Terrifier Review (Film, 2018) #31DaysofHorror
From the opening credits sequence, you know you’re in for something authentically 70s with Terrifier. The whole film is set up like the sequel to a slasher that never existed. We see a blurry news report on an old tube television describing a massacre by Art the Clown the previous year. A reporter is interviewing the only survivor, a woman who is now severely disfigured from the injuries she sustained. The camera pans out to reveal that the person watching the broadcast is the killer clown, loading up a trash bag full of customized weapons and slapping on the greasepaint for another night of terror.
Terrifier is an old-fashioned slasher that knows its history. From the grainy filter and slightly desaturated film stock to the unnatural pink and blue lighting that lurks in the corners, writer/director Damien Leone’s film is a labor of love. Even the oldest gags can seem brutal and terrifying when wielded with precision and passion.
The late ‘70s style slasher is itself a referential beast, borrowing from the Italian giallo and the British modern Gothic/splatter cinema to create an aggressive form of horror. Characters are introduced only to be done away with in unimaginably gruesome ways. Usually a single survivor is the witness to all of the crimes and is toyed with every step of the way by the killer. The American slasher typically allows that woman to survive—the proto-final girl better codified in the ‘80s.
All of this is without the pesky morality that plagued the genre in the ‘80s. The violence is random and all the more terrifying. It’s not a matter of the one good girl—pure, kind, compassionate, “worthy”—surviving. It’s a matter of chance. Good, bad, or barely defined makes no difference on fate once the killer comes in the way.
That killer becomes the real lifeline in this particular style. It’s true that we don’t really get to know them. They are, like Michael Myers or Leatherface, the Boogeyman. They are a personification of fear and evil that sees only life where they believe none should exist. These killers are defined by their appearance, their stature, and their costume. We don’t always get to see them in full in the typical ‘70s style, adding additional tension over what will happen.
What makes Terrifier seem so fresh in a genre that is now defined by formula is that killer. Art the Clown is not the first clown killer; there’s a whole subgenre of clown horror that branches right off of the slasher. They largely originate from the ‘80s but really seemed to come into their own in the mid-late ‘00s. I haven’t done a formal study of it, but that seems about the right timeline for people who watched the original TV-movie version of It to have grown up and become filmmakers who view clowns as the embodiment of all evil.
Art the Killer is one of the most distinct I’ve encountered. His movement is extremely stylized—somewhere between a British panto and a classical mime—making the horrifying reveal of his violence all the more disturbing. He’s dressed as a classical black and white harlequin. The only color on his body is his teeth, a dark red, until he begins to attack. Then fresh splatters of red spoil the thick layers of greasepaint. His movement is slow and deliberate until he finds a victim—then the camera struggles to keep up. He carries a large bag of tricks, though his preferred weapon is a scalpel, constantly dancing in his fingertips as he circles his prey. David Howard Thornton’s silent performance is one of the most menacing and memorable horror villains I can think of in recent memory.
The real star of Terrifier is the sound mixing and score. Paul Wiley’s score is a tribute to the master of the slasher, John Carpenter. The repeating patterns and synth drones take you back to Halloween. It’s an unnerving sound profile, sampling natural orchestral sounds and processing them through a synthesizer to sound just off to the human ear. Layered in with Jake Bjork and Jason Milstein’s crystal clear sound design, the soundtrack makes the whole film unpredictable in the best ways possible.
Without going into too much detail, there’s a fascinating wrinkle on the traditional slasher formula that happens about halfway through the film. It hinges on the unexpected use of a weapon you don’t always see in horror. Its inclusion is shocking in the best way possible. So is the embrace of cellphones, rather than just writing them off with “no service.” Horror is at its best when it reflects society and Terrifier actually uses modern technology in a natural way for devious effect.
Leone clearly knows his horror history. Terrifier is the kind of slasher that can only be made if you understand how slashers work. Where this knowledge is more typically weaponized against the audience for an introspective slasher/satire hybrid like Scream, The Cabin in the Woods, or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Terrifier is utterly sincere. Even the portender of the evil to come is actually given a series of scenes to shine and a sense of humanity all too often abandoned just to write their warnings off as the ravings of an unwell person. The collection of characters facing the evil of the killer clown might be random, but they feel like real people. That’s something neglected far too often in modern horror. Terrifier is scary not because of the unknown but because of what Damien Leone allows us to know.
Terrifier is currently streaming on Netflix.
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