Right now there are lots of films vying to be considered the best of 2022. Decision to Leave dazzled critics with a darkly kaleidoscopic plot and visuals to match. Triangle of Sadness had arthouse patrons in agreement that social media influencers and rich people were in fact, bad, actually. Top Gun: Maverick got people back into cinemas and proved that the American military industrial complex is still nothing to fuck with. Good films? Yes. Best of the year? No way.
2022’s best film is a two-and-a-half-hour gore-and-greasepaint rampage called Terrifier 2.
It’s worth pointing out at this juncture that, while I like horror films, sadistic or excessively bloody films don’t do it for me. Saw is a bore. Not a fan of Hostel or The Human Centipede. I’ve never described an on-screen death as ‘rad’ or high-fived a pal after watching someone’s head explode. And yet… my favourite film this year is an uncompromising, relentless slaughter-thon dubbed ‘the most brutal movie of all time’. I saw it twice! I’m shook.
So, what gives? I took my bafflement to the one man capable of providing answers; the film’s writer-director Damien Leone.
Leone is a young, alarmingly wholesome man. He made the first Terrifier in 2016. As far as I can tell, people quite liked it. A slasher film with a memorable antagonist in Art the Clown, it won plaudits for its practical effects. It was, in retrospect, merely a warm-up. Like a kind of viscera-splattered John the Baptist, it cleared the way for its fully-formed, miraculous sequel. I ask Leone if he’s had positive feedback from other squeamish, gore-averse pseuds like me.
‘I have heard that before, actually,’ he says, bashfully. ‘I'm hoping that it’s not a mistake. I’m hoping that it’s by design.’
Leone is obviously extremely proud of this mad thing he’s created. ‘Create’ being the appropriate term, by the way. Aside from directing, producing and writing Terrifier 2, he also had a massive hand in creating all of the film’s jaw-dropping (and skin-flaying) practical effects. It’s been the ultimate labour of love, he explains.
I really want people to embrace Art the Clown
‘Every time I make a film, I look at it like it could be my last chance,’ he says. ‘Like, how long will they let me do this? We spent three years going back to it again and again, reshooting, making sure everything was perfect. I really want people to embrace Art the Clown.’
If you’ve seen Art in action, you probably wouldn’t rush to embrace him. A merry death dealer who saunters, mute, through the film in an eerily unhurried fashion, he’s destined to take his place among the cinematic pantheon of charismatic horror monsters. In my opinion, he also looks a bit like Jacob Rees-Mogg. What does Art’s creator make of his appeal?
‘For me, it’s about unpredictability,’ says Leone. ‘It’s become part of Art’s M.O. I like to subvert the audience’s expectations and establish that they’ll never feel safe. Art's capable of taking out anyone at any moment. It keeps people on their toes.’
He’s not wrong about that. Part of what gives Terrifier 2 its disorientating, unearthly atmosphere is a disregard for genre norms. Stuff that’s normally fast and loud is slow and quiet. Characters who should be safe rarely are. Leone has removed the reassuring framework that underpins most horror films, and the result is refreshing.
Talking of unearthly atmospheres, the big thing that hit me the second time I saw Terrifier 2 was the attractive, dream-like nature of its visuals. Pause it at any moment and you’ll have a picture postcard from hell. Every frame is beautifully composed. The lighting and ambience is superb. Does Leone agree that he may have actually made an objectively beautiful film?
‘I do think that, yes,’ he says.
Does it annoy him that coverage of the film seems to focus exclusively on the brutality?
‘Um, it doesn’t annoy me,’ he says in a way that makes it sound like it does annoy him a bit. ‘But I do love beautiful visuals. I sit with my production designer and go over everybody's wardrobe, all the different, distinct colours, and all the colours of the rooms. I wanted to make the film bright.’
What do I listen to when I’m writing a movie as disturbing as this? Yacht rock
It follows then, that Leone’s influences extend beyond slasher flicks. He lists a very orthodox trinity of Kubrick, Spielberg and Scorsese as his main influences and gushes over the way Quentin Tarantino composes shots. His musical influences are equally big and bright.
‘Even if I’m writing a movie as dark and disturbing as this, I’ll drive around, sort of zoning out, listening to light music. Yacht rock. Fleetwood Mac is my favourite band of all time. If I could afford Fleetwood Mac music, I would put it in my movies.’
Favourite Fleetwood Mac album?
‘I really like “Tango in the Night”. There’s a lot of gems on it. “Tusk” is great too.’
Terrifier 2 is a luscious watch. It’s rococo and it’s blood-drenched and it’s moreish in a way that feels like a reaction to current cinema’s drab addiction to caution. It’s so long and so hypnotically violent, I almost slipped into a strange liminal state while watching it. The fact it was made on such a tight budget is remarkable. There are free-to-download phone games that cost more than that to develop. Now that Leone’s made an extremely profitable film (it grossed something in the region of 48 times its budget), surely it’s only a matter of time before some big studio or streaming service comes calling? Would he be up for going mainstream?
‘I’m not interested in selling my soul to the devil,’ he says. ‘I want to be able to survive and pay my bills but I don’t think having tons of money is going to bring me happiness.’
How does he feel about the kind of super-slick content produced by services like Netflix and Amazon these days?
‘Well, filmmaking is a business and filmmakers should be able to compromise,’ he replies. ‘But these days it feels like business overshadows the art. There are so many chefs in the kitchen, making sure all the right boxes get ticked, that in the end it just looks like there’s one director in Hollywood, making everything. As if it’s all come off an assembly line. You can’t tell one Marvel movie apart from another. Filmmakers should leave their signatures on films.’
You can’t tell one Marvel movie from another. Filmmakers should leave their signatures on films
I ask what he makes of the newer breed of so-called ‘post-horror’ films, released to critical acclaim by studios like A24?
‘I like some, but it’s not my it’s not my cup of tea,’ he replies. ‘They lack the essence or the soul of the movies I grew up with. I kind of agree with Tarantino that this is the worst era of film in a long time.’
The sensational thing isn’t that Terrifier 2 is enjoyable in spite of its cheapness. It’s that it doesn’t look cheap at all. This killer clown flick looks (to my eyes anyway) like a beautiful, carefully planned and exactingly executed work of art. The practical effects, while relentlessly disgusting, are also operatic and, in their own way, gorgeous.
Has Leone ever had an idea for something so gross he’s simply been unable to pull it off?
‘There's a perfect example of this in Terrifier 2, actually,’ he says, before going into immense detail about a scene in which a man is decapitated (gradually) by meat cleaver in a costume shop. The camera was meant to be trained on the victim’s face for the entirety of the beheading but, due to technical limitations, Leone begrudgingly settled for breaking it up into three separate cuts.
‘We were so close to making it happen,’ he says, crestfallen. ‘I was desperate to show someone getting murdered and decapitated in one seamless take.’
At the end of our chat Leone comes back to my question about whether or not he’d ever take a huge cheque and work on a mega-budget superhero film.
‘If I connected to the material, then I’d be interested,’ he decides. ‘I’d kill to make my version of a Batman movie. There are cartoons I’d love to make into films, too. Like Masters of the Universe.’
Damien Leone’s ‘version’ of a superhero franchise might sound beyond the pale, but is it really that far-fetched? Gore-soaked freethinkers have broken through and changed the world of mainstream cinema before. Personally, I would pay good money to see a He-Man film where someone gets their head sawed off. And maybe, with a huge studio budget, Leone would finally be able to show it all in one take.
Terrifier 2 is available on PVOD, DVD and Blu-ray now, and as part of a Terrifier 1 & 2 Blu-ray boxset