Damien Leone’s Terrifier 2 begins where its predecessor left off: in the office of the Miles County coroner, where Art the Clown, presumed dead of a self-inflicted bullet to the brain, has awoken. Fluorescent lights flicker. Radio static whines and whirrs. The coroner, sputtering blood, drags himself to the telephone. He dials 9-11. Help is on the way, the operator says. Alas, it’s a case of too little, too late. But hark! All is not lost. A special fate awaits the good doctor. Sure, he may be doomed to a grisly, horrifying death. But after his eyeballs have been plucked and his skull smashed open, his brain removed and his teeth scattered across the floor, the coroner’s viscera will form the medium for Art the Clown’s sole instance of verbal communication: his own name, ART, smeared on the wall in blood like a painter’s scribbled signature.
As portrayed by David Howard Thornton, Art the Clown is all grins, grimaces, and wide-mouthed sneers. Thornton, whose previous credits include the national tour of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, has described his interpretation of Art as “the bastard child of Freddy Kreuger and Harpo Marx.” It is easy to see both influences. When Leone’s camera captures Thornton from wide angles, Art appears bony and awkward, his narrow, elbowy frame all but drowning in an oversized clown suit, his lithe, angular body dwarfed by the black plastic trash bag he shoulders. Shuffling down a dark alley in smoky silhouette, he could almost be Chaplin. But in close-up, Art looks impossibly vast. His exaggerated cheekbones and sharp, hooked nose suggest Hellraiser by way of The Witches. And that smile! Oh, that smile. When Art the Clown smiles, his greasepaint-encircled, yellow-toothed mouth threatens to leap through dimensions, engulfing the screen, the theater, and everyone in it.
Thornton gave a committed, disturbing performance in the first Terrifier, which I admired for its raw, grimy power. That first film, while dripping in texture and style, felt hampered by a lack of dimension and narrative complexity; here, there are no such concerns. The sweep of Terrifier 2 is cosmic and vast. Its ambitions are mighty. It offers nothing less than a sweeping, shocking vision of Hell on Earth. That first film, too, suffered from an absence of, for lack of a better word, soul. Terrifier at times felt like a vehicle for depicting depraved acts of violence and nothing more, like Eli Roth’s Hostel or James Wan’s Saw. Its aura of sleaze and grime was so thick that no light, no humanity could penetrate. In my capsule review, I suggested Leone might be in contact with demons. But in Terrifier 2, he reveals his link to the angels.
Lauren LaVera plays the film’s heroine, a troubled yet plucky high schooler named Sienna Shaw. We meet Sienna in her candle lit bedroom, where she is painstakingly airbrushing a handmade costume while dreamy synth pop plays. The costume will replicate a character Sienna’s dead father used to draw, an angelic, winged warrior resembling Teela from the He-Man comics. LaVera, with her almond eyes and sensuously bushy brows, has the perfect look for a horror protagonist in the Langenkamp-Curtis-Weaver lineage, and her fierce, grounded, complex portrayal gives the film its necessary thread of humanity and hope. In a stunning early sequence, Sienna dreams of Art the Clown, imagining herself as a cast member in a phantasmagoric children’s TV show. Kids gorge themselves on popcorn and candy apples. An unnaturally chipper woman in clown makeup strums a banjo and sings a cheerful ditty. A boy munches on clown-shaped cereal. And then Art the Clown appears, flamethrower and machine gun in tow.
From this candy-coated nightmare, Sienna wakes to an even darker one, as she and her family become the nexus of Art the Clown’s grisly rampage. And boy, is it grisly. Faces are doused in acid, limbs severed from torsos, bodies punctured, sliced, and cleaved. Blood glops and gushes, heads implode, skulls are relieved of their scalps, wounds are salted and splattered with vinegar. The film is a theater of cruelty, more punishingly violent than almost any I’ve ever seen. Certain passages haunted me for days, replaying behind my eyelids as I struggled to sleep. I worried about the fate of my soul after seeing this movie. Leone’s cursed images provoke layers of physical discomfort I hadn’t thought possible. Reports of vomiting and fainting in theaters are likely not exaggerated. The level of gore on display would aspire to camp, were there any warmth or humor to be found. But, as others have noted, and in spite of Thornton’s comedic inspirations, nothing here is played for laughs. As Sienna and the Clown circle ever closer, Leone stages setpieces of shocking, grotesque brutality. By the time the two characters meet and do battle, you feel like you’re watching a clash of titans, forces of nature, elemental archetypes of pandemonium and grace.
Terrifier 2 wears its references proudly. Watching it, I was reminded variously of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, and Adam Wingard’s The Guest. Leone is clearly a student of horror, and an obsessive one at that. But Terrifier 2 transcends its influences, and even its genre. Ultimately, it is not a horror film at all, but an epic poem, quintessentially American yet timeless in its presentation of a Manichean cosmology of darkness and light. With this film, Leone proves that he is to be taken seriously not only as a master genre technician (which he is), but as an auteur of cosmic, visionary sleaze. With Terrifier 2 he has given us not just the best film of the year but an authentic sleazeball masterpiece, a work of psychotic genius and obscene, apocalyptic ambition.
Much of modern horror seeks to tickle rather than disturb. It aims to induce chuckles and shivers rather than genuine shock or fear. Terrifier 2 is built different. In the matinee screening I attended, the crowd was silent. There were no laughs from the audience, no shrieks of shared delight. After each kill, Art the Clown clutches his sides, rolling back and forth in silent mirth. But he’s laughing at a joke only Art himself can hear. The film’s comedy is for Art, and Art alone. Like a deity whose mirth remains opaque to mortal understanding, the Clown exacts his sneering wrath. Art, the god of chaos, laughs alone.
— Mathias Mietzelfeld is an American writer, singer-songwriter, and the drag queen known as Miss Unity. His first book, the essay collection WHO KILLED MABEL FROST? will be published in 2023 by SF/LD Books.