Leone: Terrifier 2 (2022)
Terrifier 2, Damien Leone’s sequel to Terrifier, picks up right where the original left off – with Art the Clown, played by David Howard Thornton, on a morgue table after committing the atrocities of the first film. In a brief prologue, Leone reprises the grindhouse style of Terrifier, as Art disposes of the doctor and makes his way back out into the world. From there, however, Terrifier 2 is a radically new entry in the franchise, clarifying its core by expanding and sprawling out in directions that were only latent or inchoate the first time around. For Terrifier 2 is two and a half hours where the first was eighty minutes, lush and synthy where the original was grainy-gritty, and takes place in a much more realised world, replete with victims who are subjectivities rather than mere bodies. In other words, this is the point where the franchise discovers its serial momentum, its capacity to change and transform over time. At key points, classic horror films play in the background, from House on Haunted Hill to Night of the Living Dead, as Leone refocuses and refines his own bid for a place in the horror canon.
This ingenious fusion of 80s suspense with 00s torture horror starts with the same preoccupation as the first film – the way in which social media has turned the human face into a virtual and disembodied spectacle. Terrifier re-embodied the face by defacefying it, presenting us with one image after another of faces being reduced to flesh, organs and viscera. Art was above all an agent of defacefication, starting with his own face, which was never discernible in the same way as those of the great slasher icons. Where Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees both wore masks, and Freddy Krueger’s face was shown front on from the first Elm Street film, Art is never quite face or mask, since it’s hard to tell where his actual skin ends and his various accoutrements begin. Art’s tendency to move from one contorted facial expression to another made it even harder to figure out the true coordinates of his face.
In Terrifier, Art’s insistence on the materiality of the face was all the more horrifying in that he initially appeared as an emanation of social media, both in his memeyness and in the way that he “swiped” abruptly from one fully-formed pose to another, like images crossing a screen. The centrepiece kill of the first film was reserved for a character who took a sarcastic selfie with Art, and was apprehended by Art between reviewing the same selfie and taking another solo selfie, while Art completed the kill by taking a selfie of his own, on the same phone, next to this character’s decimated face. By the time that we reach Terrifier 2, that paradox has heightened, since Art’s rampage has now passed into folklore, turning him into an meme, a costume, and a social media icon, a year on from the rampage. The film opens with a dream sequence in which protagonist Sienna Shaw, played by Lauren LaVera, glimpses Art emerging from in the midst of a hyper-stylised simulacrum of his earlier crimes. Instead of the grindhouse aesthetic that drove the original film, Leone now opts for a dayglow funhouse approach in which even Art’s most horrific acts are subsumed into saccharine kitsch.
This sequence marks a broader departure from the spatial scheme of Terrifier, which took place almost entirely in a nondescript warehouse. By contrast, Terrifier 2 follows three discrete acts, each of which sets Art against a series of replicas and simulations of his persona. The first act crystallises around a Halloween store, where Art emerges against prosthetic recreations of 80s and 90s horror films, or horror-adjacent films, such as It and Big; the second act revolves around a Halloween party populated by a fair few Art lookalikes; and the third act takes place in a fairground ride called “Terrifier,” inspired by Art’s killing spree. In each of these sequences, Art both occupies and ruptures his virtual potentiality more vividly than in the original film, but perhaps most memorably in the scene at the Halloween store. This is where the “swiping” aesthetic of the franchise reaches its zenith, as the camera continually cuts to Art in a series of fully-formed poses and postures, some blankly hostile, others zany and kooky. These culminate with a series of reaction shots as he tries on one pair of glasses after another, the last of which features a pair of eyeballs hanging off on strings, segueing to the first kill of the film proper, which returns to the intense head and face trauma of Terrifier.
Of course, Terrifier 2 has to amp up the head and eye violence which is the franchise’s signature, and it does a pretty good job in the opening prelude, which sees Art remove an eye from the morgue doctor, and insert it into his own head, while breaking apart the doctor’s skull with a mallet and his bare hands. Yet this scene is still only different in degree from the prosthetic gore of the original film, much as the prelude as a whole feels like an additional scene from Terrifier. Only once we’ve traversed the synthy credits, and settled into the new aesthetic of the sequel, does Leone start to inflect this violence in three new ways. First, face violence is paired with a more giallo sense of grotesque, starting with worms and grubs that quickly appear amongst Art’s corpses, along with a more sustained taste for rotting flesh and viscera. Second, Leone focuses more acutely on reducing the face to a single flat surface, and playing this for absurd effect, whether it involves Art shoving mashed potato into the decimated visage of a characters’ mother, or pouring hydrochloric acid into the face of a near-final girl. Finally, Leone opts for more playful and perverse takes on “head” violence, including a character whose phallus is partly removed after asking his girlfriend to take “just the tip.”
Leone also intensifies one of the biggest innovations of the original film, violence-wise – the fusion of stabbing and shooting. Typically, revolvers don’t play a major role in the slasher arsenal, since they evoke a more disembodied and less rageful form of murder, or at least did at the time when the classic slasher cycles evolved. However, Terrifier invested shooting with the same visceral and libidinal intensity as stabbing, to the point where Art shot himself in the head as his final and most dramatic act of defacefication. The sequel continues that trend, bridging the gap between the white anxiety of the slasher and the white anxiety of the shooter, but even more vividly and viscerally this time around. When Art finally appears in the opening dream sequence, all the accumulated dread finds its expression in a mass shooting spree, in which he machine guns his kitsch victims so brutally that the revolver becomes an instrument of torture horror. More than even Joker, Art is the horror emblem of the white shooter, and of the lineage between the white shooter and the classical slasher era.
Yet for all this violence – and because of it – Terrifier 2 also takes much more time to linger and luxuriate in the creepiness of Art’s presence and persona. The characters all sense him before they see him – often a long time before they see him – while Leone subsumes him more into the precarious framing of heads that we saw intermittently in the first film as well. In the opening sequence alone, Sienna’s mother taps her on the head from outside the frame, before a cereal box falls out of a kitchen cupboard onto Sienna’s head, and Leone cuts to a low-angle shot of this same mother, head exposed, as she cleans up the cereal on the floor. Exposed heads now automatically invoke Art’s presence, creating an almost unbearable precarity that mimics the aesthetic of Instagram, but with the threat of gore always just on the outside of the frame. If Insta is built on repressed horror, then Leone visualises that here.
This heightened suspense offsets some of the grimness of the first film, as does a certain self-conscious formalist play, a more sustained paean to prosthetic craft. The opening credit sequence introduces the sequel’s synthier lushness with a montage sequence of Sienna’s Amazonian Halloween costume, while this refrain returns whenever Sienna wears or works on her outfit. The arsenal she uses to do so is almost identical to Art’s murder arsenal, except that her equipment is polished where his is rusty, a New Wave riposte to his crust punk. Bundled up in Sienna’s journey is a testament to the power of prosthetic to contain horror, or to transform horror into beauty, and so make it bearable, which imbues Terrifier 2 with a different kind of profundity from the original. Like Art, Sienna reserves her most loving attention for the eyes, applying a series of makeup gashes across her eyelids that Art feels compelled to rival in the centrepiece of this film. Art and Sienna thus becoming competing prosthetic artists here, much as Leone is competing against his achievements in the original.
All of these innovations add up to a film, perhaps the first film in a decade, that is truly in the spirit of Halloween. After all, Carpenter’s masterpiece was ultra-violent for its time, and generated a great deal of its suspense form the anticipation (or apprehension) of ultra-violence. By embedding 00s torture horror into an 80s slasher aesthetic, Leone not only recaptures the visceral core of the slasher genre, but offers a fascinating vision of what the prosthetic artists of the 80s might have achieved with free rein mainstream cinema. By the time we arrive at the Grand Guignol surrealism of the finale, Leone has crafted a lifeworld that both clarifies the vision of the first film and utterly exceeds it, while distilling the extreme violence that lurked as an inchoate possibility at the edge of so much 80s genre film. The fantasy of visualising that unfulfilled 80s torture cinema drives Terrifier 2, which ends with high fantasy, like an R-rated Dark Crystal, fusing disparate horror aesthetics into a totalising vision of prosthetic-suspense that must surely bloom into one of the great horror franchises.
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