By RICKY J. DUARTE
Last year, the headline-making TERRIFIER 2 stabbed, strangled, sliced, and slashed its way to box office glory by way of visceral, merciless visuals, a surprising shift in storytelling tone differentiating it from its predecessor and a strong hero worth rooting for in new fan-favorite character, Sienna (Lauren LaVera). The film’s success is also due, frankly, to the incredible and outright demented performance by the franchise’s silent but deadly Big Bad, Art the Clown, the actor who plays him (David Howard Thornton) and the man who created the whole damn thing, Damien Leone. Upon theatrical release, the film famously incited vomiting and fainting in unsuspecting theatergoers and racked up a whopping $15 million+ on a budget of only $250,000.
It’s been a whirlwind year for the Terrifier gang. From television appearances to horror conventions, the overwhelming reaction from horror fans is well-deserved. Now, a year after the second installment’s success, it’s being brought back to theaters to rub salt (and bleach) into the wounds of recovering gorehounds. Beginning its limited run on November 1, a ticket to the film will also include an exclusive poster (for the first 100 victims – I mean fans – in line) as well as a special sneak peek of Art’s upcoming massacre. While it was already (unfortunately) leaked earlier this week that the third installment will center around the horrors of the holiday season, there’s still plenty more in store from the masterfully malicious mind of Damien Leone and the upcoming third installment of the franchise.
RUE MORGUE caught up with Leone to discuss how it feels to have his popular film rereleased in theaters, what it takes to get an independent film off the ground and to squeeze whatever precious details we could out of him about Terrifier 3. Here’s what he had to say…
Can you describe the moment you found out your film was being brought back to theaters?
Oh, man, super excited. I keep saying, It’s the gift that keeps on giving. It was such a great moment in our lives – our cast and crew – that theatrical experience. Especially that first week after it expanded and all the reports coming out of people throwing up and fainting going viral. We were on all the morning talk shows. Stephen King was Tweeting! Howard Stern was talking about us. It was a very surreal moment. And now, other horror franchises have sort of piggybacked off of that. Like, Saw was sort of calling us out about the gore with the barf bags. We loved that. I mean, that stuff’s amazing! So why not? Let’s throw us back in there, and let’s extend Halloween for a couple of days. You know? Why not?
I’ve never had a fear of clowns, but I told David Howard Thornton when I met him a few weeks ago that he scared the hell out of me, and your films scared the hell out of me! What has the journey felt like having created an iconic franchise and character?
We hear it a lot. We hear the word “icon” a lot. Especially recently. Of course, I’ve always had strong imposter syndrome because I have such an affinity for all those characters like Jason, Freddy [and] Michael Myers. You can never imagine that you could reach those heights, but we do hear it a lot. A lot of people, now, at Halloween Horror Nights tell us that more people are wearing Art the Clown shirts than any other franchise … So, I gotta remind myself that I guess we did something that people are relating to, but at the same time, don’t screw it up, right? We have a bit of a responsibility now to keep those people happy. Hopefully, it makes me a better storyteller, or it helps me not to lose sight of this wonderful opportunity that we have.
What advice can you give aspiring filmmakers?
Just be persistent because it could be a very discouraging road. All I can really say is what I did – my formula for it – was just to not let anybody discourage me or prevent me from creating. And it wasn’t about saying, I need to be a Hollywood filmmaker in X amount of time, or whatever. It was I need to get these images out of my head, and I need to put them on a screen. Right? And I’m not gonna let anybody stop me from doing that. And it might be a $30,000,000 idea, but I’ll figure out a way to do it for $3000. It’ll be a shitty $3000, but I’ll figure out how to do it. I need to do it. I need to see it.
I just taught myself how to do anything possible because I didn’t grow up in the film community. I didn’t have friends who were interested in movies. I was the weird kid. I mean, I had friends, but I was the weirdo outcast filmmaker guy who nobody understood, you know? And I would just force my friends to be in my home movies when we were 12, and I would just put cuts on them and blood, and we would make all these movies and stuff. Then, I taught myself how to edit. And you just keep getting better. And I studied films; [I] was consumed by films. And it’s not that I sat down to study them as a class. I genuinely enjoy movies. They’re my life. Eventually, you just start picking up on all these techniques, and you have this whole sort of tool kit to start pulling from. Oh, I know what I’m gonna use for this. I know what would work here. You just start getting better, and you start surrounding yourself with like-minded people that you start meeting along the way, and you put your work out there. Put your work out there, and make something that’s gonna stand out.
That’s the other thing I say: play to your strengths. I can’t write the way Tarantino or Kevin Smith can write. I can’t write that kind of dialogue, so I’m not gonna make a short film where two people are just sitting having a cup of coffee having an amazing conversation. I am going to disappear into a sea of other films if that’s what I make. But if I play to my strengths and pack it with special makeup effects and cool imagery and cool horror imagery and atmosphere that I know I can create, that might get people’s attention. And that’s what happened. I put Art the Clown in a short film in the first three minutes and everybody was like, “Oh, my God! That character looks so cool! Keep making stuff with that character. That’s awesome.” And that’s what I did. I kept listening to that consensus, and I kept going and kept getting better. That’s what I recommend. Just follow your dreams. If it’s your passion, never give up on it, keep learning, and get your work out there. And if you make something good that you care about, it’ll get noticed eventually.
As an aspiring filmmaker, I admit that question was a little bit for me. Thank you for sharing all of that. Super helpful!
What do you think it is about the Terrifier films that appeal to horror fans?
By checking simple boxes that have always worked. Right? You can allow yourself to have flaws in all other areas of the film, which Terrifier does have – 2 does, as well. They’re very flawed movies. But you can check some very crucial boxes, in terms of first and foremost for these movies, you need a very cool killer. He’s gotta look great. He’s gotta have a cool personality and he’s gotta walk the walk … It all started with the image of Art the Clown and a new, sort of fresh personality on the silent killer. And then, it’s alright, let’s make him a slasher now, but let’s make him really stand out. Let’s really deliver. Let’s make kill scenes and gore that even these [big name] killers aren’t dishing out because that’ll get him to stand out. So right there, you’re almost halfway there.
Most people [who] discovered Terrifier never heard of it They’re just scrolling through Netflix, and they just see Art’s face, and they think, “Oh, I gotta see what that guy’s about.” And then we wind up roping them in when they start to see his personality and what David’s bringing to the character. By the time they get to the hacksaw scene, and they see someone get sawed in half in a way they’ve never seen before, they’re sold. So, you’re just checking primal, old-school boxes.
These classic slashers weren’t Citizen Kane, you know? They’re cool killers dispatching victims in interesting ways. Now that I had their attention, going into TERRIFIER 2, I had to up my game. I had a responsibility as a writer and filmmaker and also, just personally, as an artist, I wanna grow. I wanna tell a better story; I wanna be able to bring in characters now – protagonists – that you can invest in. And this was my chance to tell a “hero story.” I’ve told my story of my killer just hacking people up. Now, I wanna see if I can create a heroic adversary for this character that people could empathize with and somebody who’s three-dimensional that people could relate to, and that’s where Sienna came in. But you need an actor who can bring that to life, and Lauren LaVera’s responsible for most of Sienna’s success because she did such a wonderful job of just breathing life into that character. You have to find people that you can collaborate with and who understand your character, as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to have those opportunities.
That leads to my next question perfectly. TERRIFIER 2 had a vastly different tone from the first film. What can fans expect from Terrifier 3?
Probably a drastically different tone from the first two, which might sound a little scary or exciting. I don’t know. Part 2 was always intended to have a sort of A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors vibe. I was embracing, big time, the supernatural element, which we didn’t do in Part 1. Part 1 was a very straightforward grindhouse, gritty slasher movie. This one’s sort of more “poppy” and fantastical because now we’re bringing in the Sienna character who’s this cosplayer, and she’s sort of obsessed with sword and sorcery and, in particular, this Valkyrie character – this Valkyrie costume. So now we’re bringing in the sword and sorcery element with this sort of mystic layer and breeding that with this grindhouse slasher, and you get something very different from Terrifier when you mix those two subgenres.
Now, with Terrifier 3, I wanna go back to where we were with Part 1. I don’t wanna go too far into that Dream Warriors vibe where we forget why we’re here in the first place. It’s very important for me to go back now if we’re gonna talk about the tones of A Nightmare on Elm Street, I’d rather go back to A Nightmare on Elm Street 1 than A Nightmare on Elm Street 6 when I make Terrifier 3. That’s super important. I think this is gonna be the darkest, scariest, and probably the most sinister Terrifier, believe it or not. At the same time, I don’t wanna lose that sense of fun with these movies. I do believe there’s a sense of fun in there with Art the Clown. He’s charming. He’s quirky. People have fun with this character, and I don’t want them to lose that. So you’re still gonna have a good time watching these movies. I don’t want it to be a sort of cruel experience when you leave, but at the same time, there’s a way to make this one scarier and darker than it’s ever been, so I’m excited for that. It is gonna have a different feel than the other two.
It’s great to hear that. You have such a great and clear grasp of what you’re doing and the direction you’re heading in. That’s so exciting as a fan. I want to know what scares you, Damien.
What scares me? Bills! The fact that I’m starting to get pains everywhere all over my body. [Laughing] Movies don’t really [scare me]. They did when I was younger. As much as I loved the killers and I admired them, it was more just a fascination with monsters. I loved the visuals. Anything out of the ordinary, where I know that doesn’t exist … I just always found that so fascinating. It could be anything from a cartoon to a comic book – larger-than-life imagery. I always gravitated toward that.
But there were things that really creeped me out as a kid – The Exorcist scared me as a kid. To me, that transcended movies, and I always knew. You almost felt the presence of evil. Like, if my mother was watching that in her bedroom, I knew that was on, it’s like, ooh, don’t go in there! The Devil’s in there! Zombies had an impact on me – the George Romero zombies – I guess because it was people, and it wasn’t a larger-than-life monster. It was just people coming back from the dead, and you could imagine your loved ones coming back and trying to kill you. So, things like that, in terms of the movie universe, did creep me out as a kid, for sure.
I have one more question – sort of a bonus question. Do you have aspirations apart from the Terrifier franchise?
I do! I do, for sure! Right now, I have an original concept of mine in development with Sam Raimi’s production company, Ghost House Pictures. I wish I could tell you more about that, but I can’t. That would be amazing because Sam Raimi is one of my heroes, obviously, and that whole process – just meeting with them and talking about it – has been amazing. And then, there’s another film that I absolutely love that I might have the opportunity to go and write a script for. It’s a reboot of a classic, sort of, exploitation film. [It’s] not a horror movie, but I might get the opportunity to write and direct that, so that’s exciting. For years, I’ve had ideas that I’ve just been daydreaming about that’ve always been on the back burner. I’ve had scripts half-written, or the idea is just put down for a rainy day, that I’d love to dive into. But Art the Clown just took off, and this train has just left the station. I’m just trying to hold onto it as long as I can and ride it.
TERRIFIER 2 returns to theaters on November 1.