We here at Wolfbane appreciate the pleasure of a good spook all year round, but October is the month that sees us welcoming the rest of the world onto our lawn to collectively celebrate the season. And what better way to do that than with a horror film set against Halloween night, the annual backdrop that brings us all together?
Though perhaps I’ve baited you into thinking so, this review isn’t about the recently released (and absolutely exceptional) Halloween by director David Gordon Green. No—after its well-earned opening weekend box office numbers, I think we’re all in agreement that this franchise installment isn’t one to miss.
It’s possible, however, that you have managed to miss another recent release set on Halloween night, and one that’s absolutely worth visiting (or revisiting) in the name of the season. The film is Damien Leone’s Terrifier, which saw a limited release earlier this year, and it’s a super fun, well-paced, killer-clown slasher flick, dripping in retro vibes and packaged into a comfortable hour and 26-minute runtime.
The fun begins when friends Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) are drunkenly loitering at their car on Halloween night, trying to decide whether either one of them is fit enough to drive home. The answer is a hard no, but the ladies hem and haw about it long enough for us to be rewarded with an introduction to our our brilliant antagonist, Art the Clown.
If you’re familiar with Leone’s other work, you’ll likely remember Art from the 2013 anthology film All Hallows’ Eve, wherein the character makes his first appearance. But if you’re going into Terrifier as I did, totally unfamiliar with Leone and his other work, you’re in for a helluva treat.
Played by David Howard Thornton, Art the Clown is the true show-stopping centerpiece of the film. Without even a single line of dialogue, he manages to dominate every moment that he’s on screen. Thornton’s performance is perfectly measured—animated, excited, and dripping in an intriguing devilish charm in one moment and dark, sickeningly sinister, and ruthlessly unforgiving in the next. It’s the kind of character that, in order to be effective, requires a performer to be conscientious of each movement, careful with every breath and facial expression, and Thornton really nails it at every turn.
After our brief introduction to Art in the alley across the way from where the girls’ car is parked, our protagonists make their way to a late-night diner for a few hopefully sobering slices. It’s not long before Art returns, and not long, still, before he lays claim to his first victims of the night.
And though I’m not in the business of over-spoiling, the carnage from his first killing breeds a shot of a decapitated head posed on a diner counter, candle flames burning in the now empty sockets that used to house the nose and eyes, with skin as melted, as gooey, and as runny as a smashed egg on the kitchen floor. It’s a really solid practical effect by Leone (who does them himself), well-framed and held in focus on screen just long enough by cinematographer George Steuber, and it’s quickly indicative of the kind of night the two girls—trapped now, with inexplicably slashed tires—are in for.
The rest of the film is marked with even more ambitious and expansive special effects work, showcased within delightfully, gratuitously violent scenes often helmed by the merciless Art the Clown. His brutally murderous actions juxtaposed with his clownish animation and caricaturistic levity leaves audiences wondering whether to keep screaming or start laughing, but without ever cheapening the overall experience.
I found myself steadfastly engaged throughout every sequence, largely because the pacing is quick—never allowing too much absent time to pass between scares (though never suffocating the plot with them, either) and never lingering long enough within the scares for them to lose their value. It’s a delicate balance in a horror film that’s heavily reliant on violence—not to under or overdo it—and it’s a balance that everyone seemed acutely aware of, from the writer’s room to the set floor.
The film also succeeds mightily in aesthetic. Though the year is never blatantly stated, it’s safe to assume, with cell phones in hand, that the events are more or less present-day, despite a distinctly mid-’80s to ‘90s slasher-esque sensibility that permeates everything from the costume design to the look of the film stock. Rather than forcing the story to take place within the period responsible for the aesthetic he was after, Leone applied a deft hand to authentically building the experience for us, regardless of the date stated in the script. It’s a vastly underrated achievement and deserves a lot of technical credit for its success.
Anyone who might be looking would find three major horror darlings listed on the Terrifier IMDb credits page under “Thanks.” George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, and Wes Craven, each with an in memory of accompanying their name. It’s clear that, like so many others, Leone has been in some way influenced by these groundbreaking greats who largely defined and elevated the genre before him. But what’s even better to me is that having watched Terrifier myself, I could have told you that without ever reading the credits page.
In all, Terrifier is a really fun, all-around triumph from an exciting, young director. If you’re interested in standout performances, fun and effective practical effects, and purposely gratuitous slasher gore all wrapped in a retro-vibed package, definitely give it a watch.