Sunday, January 22, 2023

Terrifier / * (2017)

Marginal movie villains are in copious supply in the films of today, but plausible, convincing ones have become an increasingly rare breed: they now seem to persist more in theory than in practice, where they can be liberated from old formulas and allowed to wreak their sense of chaos in the untamed wilds of a perverse imagination. Once in a great while, one will even find its way in front of a film camera that earns the right to manifest them; if a skilled director or writer has the capacity to evolve their sense of animosity beyond the shackles of the ordinary narrative, we get captivating antagonists like Pennywise, Anton Chigurh and Agent Smith at the center of the chaos. For a brief time during the early minutes of “Terrifier,” we can sense the spark of the latter. Imagine the scene: a mute clown in white and black makeup with bleeding gums and inhuman teeth appears out of the shadows of Halloween night, follows two 20-something women into a late-night pizza parlor and ominously taunts them. Not a word or sound escapes his mouth, although his mannerisms reflect an unhinged insanity brewing beneath the exterior. Later, long after the clown has been tossed out of the establishment for vandalizing the restroom, the girls return to their car and discover their tire has been slashed, setting a chain reaction of events into motion that will end with immeasurable death and blood splattered all over the pavement of a run-down warehouse in the city.

The clown, an emaciated figure with dexterous mannerisms that seem inspired by old German expressionism, is a triumph of the psychotic style. For every frame he is on screen, there is a very real sense that he is nothing less than the total personification of evil – or, at the very least, a disturbed man who has lost his complete grip on reality. In one early scene, when the character Tara (Jenna Kanell) announces that his presence in the room gives her the absolute creeps, we sense she is drawing on the same experience that has led us down the same tumultuous path of murderous clowns in the movies: the more menacing and quiet, the greater the danger they must be plotting. That all works well enough for the first act of the movie, until all subsequent scenes become more or less a cop-out of their initial potential as the leads – and then their periphery observers – are lined up to be sacrifices in a cruel visual abattoir. What nerve did writer/director Damien Leone have in creating a convincing maniac just for the sake of feeding him through the mechanics of yet another deplorable torture porn?

The movie plays like a Rob Zombie picture without any of the sly wit underlying the manic violence. A prologue establishes the lurid possibilities: a severely scarred woman named Victoria, apparently the lone survivor of the clown’s own murderous rampage months earlier, appears on live television in an interview about her struggle on that fateful night. Doubts are then raised about the clown’s own death as the dialogue shifts to sensational uncertainty. “His body was never found,” the new anchor informs her. She affirms his death is genuine, but then wanders backstage to brutally attack the anchor after she is overheard making fun of her disfigurement over a phone call. Is the material implying the spirit of the clown lives on in his final victim? Or is the scene just a visual metaphor setting the tone of what is to follow?

No matter. The movie takes place primarily on Halloween night in one of those indistinct movie cities where narrow streets and dimly lit alleys are sparsely populated, saved for the ones who are destined to become victims of the evil clown. We meet Tara (Scaffidi) and her friend Dawn (Catherine Corcoran), who have just left a party and seek late-night provisions before their trip back home to the suburbs. When Tara glimpses the shadowy form of a figure walking towards them carrying a garbage bag, she is brought to unease: the man is dressed from head-to-toe in elaborate clown costuming and makeup, with a face that looks at her with almost vengeful glee. Dawn, still buzzed from the night of drinking, playfully banters with her friend (“it’s just a man in a costume”). When the two wind up sitting in a late-night pizza joint, the clown follows them in and takes a seat at the opposite table, and what follows is a tense exchange that seems agonizingly long, ending with a decisive moment where he is kicked out of the store just before the girls leave. A few minutes later, the clown returns to exact his revenge on the restaurant workers, whose faces will be stabbed repeatedly in extreme close-up.

A similar fate must fall upon the girls as well, but not before a laundry list of randomized circumstances leads them to the company of further potential victims. After realizing they are stranded in the city without a spare tire, Tara calls upon her sister Victoria (Samantha Scaffidi) to come and retrieve them. Afterwards, needing to urinate, she begs to use the restroom at a nearby warehouse being watched over by Mike (Matt McAllister), an exterminator who is bugging the place for a rat infestation. While inside, she also encounters a disoriented homeless woman who mistakes her for a new tenant in the building, all while cradling a doll she believes is her newborn baby. At first, the movie establishes a misleading suspicion that all these additional players, minor or otherwise, might be culprits in the ensuing mayhem (notice how Dawn accuses the exterminator, for instance, of looking “more creepy than the clown”). These turn out to be red herrings, alas; each supporting character is no more dangerous to the girls or their safety than a mere gust of wind. Could it have been any other way, though? In a movie where an abnormal maniac has just savagely murdered two men at a restaurant, even a legitimately dangerous bystander might have seemed innocuous in comparison.

The violence, meanwhile, is cut with a frenetic regularity that does little to obscure the grim details. In just 85 minutes of screen time, Leone holds us hostage in his macabre carnival of beheadings, beatings, rippings, scalpings, cruel cat-and-mouse games and cannibalism without much restriction, all seemingly for the unspoken amusement of his villain, who appears brought to euphoric ecstasy every time a wound gushes or a scream is emitted. Some of this, I reckon, might have worked with fewer close-ups or less prominent lighting. That has been the saving grace of many a horror film that tow the line of visual overkill. But “Terrifier” no more knows restraint than it understands basic tonal modulation. The material is presented in a flat and unvarnished style. One whopper of a scene illustrates this reality more vividly than all others: while the two girls are held at the mercy of the clown just before he decides to end their suffering, he commits an act on one of them so utterly heinous that I question the sanity of anyone who might see it as rousing entertainment. What is its purpose? To frighten? To create paralyzing despair? Or to simply depress? The movie no more knows its intention than it understands the nuance or finesse of a credible build-up.

And what of David Howard Thornton, the poor performer caught at the center of it all? He is too promising an actor to be squandered in scenes this irredeemable. Reportedly inspired by the mime technique for the portrayal, his is a prowess that lives and breathes the unblinking menace of the role. You admire him almost as highly as you loathe the material. Where can he go from here? One hopes in a completely different orbit than the one “Terrifier” gravitates on. Not that it would be very hard to take much of a step up from the experience, either. Just imagine what a career retrospective for him might look like in the years ahead, long after he’s made a notable name for himself in Hollywood. Would a movie this misguided even be worth a mention? One could arguably justify its existence as a warning to upcoming actors, especially those who hope to avoid launching their careers in the comforts of pointless trash.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror/Thriller (US); 2017; Rated R; Running Time: 85 Minutes

Jenna Kanell: Tara Heyes
Samantha Scaffidi: Victoria Heyes
David Howard Thornton: Art the Clown
Catherine Corcoran: Dawn
Pooya Mohseni: Cat Lady
Matt McAllister: Mike the Exterminator

Written and directed by Damien Leone

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