguish, and 200% more the self-imposed punishments. So while one could argue that the TERRIFIER films are purposely thoughtless demonstrations of screen violence, there’s a chance they’ve never made a film under these conditions and don’t quite realize how embarrassingly revealing a captured image really is. But okay, okay, sure, I’m just theorizing.
And then Damien Leone started talking to the trades, noting that his personal barriers lay at the head of a cock. By far the tamest murder in TERRIFIER 2 is the one in which a practically nameless boyfriend is castrated (off-screen) as he’s taking a piss in the road, first stabbed directly in the groin and then the knife wiggled about until a quarter split sausage ends up in Art’s hands and smeared against the car window of his next cowering victim. The guy’s limbs stay intact, his clothes stay on, and, for the first time in either TERRIFIER, Art gifts him the fate of an open casket funeral. Hell, in the first act, a cast of child actors is mowed down with a machine gun, but they’re played by college-aged Backstage applicants. The girlfriend who runs away? Well, in what has become the image of this mondo trasho vomitorium that’s seared itself into my synapses, she gets her chest caved in by a mallet pierced with nails until she transforms from a human body to a wet ditch. This is after acid is tossed in her face and before her heart is eaten raw. It’s an evisceration of her visage so intense that the flapping latex enters an uncanny valley of genuine viscera: the safety net of horror’s gory bombast jackknifes into war crime snuff footage of paramilitaries rendering innocent bodies into paste, looking so fake that it cycles back to ultra-realism. The men get murdered by Michael Myers, while the women are summarily executed by a walking garbage disposal.
I’ve long held an admittedly mean-spirited take that Guillermo del Toro’s talents would better suit a role as the modern Giger than as a writer-director (my grace note: I am still proudly 1 of 30 of THE SHAPER OF WATER’s biggest fans), and I think it wouldn’t be a blow to Leone’s ego to remove himself from the head of the table and make a lateral shift to a modern Tom Savini. Get this guy in a room with Brandon Cronenberg, Zach Cregger, Julia Ducournau, and the Mancinelli & Sims-Fewer duo. And when they’re done, loan him out to the Koreans, and from there, send him on a world tour. Art the Clown is an anarchist that deserves a workspace as fluid as he is; dude uses scalpels, salt, and kitchen utensils like he’s performing free jazz, but in a series of films that can’t even swivel the camera on the tripod its bolted onto. He flirts with the notion of letting loose. The back quarter of TERRIFIER 2 concerns magical daggers, dream realms, immaculate conception of evil, and the small town mythos that grants the aforementioned fantasies their immense powers, but Leone is already in over his head just trying to capture action in the frame.
If this monkey dances how I want him to dance, then chances are I can turn a partial blind eye to some of his rampant misogyny. His special effects mastery has got my ticket pre-sold for TERRIFIER 3, but that ain’t happening so long as his meek creativity is strung along by an obsessive wish to land his cloying clown its own Halloween Horror Nights maze. It always feels good to root for independent artists, and I’m glad we’re all so prone to charity even when faced with someone’s gleefully tasteless indie spirit, but TERRIFIER signaled a disproportionate number of red flags in its measly 80 minutes. The vibes were off. There’s horror convention weirdos who scrounge up $100k to pay tribute to the gory VHS rentals they hid from their parents, and then there’s those same weirdos who specifically want to evoke those video nasties for what they did to women.