There are many criticisms of the slasher movie – dubious treatment of female characters, a focus on gore over narrative substance, a general air of improbability stretched to breaking point – but most often it is that they are all too predictable and formulaic. For fans, this is exactly the point; expectations are always met, blood is always shed, and there’s dumb fun to be had with the formula even from the most low-budget, amateurish offerings. On the plus side this means there is a steady stream of slashers to enjoy but, on the other, for every decent one there are manifold dreary joyless examples. Where, then, does Damien Leone’s new clown shocker Terrifier sit?
Narratively, everything is stripped back to absolute basics. Two friends on a night out encounter an unsettling monochrome clown and, as is slasher tradition, behave unreasonably and provoke him in a clearly unwise fashion. When their ride home is disabled, they are forced to call for help as they take refuge in an abandoned building. The clown arrives, there ensues a large amount of stalk-and-slash fun, and everything occurs as the audience expects. Almost.
Those looking for deep plotting, full of the detailed characterisation and psychosexual subtext evident in the genre’s best entries, will find immediate issue here. Terrifier is formulaic from the outset but this is the absolute point; this is a movie built around Art the Clown, the antagonist, a terrifying marriage of performing clown and soundless mime. Seen previously in the short Terrifier in 2011 – on which the movie is based, and again in 2013’s All Hallows’ Eve – Art is a coulrophobic’s nightmare; those with an aversion to painted face circus acts but should expect significant issues from this especially disturbing figure. Completely silent throughout, yet wonderfully expressive, his character simply exists. He has no backstory, no real build up, and is on-screen for most of the movie’s run time – its hero for want of a better term. Like the absolute best slashers, though, Art needs little introduction; a large part of what makes him so alarming is his complete lack of motivation and it would be an especially jaded slasher fan that fails to take to him to heart. Huge credit should go to David Howard Thornton for an impressively adept physical performance, simultaneously brutal and intimidating, that somehow imbues the character with a thick band of jet-black humour despite the horrors he commits.
The supporting cast fare less well. Jenna Kanell – last seen in the very disappointing The Bye Bye Man – and Catherine Corcoran of Return to Nuke ‘Em High (2013 )fame, supported very quickly by Samantha Scaffidi, are our protagonists and the clown’s main targets. All throw themselves with gusto at roles that, in essence, require them to do little but run, hide, and scream. In this respect, Corcoran feels especially wasted here; a peppy and appealing screen presence whose one-note character feels depressingly underused before running afoul of the titular Terrifier. There are other characters – Pooya Mohseni’s amusingly monikered Crazy Woman does a little better than most – but giving them names beyond Grisly Deaths One, Two, and Three, seems to be mis-selling what is going on here.
If writer and director Damien Leone’s plot is little thin, the same absolutely cannot be said of his directorial talent. With Terrifier he seems to get a real handle on his unruly clown and for a low-budget piece it looks great. Stylistically, this is a grindhouse homage adopting the same washed out, darkened palette that has become a genre staple in recent years, but both these things work to the movie’s advantage, creating a gritty, grimy vibe that befits the on screen action. Leone’s understanding of pacing is immaculate here too; Terrifier is a short movie but one that starts quickly and continues at breakneck speed until the movie’s – admittedly sequel-bating – finale. There are moments where the tension ramps up considerably throughout, especially during the middle act, and in these moments Leone’s genre literacy comes to the fore; he is clearly a director in command of his vision and has an eye equally at home with the silent moments as when up the nostrils in the movie’s blood and guts.
If Thornton’s Art the Clown will doubtless grab the headlines equal billing should go to Terrifier’s special effects crew led by Leone himself. For a low budget production, what he is able to achieve here is outstanding. Much like Ryan Nicholson, Leone shows a talent for being able to work with tight finances and still produce impressive results significantly helping the movie stand out from other similar fayre. Whilst the body count is not high, each of the deaths on screen is protracted, ruthless, and clearly framed; the quality of the detail means there is no need for cutaways or the dreaded shaky-cam shots. In fact, some of the effects here are so impressive that many full budget genre movies are put to shame; Terrifier’s standout death – involving a saw, some shackles, and the lovely Ms Corcoran – is frankly astonishing and is likely to be on many ‘Deaths of the Year’ lists come December.
Is Terrifier a formulaic movie? Yes, without doubt, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Slasher fans know what to expect and director Damien Leone gives it to them in spades but the sheer quality of the visuals are the highlight here; low budget directors should use Terrifier as an example, the high bar, of what can be achieved with singular vision, dedication to practical effects, and a real understanding of how good a stripped back, bare bones slasher movie should be. Add in a protagonist in Art the Clown who is both outlandishly creepy and eerily familiar – who is finally a worthy addition to the slasher genre’s standout villains – and you have all the ingredients for a gory good time. It won’t blow you away with the machinations of its plot but Terrifier is bloody great fun – brutal, exciting, and the best slasher movie in a long time.