For a movie that mostly concerns itself with torture, there is almost something quaint about Terrifier 2's surprising (albeit relative) success. Damien Leone’s “little horror movie that could,” per the New York Times, has entered the echelon of films that may very well move you (and more than just emotionally), winning itself a reputation alongside classics like The Exorcist and Psycho, as well as more recent buzz-magnets like Raw and Titane. These are all movies with mystique directly tied to the physiological reactions they provoke in their viewers—as in fainting and vomiting. Terrifier 2's rise from a fringe horror that had basically no shot of commanding an audience to eventually turning a nearly $5 million profit on a reported $250,000 budget can be traced to a breathless post earlier this month. “Terrifier 2 – Several Fans Have Reportedly Fainted and Vomited During Theatrical Showings?!” read the headline on Bloody Disgusting, the horror news site that has branched into film production and distribution, about the movie it was distributing.
You can see why it so touted its product. It behooves a movie to prompt this kind of reaction. It’s a draw for curious horror fans wondering if this could be the one to truly send them over the edge. We’re all looking for something that will make us shit ourselves. I mean that figuratively—mostly.
Terrifier 2, which I watched this week, did not make me shit myself or vomit or throw up or faint, but it did poke at my nostalgia. It is a movie that harkens back to ‘70s grindhouse cinema, when ingenuity was applied to depictions of evisceration—its antagonist Art the Clown has a tendency to go first for his victims’ eyeballs, for maximum disgust and perhaps in a tip of the tiny hat to the ocularly obsessed Lucio Fulci. This movie is nearly two-and-a-half hours long for no seemingly good reason; it just keeps rolling out a threadbare tapestry of fairly anonymous characters, including final girl Sienna (Lauren LaVera). The plot is exposed connective tissue for the carnage—barely 20 minutes go by without some kind of bloodletting. Its obligatory, hard-to-care-about narrative is like that of much vintage porn, or perhaps the more recent convention of torture porn.
Why and who and how are barely even acknowledged as concepts—we just know that there’s a killer silent clown (a mime, really) on the loose, hell bent on carnage. On one hand, this imbues him with the terrifying senselessness of Michael Myers, whose unexplained rampage in the first Halloween movie rendered him a force of evil—the proverbial boogeyman. On the other hand, Terrifier 2 forgoes any sense of reality for the sake of piling up the bodies. It feels less like an intentionally wielded ambiguity as a way of inflicting terror in the aisles, and more like a kamikaze justification for flimsy writing. After a similar havoc in the prior Terrifier movie, released in 2016, Art’s antics are well-documented in the local news, and yet no authorities seem to be looking for this vivisecting murderer. Whether he’s of flesh and blood or supernaturally based is another question (Art seems to be able to appear as a vision to his victims, sometimes in their dreams, and then disappear with a trace or two, like a dead possum he plays with to gross out Sienna’s younger brother). His victims stay alive well past the point that they realistically would given the trauma their bodies undergo, but that is, of course, all in service of Art’s ability to prolong his torture.
As slasher villains go, Art is well-rendered as a creepy, white-faced clown with pencil-thin eyebrows, a witch’s nose, and a garbage bag of weapons by his side. He seems to have what few movie monsters do: time. This allows him to really get in his victims and dig around, pulling their bodies apart, removing organs with his bare hands. Leone posited to the Times that the attraction to violent horror is a “coping mechanism”: “Our mortality is so devastating to us that we need ways to accept it,” he said. But given the extraordinary lengths Leone stretches bodies to in his movie, as well as the very little time his characters are given to grieve for their loved ones, this reads like a flair of pretension to justify cinematic innovation in depravity.
Terrifier 2 has the suspense of a coin toss: In each scene, maybe Art will show and maybe not, and if he does, he will almost certainly pull at least one person apart. What passes for nuance is a bit of skull clattering to the floor as Art mauls one of his victims with a mallet. The movie does succeed in terms of its gore, which happens to be the only term that actually matters here—the practical effects are appropriately heinous, and the movie, overall, looks way more expensive than its paltry budget suggests.
That budget and Terrifier 2's small but decided profit call back to a time when a little movie could carve out its own place in the world, when not everything was expected to do superheroic numbers. Horror has long gone through phases—from the straight slashers of the ‘80s, to the self-aware slashers of the ‘90s, to the PG-13 ghosts and haunted houses that dominated the next decade, as well as its spate of torture-porn flicks—but it’s kind of liberated from these cycles at the moment. The strongest trend is socially conscious horror (even when, as with the latest cycle of Halloween movies, the consciousness is largely a product of marketing and promo interviews, more than it is actually written into the text). But 2022 has also seen a range of subgenres succeed, from aliens (Nope), to curses (Smile), to the aforementioned slasher (Halloween Ends) and self-aware slasher (Scream). Why did a gonzo splatterfest like Terrifier 2, which in many other eras would have been utterly ignored by everyone but diehards, succeed? In this post-everything/anything-goes era, the question is more like: Why not?