When reviewing modern, cheap-o horror films, it’s easy to wax nostalgic about the practical effects of yesteryear and how much has been lost since the genre has slipped into excessive reliance on CGI. Every now & then a film like The Predator or The Void will remind me that practical gore effects wizardry is not all that’s required to pull off an entertaining horror movie, that those foundational techniques must be deployed in service of a worthwhile creative project. This year’s clown-themed microbudget gore fest Terrifier was my latest nostalgia check in this regard, and perhaps the most significant one of my lifetime. The film’s director, Damien Leone, is an exceptionally talented practical effects nerd who knows how to make the gore makeup trickery of horror past sing beautifully on the screen. Unfortunately, his gross-out gore effects wizardry is wasted on a creatively, morally defunct project unworthy of his artistry. Early in Terrifier I was delighted by the reminder of just how far practical effects craftsmanship can carry even the cheapest, flimsiest of genre fare. However, another reminder crept up in its interminable 80min runtime: the oft-repeated epiphany that the virtue of gore & sinew has its own limitations, that my nostalgia for this artistry should be kept in check.
Terrifier doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of, nor does it even really have a premise. The film is mostly built around a character—a murderous antagonist, Art the Clown. Unlike other recent, superior killer clown movies like Clown or IT, the film’s setting & themes do very little legwork to justify why its killer is dressed as a clown; he just does so because clowns are creepy. That justification is initially more than enough, as Art the Clown’s basic design, fashion, and demeanor are so absurdly horrific that the film more than earns the indulgence. His old-timey black & white mime drag makes him feel like an ancient, supernatural Evil. His mugging, toothy smile reveals blood-gushing gum rot. He carries around a black plastic garbage bag of torture instruments like a dumpster-dwelling magician – tools he uses to pull of such clownish pranks as sawing women in half, converting severed heads into bloody jack-o-lanterns, and writing his own name in shit. Art the Clown is a wonderfully terrifying creation that is almost so deeply horrifying that he inspires laughter instead of screams, just in admiration for the audacity. The visual artistry of that character is so on point that the microbudget, amateurly rendered world he invades functions only to accentuate the achievement; he obviously belongs in a better movie, something that only becomes more apparent as he selects & dismembers his victims.
Where Terrifer loses me is in its gleefully cruel indulgence in misogyny, which often manifests as an open mockery of women. It’s a gradual ramping-up of gendered condescension that starts subtly enough with digs against the vanity of social media selfies, the vapidity of “sexy” Halloween costumes, and the archetypal characterization of college-age women as drunken, reckless flirts. Along with the exponential trajectory of the gore, these misogynist touches only worsen as the film goes along, until Art the Clown is mutilating women’s genitals at length in torture porn excess and, arguably worse, wearing their body parts as costumes to mince around in mockery of his victims’ femme demeanor. These are despicable acts perpetrated by a serial killer clown, so they might be justifiable in a depiction-does-not-equal-endorsement argument, but the movie lays no foundational support to offer context or meaning to the cruelty. Since there is no thematic texture to Terrifier beyond “Killer clown tortures hot naked women on Halloween night,” the torture & mockery of women becomes the entire substance of the text. Horror has already seen more than enough condescension, objectification, and destruction of women for this continuation to serve any purpose beyond meaningless cruelty, and it’s a shame that’s the effect all the film’s phenomenal practical-gore craftsmanship was sunk into.
Terrifier is an excellent gore & makeup effects showcase, but ultimately too dumb & too empty to get away with being this cruel. I’d totally be down for this microbudget backyard gore fest aesthetic if it were either fun or purposeful, but at some point the torture-porn wallowing & open mockery of women crossed a line for me and it just became miserable to sit through. This is a great business card for Damien Leone as a makeup effects artist, but as a film it’s a total disappointment. It’s only useful for its illustration of the limitation of practical effects craftsmanship, which can only get you so far without a sense of purpose to guide it.