Saturday 29 July 2023

Terrifier 2 | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Knives, hammers, and scissors speak louder than words: gore exhibition holds a mirror up to visceral horror and carves out new slasher villain superstar.

Early in Terrifier 2, the part-mime/part-clown known as Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) uses his own blood to write “ART” on a mirror as his latest victim struggles to stay alive. Yes, this is the deranged villain’s name, but it’s also an announcement that this sequel will hold a mirror up to the cinematic phenomenon known as torture porn. Is Art solely a vessel for shocking the viewer? Or is he an artist? Is Terrifier 2 simply another bloody entry in the pantheon of pointless violence, or is it commenting on the splatterpunk subgenre?

When Art, constantly on the brink of breaking that fourth wall, rapidly raises his eyebrows twice, the mute murderer acknowledges other characters, but he also enlists the viewer and dares them not to turn away from the atrocities he is about to commit. And he takes those atrocities far… really far. 

Terrifier 2 bears the distinction of being both terrible and brilliant. Its weaknesses include bad dialogue, a flimsy plot, poor acting, female objectification, and a fair amount of senselessness. Why, for instance, does the electricity of a haunted house at an abandoned carnival still work? Why is there a little girl version of Art that only he and a few others can see? Also, why aren’t any cops following up on Art’s horrific murders?

High schooler protagonist Sienna (Lauren LaVera), who is destined to encounter Art, has no real goal other than to design a warrior princess Halloween costume that her deceased father sketched. He also left her a sword apparently endowed with special powers. Sienna’s nerdy younger brother Jonathan (Elliott Fullam) is obsessed with the Miles County Massacre that Art committed the previous Halloween. Their moody mother Barbara (Sarah Voigt) tends to berate both Sienna and Jonathan.

The interest level takes a dramatic shift the moment Art enters a scene. What he lacks in words he makes up for with his Ace Ventura-level exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. When he laughs (at the physical or psychological suffering of others), he throws his head back, shakes his shoulders, or puts his hands on his knees. When he sneaks up behind someone, he does so with a cartoon character’s panache. But there are also moments when Art stands motionless, creating a contrast to his typical flamboyance, a contrast that is both creepy and at times funny. 

When the time comes for Art to take centre stage, the story comes to a halt so he can indulge in his art: the brutal, prolonged, unrelenting, over-the-top maiming and killing of people. Art doesn’t just hit, whip or stab someone once. He does it over and over and over. Moreover, the camera doesn’t turn away. The film also empowers victims with near-supernatural stamina that enables them to stay alive and conscious during the attacks. And just when you think Art’s done, he might just come back and do more. 

Despite a contemporary setting, the film has an eighties feel thanks largely to its synthesizer-heavy music, aligning it with the classic horror films and villains of that era. If Art the Clown, with his tiny askew top hat secured with a rubber band, his weapons-filled black garbage bag, his terrible teeth, and the black dot on his nose, continues to appear in films, he may become a name as recognisable as Jason and Freddie. 

Terrifier 2 is Art.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday 15 July 2023

Nate Southard: Selected Stories by Nate Southard (Independent Legions Publishing) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stories for guys who like stories: collection offers equal parts action and depth.

Here in the States, TBS used to have a television programme called Movies for Guys Who Like Movies. It featured films high on the action scale and low on the depth scale. A good chunk of Nate Southard’s Selected Stories would make the cut for the high-octane nature of these films. However, unlike those TBS selections, these stories also offer themes and deeper insights to impress the more intellectually inclined.

Within this collection, you will encounter speeding cars, rapid-fire tough guy dialogue, baseball bats and sawed-off shotguns, and men falling for prostitutes (usually not a good idea). Characters range from a gigantic fire monster to a couple having an intimate conversation, albeit under unconventional circumstances. Several stories involve people waiting to die. Characters who are weak or prone to panic don’t stand much of a chance of survival. 

Whether he’s detailing a bloody interdepartmental battle royale within an office building or a mysterious object in a barn, Southard balances action and intrigue while sprinkling in the right number of sensory details. In one story, he reveals a creature’s menace not by its appearance but rather by its diesel engine sound. Another character has a “record scratch laugh”. The reader will encounter a bar that smells like hot dirt and an alley that smells like dead fish, gunpowder and disease. 

My favourite works in this collection are straightforward and fast-moving. In “It Burns”, young adults wake up in their cabin to discover a raging forest fire has surrounded them. What follows is a desperate attempt to outrun the fire. The real challenge starts when they hear something that sounds like a bass drum. “A Team-Building Exercise” puts a supernatural twist on the film The Belko Experiment (2016).

Several of the stories deal with apocalyptic situations. After an event that has “made everyone and everything equal”, the gruff protagonist of “His Start” wants to find a plot of grass to bury a woman and fulfil a promise. What appears to be a tale about heroism and devotion turns out to be something entirely different.

“Three Two One” is an epistolary piece in which a man releases a powder that introduces “the complex”, a disease that causes people to go berserk. He is one of the few who has been chosen to stay behind and document the experience for future generations. The dangers he faces escalate as he observes the disease’s effects.

“Armageddon, Now Available in High Definition” offers a humorous take on celebrities who think that the rest of the world hangs on their every word. After an apocalyptic event enrages people, a self-absorbed, drug-addled heiress notices on her TV that the “ravagers” are outside her mansion. She thinks she can change all this by going out on her balcony and talking to them. Thinks is the operative word here.

Southard shows his versatility with a few pieces that are slower moving and even cryptic. In “Work Pit Four”, for instance, prisoners confined for minor infractions – twenty years for stealing a goose? – are digging a pit with their bare hands, but they’re not sure why. The narrator, who is in there for stealing a coat and a hat, is losing his mind. “Bottle. Paper. Samurai.” is an odd story told from the perspective of a homeless Japanese woman who spends time in a dumpster and thinks she’s a samurai preventing demons from entering a bottle of whiskey an angel gave her. The story evokes many questions. Does this woman have some form of dementia or insanity? Are the demons real or imagined? Are her origami dragons, gorillas, and scorpions actually helping her? 

Another story that leads the reader to wonder whether what the main character experiences is real is “Insomnia Is My Only Friend”, in which a man in a hospital awaits the condition of his severely injured wife after a car accident. He’s convinced that if he chugs enough coffee and forces himself to stay awake long enough, he can see what is really causing harm to the hospital’s patients.

If you’re the type who likes twists and breathtaking endings, you’ll find several strong examples in this collection. “Why I Do It”, a supernatural Vietnam story about a guy who likes to sleep under his bed, has one of the most shocking closing lines in horror fiction that I’ve encountered. The squatter narrator in “Yellow Triangles” describes a bleak urban landscape. Yellow triangles with the pointed side facing down keep showing up on rusted doors with no handles. The ending is appropriately foreboding. 

Throughout the collection, Southard withholds information to keep the reader on edge. One of the best examples is “Working the Bag”, which takes on themes of anger, religion and blame. In the middle of the night, Jerry, who lost his wife and his job, shows up drunk in his friend Marshall’s bedroom (while Marshall is asleep next to his wife!) with a strong desire to “work the bag” that’s in the barn. As the two men argue and constantly reference the bag, the reader craves to know what’s in it. The answer is a shocker.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****