Okay, it’s weird to post a review of a Halloween movie the week after Halloween, but what am I gonna do? I watched it on Halloween. These things take time to write, but not a whole year. I’m posting it now for the record.
The big horror movie phenomenon of Halloween season 2022 was TERRIFIER 2, the unrated gorefest and low budget box office sleeper. The hype caused me to catch up with the first TERRIFIER and then I survived the gauntlet of the sequel so I’m now a ticket-holding passenger on this grimy franchise about a sadistic, thankfully non-verbal, apparently supernatural clown who goes around horribly mutilating random people on Halloween, in ways that he finds amusing.
So this Halloween evening I decided to go back to the roots of the series. Like many aspiring horror directors before they’re able to get a feature film off the ground, makeup artist/writer/director/editor Damien Leone got his start creating horror shorts. The character of Art the Clown first appeared in his 2006 short The 9th Circle, before starring in the 2011 short also called Terrifier.
The latter was Leone’s calling card to get the feature version made, but first he was contacted by producer Jesse Baget (WRESTLEMANIAC), who saw it on Youtube and wanted to use it in an anthology of pre-existing shorts. Leone agreed on the condition that he could direct the whole movie. So he created a wraparound story and a new clownless short to tie together the two previous ones. While I enjoyed this less than the TERRIFIER movies, I think it’s pretty good for this sort of thing, and I found it worthwhile as a convert to the series.
ALL HALLOWS’ EVE (2015) is set, of course, on Halloween. Sarah (Katie Maguire, who will later play talk show host Monica Brown in the TERRIFIER movies) is babysitting as a favor to a friend, and has just taken little Tia (Sydney Freihofer) and Timmy (Cole Mathewson, WE ARE SASQUATCH) trick-or-treating. As in all horror movies, the accidentally public domain classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is on TV. Timmy discovers an unmarked, previously unnoticed VHS tape in his candy bag. After some arguing, Timmy and Tia convince Sarah to see what’s on the tape (though she responsibly has them wait in the other room while she makes sure it’s not a sex video or something).
Turns out it’s “just a scary movie,” so she reluctantly lets the kids watch what is apparently an extended version of The 9th Circle. On Halloween a woman named Casey (Kayla Lian, “Saleswoman,” one episode of Grimm) is waiting for a train when Art the Clown (Mike Giannelli) sits near her and starts honking a horn at her and things like that. She assumes he’s just an annoying dude coming home from a Halloween party or whatever until he pokes her with a syringe and she wakes up in chains with two other women (Marissa Wolf and Minna Taylor), who tell her about a third woman being yanked away when they tried to escape through a dark tunnel.
Casey convinces them to explore anyway, and they run into not a clown but a drooling, lumpy monster-man who stars chopping off arms with a hatchet. He accidentally breaks Casey’s chain, but she doesn’t get far before encountering a coven of robed, uh, witches and… bird people
and smile people I guess (?)
stirring a cauldron in front of a chained up pregnant lady (Anna Maliere, “Popular Girl,” one episode of Hope & Faith), and then of course they cut the baby out and spill blood into a goblet and then even worse stuff happens. Sarah later explains to a friend on the phone, “I don’t know, it’s this fucked up short film with a clown, and the devil raping this woman.”
The kids laugh about how it was “so funny” before going to bed, but Sarah is spooked enough to worry about sounds outside that turn out to be kids egging the house, and Tia asks “Do you think that clown was real?” before deciding to sleep in Timmy’s room.
Left alone with a glass of wine and a George Romero classic, Sarah gets curious and puts the tape back in. The second story is about Caroline (Catherine A. Callahan, “Lilly Smith,” 5 episodes of Billions) who has recently moved out to the country when the power goes out and something falls from the sky and she thinks she hears someone in the house. After a bunch of creeping around with a flashlight and a kitchen knife being terrified, the terrifier is revealed as an alien (Brandon deSpain, DAY OF THE MUMMY) and there’s a chase and scuffle. The fun part is that it’s sort of this bulgy-brained thing in a space suit with a bunch of tubing and a mask shaped like a grey alien, so it mixes kind of a ’50s sci-fi vibe with slasher movie stalking and gore. (Jason Eisener did something a little like this in his recent movie KIDS VS. ALIENS, also set on Halloween.)
To connect this chapter to the other shorts there’s also a thing about how Caroline’s unseen husband John made a painting that freaked her out and at the end we see that it’s a picture of Art the Clown.
The last story is the original Terrifier, also set on Halloween. A woman (Marie Maser) stops at a gas station in the middle of nowhere just as the attendant (Michael Chmiel, “Cameraman,” one episode of Luke Cage) is chasing off Art the Clown for pissing and shitting all over the bathroom. The attendant is nice to the woman and is giving her instructions, but goes to check on a banging noise inside the station, and doesn’t come back. When she goes to check on him she finds Art sawing him to pieces. The sight of Art crouched down, looking up at her and smiling (but continuing to saw) reminds me of Chop Top hammering poor L.G. in the radio station in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. The combination of the frantic sawing sound effect and the synthesized hammering sounds on the soundtrack are very effective, and I’m even okay with the scratchy-film filters, which later start to invade the overly-polished-cable-movie look of the wraparound story, suggesting that the realities are merging.
The woman is able to drive off, but keeps magically running into Art, as well as failing at all attempts to get help. Like, when she sees a car on the side of the road the driver is alive but turns around looking like this:
(Carved like a jack o’ lantern?)
The chase continues, with Art using some sadistic weapons and techniques he’ll repeat in feature films, and ultimately laughing at her when she wakes up and realizes he’s performed a grotesque surgery on her. In my opinion the guy is just a real jerk.
Giannelli, who plays Art, is a non-actor friend of Leone’s he roped into playing the role because he’d already done a head cast of him for some other project. He opted out of the role in the later movies, replaced by the lankier and more serious about acting David Howard Thornton, but I think he does a good job here, looking creepy and despicable and doing some good miming. He gets caught covered in blood from despicable acts, smiles and shrugs.
The wraparound wraps up with some mind-trip business revealing that this is more than just a movie Sarah has been watching, and she’s in actual danger. My favorite of these gimmicks is the first one: the phone rings and she realizes she’s on the other end of one of the phone calls for help made in the movie.
In my review of the TERRIFIER motion picture I wrote that “there’s something about the way it’s lit and shot that reminds me of watching oppressively dark ‘70s and ‘80s horror on VHS without being a throwback or mimicry,” and I described the movie as “right on the edge between those two dimensions” of “one of those post-GRINDHOUSE and HOUSE-OF-1,000-CORPSES exploitation-movies-in-quotation-marks” and ones that “feel like they’re actual movies, at least.” It’s interesting to me that this earlier anthology explicitly frames its shorts as exactly what the TERRIFIER movies feel like to me: some heightened, fictional sleazefest, the bizarro cinematic freak out you never heard of before you find it on a mysterious (and actually cursed) tape and feel like you’re not supposed to be watching. Or are being tricked into watching. The burbling synth score (credited to someone called Noir Deco), fuzzy electro stings and ki-ki-ma-inspired sound design really do feel like the Platonic ideal of a fucked up gore movie from the ‘80s.
That’s why this is the rare horror anthology where the wraparound stuff actually enhances the short subjects. Due to their origins they’re light on story, heavy on shocking images and showcasing of low budget makeup FX, so they benefit from this movie-within-a-movie distancing, and Maguire is honestly very good at the expression of being too interested to turn it off but not enjoying the experience of watching. That can’t be easy.
The weird-video-tape-anthology format is also ideal for Leone’s tendency to dip into other subgenres in the middle of his movie. Like, TERRIFIER mostly follows this stalker/slasher formula, but the parts about a horribly mutilated survivor seem out of somewhere else. The 9th Circle shows that Leone was already into that anyway – it’s basically a heroine stumbling through three different subgenres, as an excuse to make different monsters.
ALL HALLOWS’ EVE is certainly not one of the greats, but it makes sense as the b-movie early work of an ascending horror director, because it’s so much better than most of what comes out of this world, especially when the impetus is “I’m gonna take shorts somebody else put on Youtube and string them together as a movie.” You can understand how it graduated from Tubi to Shudder. It also has enough Halloween trappings to make for decent seasonal viewing, though I would like to nitpick a few details:
1. Why would they plan to carve pumpkins after trick-or-treating, right before bed? Isn’t that too late?
2. What kind of a shitty trick-or-treating neighborhood are they in that they get so many hard candy peppermints?
I guess that’s a comment disguised as a question. Sorry, kid. You deserved better.
Baget continued the “mysterious video tape of horror shorts on Halloween” premise for 2015’s ALL HALLOWS’ EVE 2, but without Leone or Art. From the trailer it looks like the production values are a little better, so I may watch it next year if anyone says it’s decent.
P.S. I also tried to watch SPIRIT HALLOWEEN: THE MOVIE. I remember a time in the ‘90s or early 2000s when I went to a Spirit Superstore the day after Halloween to look for good discounted items, and they were selling Spirit logo t-shirts like the employees wore. I bought one because it seemed like a funny, random thing to have – I think I still have it somewhere. I never could’ve guessed that this parasitic seasonal costume shop would one day reach such a place of prominence in our culture that they use it to brand a movie.
Anyway the movie is about a group of kids who sneak into a mysterious Spirit store in the middle of nowhere and try to spend the night inside. It’s haunted and the decorations come to life or something. There are standard emotional subplots about the main kid feeling pressured by his friends to give up childhood things like trick-or-treating but wanting to hold on because these traditions remind him of his recently deceased father. I could have my heartstrings pulled by this kind of stuff in a movie that felt true to life, and this is certainly polished and everything, but it just has such a made-for-cable kind of generic-ness to the characters, the music, etc. that I found it more annoying than moving. So I’m afraid I turned it off before it got to the spirits. This is more for Goosebumps aged kids, I think, and I was already too old for that shit when Goosebumps came out. So I’ll stick with SPIRIT HALLOWEEN: THE STORE.