In another life, the horror movie Terrifier 2 might have languished on a Walmart shelf, buried among other low-budget horrors that wear the “UNRATED” label on their box art like a badge of honor. Damien Leone’s crowdfunded 2018 original Terrifier largely found an audience through its availability on streaming services. The sequel, currently playing in theaters, started with a “limited event” release in 700-plus American theaters through the sort of distribution that typically handles film anniversary releases, live plays, and sporting events.
But Terrifier 2 is slowly expanding its reach. Its box-office gross keeps climbing, and so does the number of theaters willing to carry an unrated, 138-minute horror epic, buoyed by the kind of word of mouth that marketing dreams are made of. Where other films like Paranormal Activity were once advertised through night-vision footage of viewers jolting in their theater seats, Terrifier 2 is going viral with claims of filmgoers fainting and/or vomiting at the atrocities committed by Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), the film’s returning sadistic slasher.
My own screening wasn’t so dramatic. I saw one older couple walk out after an extended bedroom mutilation scene, though I also sat in the same row as a group of teen girls who were loud enough that it was obvious they were unfazed. But Leone (who wrote, directed, edited the film, and designed those practical effects that are giving some audiences the vapors) insists that the fainting reports aren’t just marketing plants. I’m inclined to believe him — the Terrifer franchise’s growth has been surprisingly organic, from Art’s first brief appearance in Leone’s 2008 short film The 9th Circle to the latest movie.
Why have people latched onto Art the Clown as a memorable horror villain? Well, just look at him. Played with rubber-faced savagery by Thornton, Art stands out among a long history of killer clowns, partly because he’s actually a mime. (He signs his grisly handiwork as “Art the Clown,” though whether Art or the audience is supposed to know the difference remains unclear.) His black-and-white design provides a stark, dynamic contrast for all the red he inevitably gets on himself, and his refusal to break character and make a sound juxtaposes the cruelty he inflicts — it’s the sort of violence that demands victims vocalize their pain.
But those distinctions don’t totally remove Art from the likes of his forebears. You can tell what Art is supposed to be thinking much more obviously than you can read the unchanging mask of a Michael Myers or a Jason Voorhees, but he retains a similar feeling of mystery and unknowable evil. There is no sense of a human being beneath Art’s costume with its tiny little hat, even when an early gag in Terrifier 2 reveals his nondescript human body as he puts his bloodied clown suit through the wash.
The appeal of Art the Clown lies in that simplicity. Seeing him, we can immediately grasp his gimmick. He plays into our culture’s fascination with pain being hidden beneath a whimsical mask, a persuasive visual that drives Smile, another recent box-office surprise. More specifically, we can’t seem to get enough of the inherent irony of a good clown gone bad, whether it’s the innocuous burnout of Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons or the gleeful evil of figures like the Joker or Pennywise.
In terms of personality, Art falls alongside the archetype of the cartoon trickster trying to get on somebody’s nerves. Before any violence begins, he approaches potential victims while honking a small bike horn, or wiggling his eyebrows while offering a wide, toothy grin. The utter banality of these images catches viewers off guard, maybe even makes them laugh. He’s a brutal killer who isn’t above tormenting people in much the same way various cartoon animals have tormented Elmer Fudd.
In Art’s initial short-film appearances (where he’s played by Mike Giannelli), the comparison to cartoon mayhem is even more overt. Leone’s 2013 anthology All Hallows’ Eve stitches together three of his horror shorts, framed by a story where a babysitter plays a mysterious VHS tape the kids picked up while trick-or-treating. The second segment only shows Art’s face on a painting, while The 9th Circle presents him as just one facet of a demonic cabal that was largely designed to show off Leone’s homemade makeup and prosthetics.
But by the third film, the original 2011 Terrifier short, Art is a full-blown Looney Tune who defies the laws of time and space. When a woman flees from him by speeding away in her car, she passes him over and over again at the side of the road, as a mock hitchhiker thumbing his way to the circus. Appropriately enough, the babysitter wraparound story concludes with Art crawling out of the television.
For the feature-length Terrifier, which was released on DVD and VOD in 2018, Leone pulls back somewhat on the supernatural angle. Art could be an ordinary human murderer throughout much of the film, as he slices his way through a surprising number of people who arrive at a vacant warehouse building in the middle of the night. But all the same, Art’s behavior remains informed by the cartoon archetype, creating momentary contrasts with bursts of disturbing violence. Beyond Art himself, Terrifier’s main selling point is the pure extremity of its spurting practical gore, which combines with Art’s inexplicable and overcranked mania to create an atmosphere of genuinely unnerving cruelty. He’s a fun character until he saws a woman in half, having hung her upside down so he can start from the bottom up.
As a result, viewers never quite root for Art in the way they tend to root for slasher villains after they’ve been defanged via umpteen sequels. Some of Art’s victims are thinly written, but never with the venom suggesting that they deserve the things that happen to them. (Though the first feature-length Terrifier is often accused of misogyny, particularly because of that graphic bisection.) If anything, Art is a bridge between horror characters who function like mascots, and the era of new-millennium horror, where unrated DVD versions and torture porn thrive alongside found-footage films and horror remakes like Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes, which desaturate the colors while they amp up the violence.
In the bid for gritty, grounded immediacy, mainstream horror filmmaking has largely crowded out the idea of horror with a “fun” face. Perhaps the closest thing to a mascot-driven series is Saw, which nonetheless ties itself into knots to get around the fact that its signature villain, Jigsaw, died three films into a nine-film (so far) franchise. Even earlier horror movies had begun to jettison the idea of an iconic villain. The broadly entertaining, excessive Final Destination movies resist giving a face to the threat that kills off the protagonists — it’s just an anonymous form of fate that sets elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque accidents into motion. And the Scream series centers on a slasher persona that can be adopted by anyone.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the first Art the Clown shorts technically date back to the gritty era of extreme torture-exploitation cinema. Art only fully caught on recently, and it might be because he’s an anomaly in an era dominated by more willfully artistic, respectable takes on the horror genre. Films like The Babadook, Midsommar, and It Follows earn praise for their restraint, for their ability to refrain from baser frights in favor of centering their metaphors on grief, abuse, or mental illness.
But while such slow-burning films can be tense and intellectually fulfilling, they don’t always scratch the itch for visceral knee-jerk thrills, the desire for something unapologetic, even outright disreputable. That’s something studios are gradually rediscovering, as they slowly roll out unprestigious, de-elevated “fun” horror films like Malignant, Barbarian, and Smile, which function more like roller coasters. But in the meantime, Art the Clown has emerged to fill the void by stuffing it with a truly preposterous amount of gore.
The practical effects involved in that gore may be just as important as the villain spilling it all over the sets. In the effects work, Leone taps into the significant subset of the horror audience that’s dissatisfied with the way CGI has taken over spectacle and adventure films, and longs for the days of effects done “for real.” In films like Terrifier and other prosthetic extravaganzas, like Steven Kostanski’s Psycho Goreman, the idea of what’s believable matters less than the nuts-and-bolts fascination with accomplishing something in-camera, creating some kind of authentic physical presence to contrast with the dominance of weightless CGI.
By behaving as an entertainer, Art the Clown embraces the artifice of a genre built on constantly one-upping itself through elaborate death scenes and detailed effects. Terrifier doesn’t have the “you are there” immediacy of a found-footage movie designed to approximate a snuff film. Instead, it creates a distance from the audience by positioning its violence as performative. It makes all that brutality more palatable than it might have been otherwise. In their handmade effects and their evocation of iconic slashers, the Terrifier films let horror fans indulge in the warm comfort of nostalgia while still playing to our latent desire for the thrill of a film that’s able to pull the blood-soaked rug out from under us.