Editor’s note: With the 21st annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards fast approaching, we’ve decided to open up the work of some of our Rondo nominees to a wider audience here on RUE-MORGUE.com. This interview with TERRIFIER creator Damien Leone by RUE MORGUE Executive Editor Andrea Subissati first appeared in issue #208.
Voting ends Sunday night at midnight, April 23. Click here for a list of all of our nominees and our handy copy-and-paste ballot.
By ANDREA SUBISSATI
Among horror’s greatest strengths is the opportunity for indie filmmakers to make as big a bloody splash in the genre as the Hollywood heavyweights, and streaming services like Shudder have risen to the occasion by providing a widely accessible platform for these less conventional passion projects. Among Shudder’s crown jewels is 2016’s surprise hit Terrifier – an intensely gory low-budget slasher about a sadistic clown stalking a pair of drunken costumed teens who think their night of frights ended at the Halloween party. Unfortunately (for them), their nightmare has just begun when they first encounter Art the Clown at a pizzeria, winking and waving from across the aisle. The silent but deadly mime has much more than murder on his mind, with a sadistic bloodlust that goes well beyond the usual hack-n-slash fare in a one-night rampage of gratuitous violence that claims the lives of anyone who crosses his path. One of the film’s first kills, in which Art mounts his victim, naked and upside down, and saws her in half, crotch to crown, was an early cue to audiences that writer/director Damien Leone wasn’t clowning around. Brief at 86 minutes but more than making up for it in shock value – with unforgettable scenes involving dismembered breasts, a crazed cat lady and blood flow aplenty – Terrifier had audiences using their still-agape jaws to beg Leone for a sequel, and this fall, he’s happy to oblige.
Hitting Shudder this October, Terrifier 2 promises everything a horror sequel should: a broader scope and setting, new players, and the nasty bits turned up to eleven. Rue Morgue sat down with the SFX artist-turned-filmmaker for an early peek at the hotly anticipated Halloween horrorshow.
What was your reaction to Terrifier’s success? Did you expect it to do as well as it did?
Honestly, it doesn’t sink in, no matter how popular it keeps getting. Every time I see a new [Terrifier] tattoo or artwork – things popping up on a daily basis, pretty much – it’s wild, it’s thrilling. As far as the success; I created this character back in 2005 or 2006 there for my first short film and I made a bunch of subsequent shorts and eventually [Art] was in All Hallows Eve and every time I made something new, the fan base grew a little more and especially people closest to me would be like, ‘Dude, that clown is so crazy, you really have something there, you have to keep going. You have to make bigger movies and expand upon him.’ And so hearing that so many times, I knew that there was something special there. But it was just really hard to find the funding. It was very difficult; until recently, to convince somebody that clowns could sell a movie, believe it or not. Before It came out, I heard that so many times, that clowns will not sell a movie, so it took a long time to get from where I began to where we are now.
Were you aiming to be controversial with the violence or just as entertaining as you could be?
I’d be lying if I said no; I knew that the kills were going to be controversial. I grew up loving controversial horror movies. Since I am a special effects artist and we were not dealing with a big Hollywood studio, I knew I could personally do [crazy kills] for very little money in the special effects world that you’re not going to see in a Hollywood horror movie. So knowing that I could do things like that, and my obsession with Tom Savini since I was a little kid, and doing makeup effects, I wanted it to be gory and not so much controversial but very shocking and in-your-face. There’s no doubt about it, that I knew would be exploiting the violence.
Were there any criticisms of the first film that surprised you?
I get constantly accused of being misogynistic. Of course, today, it’s inevitable. What really shocked me was [being called] transphobic, based on the scene where [Art] skins and wears the woman. It makes me laugh because it couldn’t be any further away from what I am, raised by all women and everything. It’s so funny to me. I think I’m just so comfortable [tackling sexual violence] because I was raised by all women that I don’t think about those things when I’m doing it. I don’t think I’m offending, I’m not trying to offend, so there’s really nothing I’m not afraid to show. There’s things I won’t show; There’s lines that I try not to cross, believe it or not. No matter how grotesque and intense these scenes get, I always keep it in the back of my head like, ‘How far can we push it but still maintain some level of accessibility, and get as many people interested?’ Because sometimes the violence can be so absolutely shocking where it becomes very niche, and I’m trying to make [Terrifier 2] a little broader, but again, there’s criticisms across the board. I get accused of everything; if I took that to heart, these movies wouldn’t even exist.
How do you up the ante for a sequel to a movie that’s already so extreme?
One of the biggest challenges was trying to top the hacksaw scene because it’s become the most talked-about scene in the movie. But aside from the gore (which there’s plenty of – there’s double the amount of gore in part two), this was more about expanding the scope of the universe, so to speak. The first Terrifier is very confined, because it was so low budget, so in this one I wanted to expand the setting so it’s in many different locations, the locations are bigger. And the characters, more importantly – we really took the time to flesh out the heroes in this one and I’m most excited, believe it or not, for everybody to meet the Sienna character. Aside from Art, she’s probably my favourite character that I’ve ever written; I have more of a soft spot in my heart for her than Art. I drew from personal relationships and experiences in my life to flesh her out. She’s sort of a combination of my two sisters, there’s a little bit of me in her character. She’s very strong and very vulnerable and a lot of that comes from the performance given by Lauren LaVera, who I’m so excited for everyone to see.
How do you come up with your creative kills?
It could be anything, any little nugget of inspiration. For the hacksaw scene, I was doing research online of medieval torture methods, and this one method popped up that I said, “Oh my God! If that actually existed, that is the most horrifying way to go.” It was basically like in the movie, but more realistically, they would hang you upside-down and take a giant saw (I guess to cut down logs or whatever) and there would be a person on each end and they would just saw the person in half. And supposedly, because you’re hanging upside down and all the blood is draining [upwards], you could actually cut through quite a bit of them before they die of blood loss or I’m assuming the shock would take you out very quickly, because that’s so horrifying.
And then for part two – I’ve never told anybody this shit; I’ll tell you, but I can’t go into too many specifics – one of the big kills in Terrifier 2 is [based on] a famous photo of one of Jack the Ripper’s victims on a bed and the body is so horribly mutilated, it’s barely recognizable as a human being. I saw that photo and I said, “Well, that’s a good place to end, let’s just reverse-engineer that and see how that character ended up in that spot.”
Tell me more about your working relationship with Dave Howard, who plays Art.
He’s fun to be around, he’s constantly joking. The funniest thing is how Dave is the man of a thousand voices – basically, before he got into acting and just stumbled into the horror world, almost by accident, Dave was primarily a cartoon voice-over actor. And he loves cartoons; Dave’s like a big kid. So the funniest thing is how he’s now known for a character that doesn’t mutter a sound, which I think is hysterical. But he’s still so animated [as Art], he’s a great actor so many emotions are conveyed through the make-up and through his performance. It’s a great relationship, it’s very easy. I know exactly what I want every time; starting with the script through to when we get on set, I’ll tell Dave what I want him to do – the blocking movements, even down to facial expressions and things like that. We’ll do that for a couple of takes and then I’ll let Dave go off on takes three, four and five and let him improvise – especially scenes that lend themselves to that, like the pizzeria [scene] in Terrifier, when he’s just making faces at Tara. So it’s fun to experiment and play around, and a lot of it is moulded and put together in the editing room.
Art doesn’t seem to be quite human. Will we learn more about his nature in the new film?
Without giving away too many spoilers, when you meet Sienna (Lauren LaVera) and her younger brother Jonathan (Elliot Fullam), who is another character that I can’t wait for people to see, he’s sort of the one driving the story because he’s fascinated by Art. The murders [from the first film] happened in their town, so it’s one year later and [Art is] already this local legend, and Jonathan is on websites and he’s got newspaper clippings and he’s trying to put the pieces together and figure out who this guy is, is he coming back, is he dead, because he disappeared from the morgue, and there’s all these theories. So he’s slowly uncovering clues and bits and pieces about what Art is, or who he may be, and this and that as Art starts working his way into their lives, physically; he starts interacting with Sienna, and things like that. So you do start to learn things but at the same time, more puzzle pieces are thrown at the audience where even more questions are going to come up. I’m hoping to make at least one more movie after this, so if everything is going to get tied up as much as I want it to be, it will be in the final installment. But you’ll definitely learn more about Art in this one.