Art the Clown, Damien Leone’s addition to the slasher canon, first appeared in the 2013 anthology All Hallow’s Eve – a film whose very title indicated an ambition to live up to the great slasher cycles ushered in by John Carpenter’s Halloween. Terrifier, Art’s first feature-length-film, makes good on that promise, offering up an eccentric fusion of slasher and splatter horror that is driven by the threat of extreme violence as much as gore – although the gore is still there. The plot is austere, and mainly takes place in a derelict apartment complex, where Art, played David Howard Thornton, stalks a series of young adults, a homeless woman, and the building’s janitor, with increasingly flamboyant and visceral results.
Right from the beginning, this is endurance cinema, unrelenting and unremitting for its entire eighty minutes. There’s basically no dialogue after the first few scenes, as Leone opts for a formalist exercise in prosthetic gore, paired with a grindhouse aesthetic that almost looks like a home video at times. Most of the characters we meet are killed in the first quarter, so it feels like we’ve come in at the end of a much longer film, with only the climactic death scenes left. A few more characters do arrive, but their introduction is immediately terrifying, since it’s clear they’re all going to die or be disfigured in some unimaginable way. Likewise, every object is endowed with sadistic intensity, while even the most benign props feel gore-adjacent, like the topping on the pizza at the restaurant where the first kill scene goes down.
That could become grimly monotonous were if not for how deftly Leone alternates between the brutality of torture horror and a more mercurial sense of suspense. On the one hand, Terrifier is grating and unpleasant to watch in the manner of so much torture horror, aligning itself with the rusty and blunted edges of Art’s arsenal of weapons. Yet it also plays as a haunted house film, in which every person who ventures into the apartment complex is consumed, imbuing Art with a more mercurial presence as well. Both these tendencies crystallise around the central signature of Terrifier – the way it processes and orchestrates faces. For Leone seems fixated with the face-phone synergy of modern digital media, and the ways in which this turns the face into an object of virtual attraction. The film starts with two young women who are always glued to their phones, and always taking selfies for Instagram. Upon encountering Art for the first time in a pizza restaurant, one of them takes a sarcastic selfie with him. Later on, she takes another selfie of herself in a parked car, and then flicks back to this earlier photograph with Art, at which point Art appears again, and abducts her.
Whereas phones have reduced faces to shareable images, Terrifier insists on the materiality of the face in the most brutal manner. This is all the more terrifying in that Art seems custom-made for social media – not just because he’s so memey, but because he tends to simply appear, fully clothed and fully posed, like an image that has been swiped onto a screen. Time and again, Leone “swipes” to Art, whose very name feels like a morbid echo of Insta pretensions to art photography. Yet whenever Art achieves this position of maximal mediation, he responds with extreme facial disfigurement, turning faces into something alien. The driving aesthetic of Terrifier is thus one of defacefication, not unlike that of Ari Aster in Hereditary and Midsommar – and Art starts this process by defacefying himself. Unlike Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees, who wore masks, or Freddy Krueger, whose full face was revealed, it’s hard to figure out the threshold between Art’s face and his own mask and prosthetics. The contours of his face are hard to discern, especially since he swipes so radically from pose to pose – sometimes completely disinterested, but often extravagantly contorted.
Of course, this quickly translates into a series of flamboyant set pieces that are all directed against the face and eyes. Art starts by beheading a pizza chef and setting his eyes alight, then proceeds to stab a second chef in the eyes, and then whittle space out of his face. In the penultimate scene, he beheads another victim and uses his head as a ball, before stamping another head into oblivion shortly after. The gruesome centrepiece of the film involves hanging a woman upside down, so that her groin is at face level, facefied, and then cutting directly through her torso to her face, which he also cuts in half. The decimation of an entire body culminates with the decimation of a single face. Even the final girl isn’t immune to this defacefication. While she does survive, Art is apprehended in the midst of eating her face, meaning she is disfigured beyond recognition – enough to turn into Art’s second in command.
All of these scenes plays as a riposte against digital horror in favour of baroque prosthetics, as Art attacks phones with the same violence, and adds horrific images to the phones he confiscates from his victims. The woman who is strung up in the centrepiece of the film is the same character who took a sarcastic selfie with him at the start, so Art finishes his reign of terror by taking a selfie of his own next to her cleaved face. This sequence is the film’s thesis in a nutshell: namely, that capturing facial violence is a uniquely prosthetic art that has been lost in the age of digital horror. Time and again, Leone experiments with how long characters can survive face trauma, and how long the surface of the face can retain a semblance of subjectivity until it becomes just a a surface, a piece of blank flesh. While this leads to incredible prosthetic work, it also generates suspense whenever faces are front and centre in the frame – that is, whenever Leone’s shots resemble Insta posts. It’s as if the Instagram formula itself concealed a threat of extreme violence just beyond every frame, turning the camera into an instrument of torture whose proximity to faces is terrifying in and of itself.
True to the austerity of the film as a whole, Art shoots himself at the end, leaving no motivation behind. This is the last step in his defacefication, and crystallises one of the other original elements of the film – Leone’s fusion of shooting and slashing. So violent are the shooting scenes here that they add the revolver to the slasher’s arsenal as never before, closing the gap between the white male anxiety of the 70 and 80s and the white supremacy of the present. By wielding his gun like a knife, or any other instrument of torture, Art bridges the gap between slashers and Joker, horror fandom and incel culture, and that in itself is enough to ensure that this is one of the most promising slasher franchises in a very long time.