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Octavio Ramos Jr. is a lifelong fan of all things horror. In his teens, he began to write reviews of horror movies. Since college, he has been writing fiction in the horror genre, as well as writing reviews and commentary on every facet of horror for magazines such as Video Vista, The Zone, Horrorshow, and Albuquerque Horror Examiner. Contact him for movie reviews and interviews at email@example.com.
Terrifier: The eternal killer gets the clown treatment in this throwback to 1980s slasher flicks with a distinctly modern and gore-laden vibe
By Octavio Ramos Jr.
Inspired by the stories told in 2013’s All Hallows’ Eve (all of which touch upon Art the Clown), 2016’s Terrifier made its debut at the Telluride Film Festival and was subsequently picked up by Epic Pictures and Dread Central Presents, with the distributors giving it a limited theatrical run before the film landed in the grubby hands of the mighty Netflix.
The idea of an “eternal killer” was originally explored by John Carpenter in his masterpiece Halloween, where Michael Myers was the unstoppable and relentless bogeyman. Other films explored this concept further, from the Friday the Thirteenth saga with Jason as its eternal killer to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, with Freddy killing his victims through dreams.
In 2016, media in the United States began to report people dressed as evil clowns in odd locations, such as near forests or by schools. Incidents took place in nearly all U.S. states and even in neighboring Canada and in other countries. These incidents likely inspired writer-director Damien Leone to film Terrifier, which takes the eternal killer concept and brings it to “life” through Art the Clown, whose singular purpose of existence is to torment and murder anyone in his psychopathic path.
The movie kicks off with an extended flashback that serves as the film’s wraparound story. Television journalist Monica (Katie Maguire) in her live television show is interviewing a horribly disfigured woman, the lone survivor of a massacre perpetrated by Art the Clown, a serial killer dressed as a goth-like clown. Although the woman claims she saw Art die at the hands of police, reporters at the scene stress that the killer’s body has disappeared from the morgue.
Sometime after her show has ended, a vain Monica sits in her dressing area. She talks with someone who sounds like a significant other while adjusting her makeup and mocking the poor disfigured girl, which Monica sees as an opportunity to secure ratings and achieve popularity. Suddenly, the disfigured woman sneaks up and attacks Monica, gouging out her eyes and disfiguring the reporter’s face, all the time laughing maniacally.
The bulk of the movie then kicks into high gear. A pair of young women, brunette Tara (Jenna Kanell) and ditzy blonde Dawn (Catherine Corcoran), have left a Halloween party and are making their way back to Dawn’s car. The two are intoxicated, and recognizing this, they agree to get some food at a local pizza joint in an effort to sober up. As the two make their way to the place, the couple encounters Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton, in a standout performance) who immediately has eyes for Tara. The girls quickly make their way into the pizza joint, followed by Art, who never makes a sound and is dressed in traditional mime colors that make him look like a goth-like clown. Art makes silly but creepy advances at Tara, even giving her a cheap metal ring from a coin-operated dispenser to profess his “love.” Although Tara is mortified, Dawn embraces the attention, even taking some selfies with the hideous clown.
When Art refuses to engage with pizza worker Steve (Gino Cafarelli), he is warned that he better order food or get thrown out. Art then wanders into the restaurant’s bathroom, where he smears blood and feces throughout the small room. Steve catches him in the act and throws the clown’s ass out.
Thus begins a level of violence that hearkens to the underground gore of the 1980s but also brings with it the aesthetics of “torture porn” seen is some of today’s extreme films. Once the girls are gone, Art returns to the restaurant, where he turns the joint’s manager Ramone (Erick Zamora) into a decapitated jack-o’-lantern, complete with a candle in the mouth, and then proceeds to carve up poor Steve with an assortment of knives.
It seems that Art has a diabolical plan in mind, as when the girls get back to the car, they find that it has a punctured tire. With no spare available, Tara calls her sister Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi) to pick them up. In the meantime, Tara rushes over to a nearby apartment complex and asks the man there if she can use the bathroom. The man happens to be Exterminator Mike (Matt McAllister), who reluctantly lets her in. All these poor saps serve as fodder for Art, who starts to dispatch them one by one. Like most eternal killers, Art has a thing for blades, but he also uses a firearm, which will catch many longstanding viewers off guard. The murders are particularly brutal, with the film’s showpiece consisting of art using a hacksaw to cut through poor Dawn’s genitals and down her gut and torso and even into her neck and head.
Tara puts up one hell of a fight, but eventually she too is killed, with Art using a firearm to pelt holes into her body and face. Confusing things more is a “cat lady” (Pooya Mohseni) who squats in the apartment complex’s garage basement. This mentally deranged woman believes that a doll is her infant, among other things. With most of the principles slain by Art, it’s then up to Victoria to take Art down. But first she must undergo some horrors of her own, including watching Art wrap the breasts taken from the now-mutilated (sense a pattern here) cat lady and walk about naked like some psychotic transgendered abomination. Victoria gains the upper hand, and with the help of two police officers, manages to take Art down.
But this is an eternal killer story, so the movie has two codas. The first has the resurrection of Art, who murders the coroner and escapes into the night. The second then shows Victoria, horribly disfigured from her battle with Art, leaving the hospital after about one year of reconstructive surgeries and rehabilitation. Victoria is excited, as she will be interviewed on television the following day—this scene serves to link to the movie’s opening and implies that Art has infected Victoria through her facial mutilation (Art was eating the girl’s face when the two officers shot him dead).
Although this movie lacks any overt themes and provides little backstory for its eternal killer, Terrifier nevertheless works as a slasher and gore flick. Although the storyline in barebones and built around the hideous killings, the movie still manages to create three-dimensional characters (victims), provides the actors with some decent dialogue, and even takes the time to poke fun at signature clichés encountered in slasher flicks, such as when the female victim inevitably falls down while fleeing the killer or when a girl screams for help from a male but cannot be heard because the male is wearing headphones and is playing loud heavy metal music.
The acting is good throughout, with the actors understanding the type of movie they are in but still delivering stellar performances. Thus, a character like Dawn is supposed to be ditzy and stupid, but Catherine Corcoran delivers an understated intelligence that gives viewers hope, all the more terrifying when she dies so horribly at the hands of Art the Clown. As for the clown, David Howard Thornton turns in one hell of a performance, creating a mime clown that “speaks” through facial and body expressions. It feels odd to laugh as some of this murderer’s shenanigans, but Thornton seduces us into his world, where we at last laugh (albeit with lots of guilt) with him and perhaps even sympathize with him as we would the Frankenstein Monster, although Art has no redeeming qualities but like most humans craves love and understanding. Of course, when Art is rejected, that’s when the murders really get going.
In addition to fresh acting, Terrifier offers some fun gore effects that hearken to the slasher and gore films of the 1980s. However, the movie goes beyond such effects, keeping the camera in place beyond the comfort level of most viewers. The resultant gorefest is not for the weak of heart or gut, with even seasoned gorehounds likely to turn away at some of the more violent and gore-laden sequences. In addition to practical effects, Leone also relies on CGI, as when he delivers the image of the human jack-o’-lantern to startling effect.
The movie is not without its faults, however. Although the actors put in solid performances, they are little more than victims for Art the Clown, who in turn is simply a killer without motive. There are also characters like the cat lady, whose sole purpose it seems is to show the vulnerable side to Art’s personality. And even through there is violence toward male characters, the true sadism is saved for the female characters. Although the sisters put up a pretty good fight, they both wind up horribly disfigured. Far worse are the fates of Dawn, the cat lady, and even Monica (the reporter), all of whom are mutilated in their genitals, faces, or both.
Those seeking a horror flick with some psychological reasons for the carnage on the screen will be disappointed. Terrifier follows the mold of the 1980s slashers that preceded it, paying homage and creating some ironic twists along the way. The movie is about a killer clown, so its undercurrent of humor and irony is balanced with the viciousness of violence and gore. What many may not realize is that the clichés in the movie are intentional and are designed to showcase the movie’s bizarre sense of humor. Even the lack of a conventional plot is a nod toward what the slasher genre became. When Jamie Lee Curtis declares the Myers is the bogeyman, it set the stage for mindless and immortal killers in other films that eventually needed no back story (get it?). Not everyone will enjoy this mix of homage, humor, and gore, but those who are savvy of the genre’s evolution will definitely get what’s going on and embrace it.