Torture porn was all the rage in the 2000s. Films like the Hostel and Saw franchises ruled our screens. We tasted gallons of blood and wanted more – much more. In many ways, torture porn within horror trends during periods of general nihilism that tend to occur during moments of political strife. Some forefathers of torture porn like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre arose during the Vietnam War, and the lust for utterly brutal mean-spirited kills returned after the cultural shift that sprung from the aftermath of 9/11.
For a long time, the iconic slashers of yesteryear were traded in for more random acts of violence. After a while, just existing became a hell of a lot scarier than the famous masked killers stalking unsuspecting coeds. After Scream caught lightning in a bottle with Ghostface, it seemed like slashers reached a plateau. Any new attempt to create an original slasher felt like they just couldn’t shake the pressure to include some sort of self-referential meta-layer. For a long time, newcomers in the slasher genre were forever doomed to live in the shadow of Wes Craven’s masterpiece, that is, until Damien Leone’s Art the Clown from the Terrifier franchise burst on the scene with a seemingly bottomless trash bag in tow.
Slasher icons tend to speak to some aspect of anxiety stemming from primarily young adult experiences. Michael Myers shook babysitters in the suburbs to their core, Jason Voorhees made bullying camp counselors trade in sunscreen for blood, and Ghostface had us side-eyeing our friends who liked horror films just a little too much. Slashers largely became symbolic of moral enforcers for the teens who just couldn’t stay out of each other’s pants and away from the booze. So, what makes Art the Clown so enticing? Somehow, Art manages to get under the skin of viewers without having a 20-year legacy under his belt. Over the last few years, torture porn has been traded in for more art house interpretations of classic horror narratives; however, Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) has proven that maybe we are craving our fears in another form. As the perfect marriage of the nihilistic torture porn of the early 2000s and meme culture of the mid-2010s to now, Art gives a big F-you to slow-burn symbolism and meditative imagery through his unrelenting graphic displays of ultra-violence.
Cue the Uncomfortable Laughter
Similar to the slasher icons before him, he continues to appeal to current cultural anxieties through his use of humor while enacting such violent acts. While Art’s employment of humor is not necessarily unique to him, the level of gore that accompanies it definitely is. Sure, we’ve seen a lot of hacking and slashing in our day, but Art tends to take things just a bit further than we’re used to. Gone are the quick kills and cartoonish representations of death and in comes lingering camera shots where the bodies aren’t just stabbed, but cruelly violated until they are unrecognizable globs of flesh and punchlines for jokes. After long grueling sequences in which Art meticulously brutalizes bodies, he never fails to include a well-timed smile or gesture that immediately detracts from the absolute mayhem on screen. I mean, he quite literally pours salt on the wound in Terrifier 2 and poses the body beneath a sign that cheekily says “blessed.” In the first film, he saws Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) in half before taking a selfie with her corpse. Art allows us to gaze upon death but always leaves us with a joke before we can take in the gravity of what we just witnessed. If any slasher is a response to how chronically online we all are, it’s Art.
Just like Art, it seems like we just can’t manage to take anything seriously anymore. To a large extent, at the risk of sounding a wee bit melodramatic, the internet has substantially brought about quite a bit of desensitization toward real-life terror. With two sweeps of the thumb, we can scroll down our timelines and come across news articles chronicling world atrocities sandwiched between cute pictures of cats or the latest viral trends. Face it, it’s far more common to come across a sea of reactionary jokes about politics than it is to follow them. Just like Terrifier, in a matter of seconds, our attention is yanked away from the realities of daily life and into memes that manage to make light of our continuing spiral toward the inevitable death of the universe. If the earliest and relatively humorless iterations of torture porn reflected a widespread societal fear of our own mortalities in the wake of war and social unrest, the appeal of Art’s particular brand of depravity is indicative of how those fears have become easily ignored. We’ve never been as interconnected as we are now and Art capitalizes on that sense of hopeless overexposure. In a stroke of genius, Damien Leone managed to create a boogeyman that perfectly embodies this phenomenon and audiences are absolutely eating it up at the Clown Cafe.
The Rise of the Art Cinematic Universe
Seemingly in direct response to our jadedness toward violence, the Terrifier films dial everything we think we know about the genre up to 10. The gore never stops, and the elaborate set pieces make other horror films look like child’s play. Leone knows what his audiences want, and they receive it in abundance. While the first film gives us just enough of Art to get acquainted with, the second comes blazing in as the first proper grindhouse slasher epic no one knew they needed. Just when one might think Terrifier 2 would choose to take a more classic approach to the slasher formula than its predecessor, our final girl Sienna (Lauren LaVera) is imbued with her own supernatural resilience. In the true spirit of excess, who says our final girl can’t be as unkillable or intensely durable as their killer counterpart? Horror fans have finally gotten their equivalent to Wonder Woman in the form of the most badass final girl… possibly ever. For the first time in decades, Damien Leone has managed to actually give the expectations of seasoned horror veterans a run for their money and people are DIGGING it.
Terrifier 2 was released in theaters on October 6th and the demand for showings has quickly spread like wildfire. Viral photos have shown theater patrons who have thrown up and fainted during the movie, with paramedics at their sides, which has only worked to increase its allure. Watching Terrifier 2 in theaters is almost a badge of honor at this point. Sound familiar? For many horror fans, it seemed like we would never again witness the type of mystique that came with the theater-going experiences of films like The Exorcist or The Blair Witch Project in a past where such visceral reactions to a film seemed possible. Damien Leone has shown that horror films can still achieve that level of notoriety despite our seemingly higher tolerance for the spectacle of death. If the history of horror has shown us anything, it’s the films where the experience transcends the screen that become immortal. Through shock, awe, and oodles of blood, Art has managed to shift the paradigm of horror once more. The world is falling apart, but we can still laugh… right?