How Art the Clown Became a Horror Icon

In slasher epic Terrifier 2, Damien Leone breaks all the rules

It's been called the first slasher epic, but that wasn't Damien Leone's intention when he started writing Terrifier 2. "I didn't realize how long it was until I got into the editing room," said Leone. The sequel to his 2016 underground smash, Terrifier, runs at a genre-busting 138 minutes, "but when I sat down to write it I did not think of a run time. That was organically the story that came out of me."

But if any horror series was going to go that deranged, it's Terrifier. "It's a very unorthodox franchise," Leone said in a victory of understatement. The first film was more graphic and violent than any of its contemporaries, with a killer clown called Art gruesomely turning a small town into a charnel house. "It's not like an old-school slasher where you see the knife come up and go down, it's one shot, it's over. I want to give people what they came for." That was far from the only unspoken law of the subgenre that Terrifier shattered. "People said, 'You can't cut someone in half and show that, you can't have him use a gun.' We'd broken so many rules, we thought, 'Why not break a few more?'"

This time around, Leone went bigger on the gore, injected a heavy supernatural element, and most especially added "a more dynamic protagonist" in Sienna (Lauren LaVera). The roots of that character go back to an abandoned project from 2008, and he remained inspired by "that visual of a final girl in a Valkyrie Halloween costume." The first film was just Art running rampant, but this time he has a worthy adversary, one who carries themes that elevate Terrifier 2 beyond a mere gorefest. "He's demonic, she's wearing an angel costume, so you have a clear good vs. evil motif."

And then there's Art the Clown, a creature that only becomes more mysterious the more the films reveal about him. Leone said, "I never want Art to be one-note. I want him to be unpredictable. Is this guy even a clown, or is this some demonic schtick that he puts on?" The character first appeared in a series of shorts Leone directed and then collected as the 2013 anthology, All Hallow's Eve. In that version, it was Leone's friend Mike Giannelli ("who's my buddy") under the monochromatic face paint, but the part was recast for the feature version with David Howard Thornton. The difference was simple, Leone said: "Mike may as well have been a guy dressed as a clown, whereas David is a clown. … If you know him in person, he is a walking cartoon. He is Roger Rabbit in real life, and you'd never believe that he's Art the Clown, but he knows how to flip the switch and bring it to a dark place."

After all, not all slashers are created equal, and whatever the mask or makeup there's one performer who embodies everything terrifying about the killer. Sometimes a franchise gets it right first time, like Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Sometimes it takes a while, like the Friday the 13th series taking seven movies before realizing there's only one Jason Voorhees, and that's Kane Hodder. "What Dave brings to it is all those nuances, that theatricality that he has. Everyone loves Art the Clown, and he is Art the Clown."

And Art is seeping into the popular consciousness, into cosplay and one of the most enduring signs of a fandom: tattoos. Leone said he'd attended a horror convention recently and counted seven in just one day. "There was a time when we could count them on one hand, and now there are literally thousands. … Every day I check #Terrifier and every day something new pops up, something wonderful."

Terrifier 2

North American Premiere
Thu., Sept. 22, 11:20pm; Tue., Sept. 27, 1:50pm

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