In “Terrifier 2,” a slasher named Art the Clown wears a jester costume with pom-pom buttons and a white bald harlequin head cover, and he’s got licorice-black teeth frozen into a rictus grin (it’s literally a dirty mouth), a hooked nose that looks like something out of an anti-Semitic caricature from the ’30s, a small top hat cocked to the side of his head, and a general attitude of it-only-hurts-you-when-I-laugh blood-soaked dementia. That laugh of Art’s is a real keeper, because it’s silent, like Marcel Marceau’s. He’s so brimming with stylized delight as he chops and saws and skins and dismembers people and throws acid into their faces that he’s like Freddy Krueger channeling Liberace channeling Joseph Mengele. When he’s soaked in gore, which is much of the time, the grin shines all the brighter.
Art the Clown, who is played by David Howard Thornton with the gleeful air and rapid homicidal movements of a true maniac, totes around his arsenal of tool-box blades (a random heap of rusty knives, pliers, hacksaws, and so on) in a black garbage bag, and we see him do things like chase a victim into an office, where he hammers him in the face, bringing his weapon down with the force of the damned, then hammers him some more, then plucks out his eyeball and plays with it, then pries his face apart, all before skulking off into an alleyway. And that’s just the opening scene! It’s the movie’s way of saying to its audience, Hi how are ya?
Written and directed by Damien Leone, who also designed the special make-up effects, “Terrifier 2” is the squalid blood feast as ready-made midnight-event cult film. The movie arrives six years after Leone’s first “Terrifier” (2016), which made Art into an underground mascot of horror. So the anticipation has been building. Unlike the first one, “Terrifier 2” is a Top 10 movie, with a gross of $5.2 million to date — not shabby, considering that the movie was made for a reported $250,000. But Leone clearly knew what he had. The film’s running time is at once momentous and, in a weird way, one of the most horrific things about it. Set mostly on Halloween night, “Terrifier 2” is a distended holiday-horror film that lopes along for 2 hours and 18 minutes, yet that more or less matches up with Art the Clown’s philosophy of mayhem: More is more.
The movie, which unfolds in a kind of slasher dreamscape, is a slaughterhouse burlesque that owes more than a little to the gore-gore ingenuity of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who invented the splatter film 60 years ago with “Blood Feast” and “Two Thousand Maniacs.” “Terrifier 2” is a horror comedy, but its only real joke is how total the carnage is.
None of the recent “Halloween” films made you feel you were truly in the scuzzy slasher heyday of the late ’70s and early ’80s. But “Terrifier 2” does, and that’s part of its appeal. The movie is slovenly paced, with expository B-movie dialogue, overstated no-budget acting, a percolating one-man-band synth-pop score that’s pure early ’80s, an old pre-cable TV set that keeps getting snow on it, plus a teenage heroine named Sienna who looks like a scream queen from back in the day (though the actress, Lauren LaVera, is actually quite good at investing the part with a knowing lack of irony). What you wouldn’t have gotten in the ’80s is a slasher who’s an insane clown posse of one. Art the Clown is silent, but he’s a macabre prankster who could almost be Pennywise’s more fantastically gruesome disciple.
I was curious to see “Terrifier 2,” because in the last decade or so there has been, at times, a lurid creative spark to the genre we might call Extreme Horror. I’m thinking of films that even a lot of horror buffs draw the line at seeing, like Tom Six’s outlandishly revolting Euro disgusto carnival “The Human Centipede” and its even more psychotic shock-theater sequel, “The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence),” as well as a movie that’s actually so shivery and real it got unfairly maligned by the brickbats that critics tend to use in attacking these films — namely, Eli Roth’s “Hostel: Part II,” the infinitely creeper and more accomplished sequel to “Hostel.” It was a movie that posed a question worthy of the dark-web era: If there were an underground service that charged an exorbitant sum for the opportunity to torture and kill someone, are there wealthy sickos out there who would take advantage of it?
The film forced you to consider the idea that yes, there might be. And in that, it illustrated a key way that extreme horror movies work. They’re really meditations on the audience — on us, the people who will pay money to see this stuff. When you sit in a theater and watch “Terrifier 2,” the fact that you’re getting onto a wavelength of debased cruelty along with the viewers around you should make you think, “Why am I even watching this?” A lot of fans would answer, “Because it’s fun! It gives me a kick!” But what’s the kick? It may be a kind of distilled expression of the end of empathy. When Marion Crane got slaughtered in the shower in “Psycho,” we felt for her (in a way, we were her), but “Terrifier 2” encourages us to view its victims the way the Nazis viewed theirs: as gruesome fodder for an experiment in pain.
“Terrifier 2” is essentially a series of grotesque homicidal set pieces stitched together into a threadbare narrative of midnight funhouse clichés. That synth-pop score gets a workout during the montage when Sienna transforms herself into a winged Valkyrie for Halloween, but the reason most of the movie could almost be a series of slasher TikTok videos is that it’s not really staged to scare you. The sequences of Art the Clown slicing, gouging, peeling, dismembering, and torturing (at one point he literally rubs salt in his victim’s wounds) are supposed to make the audience feel like they’re in the serial killer driver’s seat, a very disturbed place to be.
At times, “Terrifier 2” gets fliply surreal, because it’s a shoot-the-works movie and why the hell not? Art has a “friend,” who was a 10-year-old girl when she became one of his victims, and she now looks like a ghoul-next-door version of him. Sometimes she’s a figment, sometimes she’s real. A boy chows down on a cereal called Art Crispies, with razor blades and bugs in it. There are scenes with worms and maggots and projectile diarrhea. There’s a sequence where Art watches a survivor of one of his massacres being interviewed on television, and the fact that she’s been severely mutilated by the injuries she suffered puts him into a giggle fit. But don’t feel too bad for her; the movie gives her the slasher equivalent of a post-credits Marvel teaser, which shows you where “Terrifier 3” will be going. The “Saw” movies, in their Rube Goldberg way, sometimes make sadism into something clever, but “Terrifier 2” puts sadism front and center and doesn’t pretend it’s appealing to anything else. I guess you could say that makes it the rare slasher film that’s honest about its own hideous turn-on.