He started seeing people at the conventions with tattoos of his face on their bodies. Others were dressing up just like him. Vendors sold merchandise emblazoned with his image.
Well, not the image of David Howard Thornton the actor, exactly.
But of Art the Clown, the sadistic serial killing harlequin from the “Terrifier” horror films.
“And I was like, ‘Wow, I think we might have something,’” Thornton tells me. “Because you usually don’t see a lot of that kind of stuff happening at conventions with new horror characters. That usually takes a while to actually garner a following.”
The original 2016 “Terrifier” drew raves from horror fans and critics alike for its clever ‘80s-tinged filmmaking and Art the Clown’s sinister brutality delivered with deft gallows humor.
“Then we released on Netflix, and it really exploded,” Thornton recalls. “And it’s just kind of kept growing ever since, especially for part two.”
While the first “Terrifier” was a sensation with horror superfans, recently released sequel “Terrifier 2″ ascended into mainstream. Written and directed by Damien Leone, these are classified as “splatter films,” horror so gory it, as one reviewer wrote, “makes Pennywise look like Krusty,” referring to the murderous being from Stephen King’s “It” and the debauched kids-show host from “The Simpsons.”
“Terrifier 2″ has increased the intensity. Mainstream media outlets like Entertainment Weekly, People and Variety have run stories about moviegoers literally vomiting and fainting in theaters from watching Art’s graphic kill scenes. But for anyone who’s seen the original “Terrifier” the sequel raining blood should come as no surprise.
On a recent afternoon I connected with Thornton, age 49, for this interview via video chat. He’s in New York, where he lives.
“I think comedy and horror are two genres where you’re supposed to always be pushing the envelope,” Thornton says, “and trying new things and seeing where you can go forward things. No pun intended but art isn’t supposed to be safe.”
Well, if art isn’t supposed to be safe, Art the Clown definitely isn’t safe. Dude knows his way around a hacksaw, cleaver and other menacing objects. But what makes Thornton’s portrayal so effective is the pinch of physical comedy he brings to this non-speaking character.
“Of course I took a lot of inspiration from actual serial killers and horror villains, but also took a lot of inspiration from comedy legends,“ Thornton says, “especially those that were great with physical comedy and silent comedy, like (Charlie) Chaplin and Rowan Atkinson and (character actor) Doug Jones. And my buddy Stefán Karl (Stefánsson) who I understudied for five years on (the musical) ‘The Grinch.’ He was Robbie Rotten on (children’s TV show) “LazyTown” and he was a true master of the craft, so that’s where I found a lot of inspiration, especially from his tutelage.”
“Terrifier 2″ was supposed to run for only one week in about 800 theaters before switching to streaming. But fan demand has kept the film in theaters for three weeks and counting. The micro-budget indie has made back its financing at least 10 times over. Showtimes, tickets and other info at terrifier2themovie.com.
“First off, what I think it’s amazing about that is that most of that budget, like I would say about 85, 90 percent, came strictly from the fans,” Thornton says. “We did an Indiegogo campaign, and we only were trying to raise about $50,000 and we raised over $200,000 in just a month’s time, which was unheard of for us. We did not expect that at all. And so it’s kind of cool having almost a fully funded film by the fanbase. We’re fans of the genre, and we wanted to make the type of film that fans of the genre want to see as well.”
Out of Art’s makeup, gnarly dentures, miniature top hat, prosthetic proboscis and puffy black-and-white suit, Thornton looks like the ideal elementary school teacher. Glasses, close cropped salt-pepper hair, thin face, sincere smile. Turns out his got his degree in elementary education. from University of Montevallo, a liberal arts school located in a central Alabama hippie college town.
Thornton grew up in Huntsville, the Alabama city known for Space Camp. In his youth, Halloween costumes Thornton wore over the years included: a red crayon, a mummy, Michelangelo from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and a werewolf-ghost mashup.
As an adult, Thornton grew to 6-foot-2. But his first acting role couldn’t have been smaller. Back when he was a wee lad, he landed the bit part of a magical stone in a local Fantasy Playhouse children’s theater production of “Rapunzel.” “That’s how I started,” Thornton deadpans, “as the offstage voice of a talking rock.” He gradually landed more significant roles in local productions ranging from “Aladdin” to “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“That’s where I learned,” Thornton says of his community theater days. “I didn’t go to school for acting. But I considered the stage my college and that’s I learned from so many fantastic actors there growing up in Huntsville.”
Probably the scariest thing Thornton experienced as child was the deadly 1989 tornado that devastated parts of south Huntsville. When the twister hit, tearing up swaths of the city and killing 21 people, he was at his church practicing with the hand-bell choir. Even now as an adult, he’ll still have nightmares about tornados.
Young David Thornton loved to play videogames, particularly “Legend of Zelda.” He and his friend Steve Lamar would often watch movies together, whether at the now-bygone Hollywood 16 or renting VHS from Movie Gallery, Family Video or Blockbuster.
“I was always an entertainment junkie,” says Thornton, a graduate of Grissom High in south Huntsville. “So I was always renting movies and videogames.”
He says the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which vibrantly interwove animation and live action, inspired him to try acting himself.
“I remember they had a TV special about how they made the movie,” Thornton recalls. “And that really intrigued me. I also learned from that about Mel Blanc who did all the voices for all the Looney Tunes characters.
“I was like, ‘Wow, there’s this one guy that has all these voices. I would like a job like that,’ and so I started teaching myself how to do character voices. Now I do over 200 of them, which is ironic since I’m known for playing a silent character.”
Up next for the actor: the lead role in “The Mean One” a slasher parody of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” set for December release. Below are more edited excerpts from my 30-minute interview with Thornton.
David, what was your audition like for the original “Terrifier”? Art the Clown’s such a crazy evil character. But after talking with you a few minutes it’s easy to tell you’re a nice guy in real life.
That’s the beauty of this is like so many of us that play these monsters in these horror movies, they’re the nicest guys. [Laughs] I was a song and dance guy before this. I was doing Broadway tours. Like, I toured with “How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” for five years. I got my start doing children’s theater there in Huntsville with Fantasy Playhouse. That’s where I cut teeth and everything. So most of my life I’ve done comedy, theater for children, even voiceover work for children and now I’m doing this.
And it was just a very serendipitous moment because I had just come back from my last year with “The Grinch.” I was really trying to do some more Broadway work or tour work and had been in five callbacks from different tours. They all fell through.
I had never really done film work before, and I came across an audition for Art the Clown. I knew the character because I had seen the previous film, “All Hallows Eve.” (Leone’s 2013 feature film directorial debut had Mike Giannelli in the Art the Clown role. The character first appeared in Leone’s 2008 short film “The 9th Circle.)
They were looking for a tall skinny guy that had clowning or physical comedy experience to play Art. And I’m like, oh, that’s perfect for me. I’ve always wanted to get to film work so this could be a good foot in the door. It’s a low-budget independent film so I don’t know what will come of this. It might go somewhere, who knows, but at least it will be good experience and something I can put on a resume and a demo reel. I just submitted myself to the audition, and I booked it off my first audition.
On Twitter, Stephen King has tweeted about your movie a couple times. And you’re on the cover of October issue of Fangoria, the iconic horror magazine. When it comes to horror, those are some big deals. What’s it like for you for “Terrifier 2″ to be connecting on that level?
It’s mind blowing to us. [Laughs] And especially when you know that Stephen King’s talking about your film. That’s the master of horror himself, the true king. I mean, I’m a huge lifelong fan of his work, both film-wise and book-wise. And of course, Fangoria magazine, I grew up reading that as well.
So I am completely beside myself right now. This thing has taken on a mind of its own recently, the past week or so, and they just mentioned us on Howard Stern today. I just can’t believe this.
It started a little bit with part one though. We had some celebrities that had seen part one talk about it, like Lili Reinhardt from (teen drama TV series) “Riverdale.” She had posted a post on Instagram about it. And, of course, probably one of our biggest advocates was (wrestler/rock singer) Chris Jericho, who is actually now in part two. He had me on his podcast way back in 2019 and he’s been talking the movie up ever since.
And so when you have people with that caliber talent and recognition talking about your movie, that helps, you know, get the ball rolling. But recently it’s just taken on a life of its own that we couldn’t even ask for. This is incredible what’s happening right now.
It’s purely organic too because we didn’t really have a publicity team to do this kind of campaign. Unlike a lot of the Hollywood movies that are out there this is primarily word of mouth, from fans going to the films and just tweeting about their experiences and what they have seen in the films. And it’s just captured media’s attention now and now everybody else is talking about it. It’s unbelievable.
There’s a lot of creativity in horror right now, from the recent hit “Barbarian” to what you all are doing with the “Terrifier” series. Why do you think the genre’s going through a bit of a renaissance?
I think probably part of the reason for that is, I hate saying this about Hollywood, but it seems like in the past 10, 15 years or so horror films made by mainstream studios have kind of gotten stale. They’re all playing it way too safe. And now we’re starting to see these lesser-known studios and independent studios coming in making the films that fans want to see. Because the people making these films are actually the fans of the genre. It’s not some, you know, Hollywood executive just trying to make a quick money grab or something like that. So I think that’s kind of what’s going on right now.
With these reports of moviegoers having extreme reactions while watching “Terrifier 2″ because of the gore, when you were filming those scenes did you realize how intense the scenes were?
Yeah, we definitely knew we were doing something different. That’s for sure. And we knew that especially because, you know, the reactions to part one with the infamous hacksaw scene. We took that a starting point. Because we’re like, OK, we’ve set that bar there, that fans are expecting this kind of level of kill scene in our films, so we have to pass that bar now and go somewhere crazier. Because we don’t want to let the fans down, especially since they practically funded the whole entire film, so we definitely intend to do crazier with things.
While we’re doing these scenes, like when we were filming the very first kill in the movie, I remember Damien turned to me at one part, when we had just done one of the very first things in the kill where it wasn’t much of anything. It’s just basically blood splatter. And he’s like, “This would be a whole entire kill in a Jason (”Friday the 13th”) movie back in the day. We’re just getting started on this kill.” [Laughs]
Going back to previous question, it’s like that’s what’s happened with a lot of the Hollywood films. They’ve all gotten to where they feel like they have to be too safe. They’re too afraid of offending anybody. I think they’ve lost the whole point.
What’s the process like for you getting transformed into that character with costume and makeup? And how long does all that take?
It’s fun for me. Putting on the costume’s always the cherry on top of the character. That’s how I truly get into character and that goes back to my stage days.
And it’s a process too. Originally it took about four hours to get into all that makeup, and now we’ve gotten about down to I’d say an hour-and-a-half depending on how much battle damage I have to have. Especially with blood continuity, because we have to deal with blood splatter and make sure they sync up to previous days of filming. A chore is a chore, but it’s fun for me.
I’ve always been the type of actor I don’t have to go full method. As soon as I understand the voice of the character, I understand the character himself and so I can slip in and out of character very easily. Just putting on the costume just makes it that much easier.
And so as soon as they say “rolling” I can become Art, and as soon as they say “cut” I’m back to being David again. Which is probably weird for my cast mates, because one second I’m just chatting about what we’re going to have for dinner, then they’re like “rolling” and I’m on top of them stabbing them like crazy. They go “cut” and I’m like, “Are you OK? Are you ready for dinner now? Let’s go eat.”
What’s your camaraderie like with your “Terrifier 2″ castmate Lauren LaVera, who plays the protagonist character, Sienna Shaw?
That’s one thing I wanted to make sure happened. As soon as she was cast, I told Damien I want to go out to get lunch with her to get to know her before we started filming this thing, because I knew how much that we’re going to have to go through together, especially with the climax of the film. It’s very physical. And we’re going to have to have a good relationship with each other and a lot of trust before we go into doing all this stuff.
And so we instantly became like best buds, all three of us. We had so much fun. I was like, “Oh, this is great,” because my future is basically intertwined with hers now, for God knows how many years.
I look at how Robert Englund (who played “Nightmare on Elm Street” villain Freddy Krueger) is with a lot of his old castmates. They’re still best friends 30 plus years later.
And so we have a lot of fun with each other. I like to pull pranks on her because she has a fear of clowns. So several times on set, I would just stand there so when she turned around, I’ll be right there in her face, and she’d just scream. And I was risking my life because she has like a black belt in, I think, several forms of martial arts.
We also have a really good trust system. We went through the wringer especially with the climax of the film. That was a hard few weeks there filming because it’s all very physical and long hours, filmed in the middle of winter in Philadelphia, in this very cold building. And we’re tired and all that.
And we were both just trying to keep each other’s spirits up. I’m like, “You know what? We can power through this. This is a little bit miserable right now, but it’s going to be worth it when this movie comes out.” We were a true team. You know, we might be their rivals on screen, but we’re like best friends in real life.
Any major horror villains you draw from for inspiration for what you do as Art the Clown?
The two main ones, I would say one of them is not necessarily a horror villain, but he is a villain and well-known villain, would be The Joker (from Batman comics and films). He’s one of my favorite villains of all time. I definitely put a lot of Joker in Art even though he (Art) doesn’t speak.
And number two I would say would be Freddy Krueger, definitely. I look at Art as being the bastard child of Freddy Krueger and Harpo Marx, so it works very well there. Especially Freddy’s charisma and how he always has kind of a little wink to the audience after every horrible thing he does. So Art’s kind of like a silent version of Freddy now.
For you, what makes “Terrifier” series creator, writer and director Damien Leone’s approach to horror cool or interesting?
Well, first of all, he’s a lifelong fan of horror. He’s literally named after Damien from “The Omen.” Yeah, he’s been watching horror movies since he’s three-years-old and he’s got like an encyclopedic knowledge when it comes to horror films. So he brings that to the table when he’s directing because he knows what works. He knows what scares people. He understands what audiences want to see and that’s what he brings to it.
But he’s also such an actor-friendly director, because he has his ideas about how he wants things to look but he’s also open to other ideas and suggestions. And that’s where we play off of each other so well, because he’s the harder guy, I’m more of a comedy guy. And we’ve been able to just bring those two together in a great way.
We just play off of each other so well. He’ll direct me exactly what he wants to do, like facial expression wise and you know, for some scenes and go, “OK, we’ve done that. Now, David, do your own thing. Let’s play around and see what else you can come up with.” And so we have all these options to go with and he just decides when he wants to use in the editing process.
The budget for “Terrifier 2″ was only around $250,000. How were you all able to make successful and buzzy horror film with that small of budget?
What really helped us was we just had such a dedicated crew. We had a small crew, but everybody was so dedicated. People were sometimes doing multiple jobs, especially Damien. He wrote it, directed it, did all the practical effects himself did all the editing himself.
So that saved us a lot of money right there, especially on the practical effects. If we had gone with the like a Hollywood production company to help us make all the practical effects for the film, that would cost us a few million dollars right there.
And then we use a lot of really good locations, especially for the climax of the film. We found this location in Philadelphia called Fright Factory that’s a haunted house, amusement park type thing, and they let us film inside of there.
That saved us a lot of money on having to build all the set pieces that we need for the finale of the film. And we had enough money to also make our own little tiny studio in upstate New York where we filmed some of the other scenes like the clown cafe scene and the bedroom scenes.
How long did it take for you all to shoot “Terrifier 2″?
Oh, boy, that’s hard to tell. Now, originally, it was supposed to take about three months to film but then COVID happened. And so that kind of made everything a little bit screwy for us, so I really can’t give you a total amount.
I would say at least 50 days, probably up to 70 days, off and on throughout these past three years. Because, you know, dealing with COVID that kind of hampered us and so we had to find times where we all could get together safely and film.
Art the Clown is a character that involves a lot of makeup and costuming. For you as an actor, is there appeal there because that kind of role offers some anonymity and perhaps less potential to be typecast? Like, Robert Englund has done a lot of non-Freddy Krueger roles (particularly voice acting).
That’s a very good point. There definitely is that element of anonymity to it.
A great example of that is Doug Jones. That man is an amazing character actor. A lot of people don’t even know his name, but they know what he’s been in, like “Hocus Pocus” and “The Shape of Water.” “Hellboy.” He was even Mac Tonight back in the day with McDonald’s commercials, the guy with the big moon (shaped) head.
But most people don’t know what he looks like. And that’s because he’s just done so many character roles where he’s all these awesome characters in makeup. And he’s done so many varied roles.
And that’s what I like about it, too, is I’m able to live my own private life. I can walk around the street, people don’t know who I am, which is great. But also like, I am able to do so many different types of roles that I normally wouldn’t do because of my looks. So if you just put some makeup on me, I can become some scary monster, and I’m not the geeky guy you see before you.
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