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The Untold Truth Of The Terrifier Franchise

From Pennywise and Twisty to Captain Spaulding and Killjoy, creepy clowns have been freaking out horror fans for years. However, the murderous antics of the aforementioned villains seem downright tame compared to those of a more recent addition to the ever-growing roster of killer clowns in the horror genre: Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton). The brainchild of writer, director, and SFX makeup artist Damien Leone, Art is the main antagonist of the "Terrifier" franchise, which has been shocking — and nauseating — audiences since 2016.

Despite his quiet nature, Art clearly enjoys dispatching unsuspecting victims, whether he's slashing Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) right down the middle or flaying Allie (Casey Hartnett) in her childhood bedroom. Thanks to such gory scenes and Art's ability to be simultaneously menacing and hilarious (like when he's trying out different glasses looks at the costume store), "Terrifier" became a fast favorite among fans. The franchise is well known in horror circles nowadays, but there are some interesting tidbits about its history and creation that even the biggest Art lovers might not be aware of. Read on for the untold truth of the "Terrifier" franchise.

Terrifier began as a short film

2016's "Terrifier" put Damien Leone on the horror map, but it wasn't his first project involving Art the Clown. In fact, the origins of the black-and-white jumpsuit-wearing maniac date back to 2005, when Leone dreamed up a chilling plotline about a woman getting terrorized by a clown on a bus. "She's all alone, coming home from work or whatever, in the middle of the night, and then this clown gets on and sits across from her, and starts staring at her and toying with her," Leone told Entertainment Weekly. "It's awkward and uncomfortable, and maybe even funny, but then it gets progressively more intimidating and aggressive. I thought that was just an interesting, weird idea."

This idea became the basis for the 2008 short film "The 9th Circle," which marked Leone's debut as an aspiring filmmaker and the official introduction of Art the Clown (played by Mike Giannelli at the time). In "The 9th Circle," Leone incorporates a number of nightmare-inducing creatures. "I tell people it was my kitchen sink film," he told Dread Central. "I threw in everything, clowns, witches, demons, monsters, everything up against the wall hoping something would stick." It was Art that ultimately stuck, with Leone receiving overwhelming feedback that he needed to do more with the clown. Giannelli returned as Art in Leone's 2013 anthology "All Hallows Eve" before the launch of the "Terrifier" franchise, starring David Howard Thornton as the killer clown, in 2016.

Allie's death in Terrifier 2 was inspired by Jack the Ripper

When creating the 2022 sequel "Terrifier 2," Damien Leone knew that, in order to keep the franchise's gore-loving fans entertained, he needed to concoct a death scene even more brutal than the hacksaw butchering in "Terrifier" — and he certainly delivered. After Allie refuses to give a piece of candy to Art when he trick-or-treats at her house, the clown grows angry. Art proceeds to break into Allie's house and cause her a slow, painful demise by flaying her alive. When Allie's mother (Amy Russ) arrives home, she's met with a terrible scene in her daughter's bedroom: A blood-drenched, barely-recognizable Allie who is missing most of her skin but still conscious, with Art sheepishly shrugging his shoulders and smiling at his handiwork.

This gruesome scene was inspired by a victim photo that Leone saw in a book about the infamous London serial killer Jack the Ripper. In an interview with Dread Central, he said, "It was the aftermath of this corpse splayed out on a bed, and it was so horribly mutilated that you really couldn't even tell it was a human being anymore. It was really disgusting, and I said, 'Well, that's a good way to end this person's [Allie] life,' and let's sort of reverse engineer that photo and see, how did Art bring that person to that state?"

David Howard Thornton wasn't always a horror icon

The schedule of David Howard Thornton is usually jam-packed with horror conventions, where droves of fans from across the country convene to show their love for Art and other characters. However, this wasn't always the case. In fact, before stepping into the role of the maniacal clown for 2016's "Terrifier," Thornton was unknown in the world of horror. That's because, prior to this, his work was largely seen on stage in feel-good musical productions.

As a kid, Thornton was a performer at Fantasy Playhouse, a children's theater in his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama. He made his debut with a small part in "Rapunzel," and went on to land roles in local productions of "Aladdin," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and other high-energy shows. Eventually, he advanced to the big leagues of national Broadway tours, appearing in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical!" for five years. "I was a song and dance guy before this," Thornton told AL.com.

Though he obtained a degree in elementary education from the University of Montevallo with the goal of pursuing a career in teaching, Thornton's love for acting called him away from the classroom. Still, he never could have predicted what his life would become after responding to a horror movie casting notice that fit his exact description: A tall, skinny actor with physical comedy experience. It was Thornton's background as a children's entertainer, which requires lots of over-the-top movement, that helped him land the life-changing role of Art.

New Jersey police showed up on set

Much of "Terrifier" was filmed in Trenton, New Jersey, which doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to crime. "The rate of crime is much higher than the average U.S. city," reports Crime Grade. "Your chance of being a victim of crime in Trenton may be as high as 1 in 17 in the south neighborhoods." It's understandable, then, that when two women spotted a bloody clown looking down at them from a warehouse window in Trenton, "film shoot" wasn't the first thing that came to mind.

David Howard Thornton was in his makeup room when he heard the ladies arguing on the street. Curious, he popped his head out to see what was happening. Upon getting a glimpse of him, the ladies screamed and fled as fast as possible. Soon after, Thornton was asked to come outside by Damien Leone and producer Phil Falcone to greet their guests: approximately 20 armed officers from the New Jersey Police Department.

"It turned out that the area that we were filming in was very unsafe and that those ladies called in saying they saw a scary clown man covered in blood," Thornton told Smash or Trash Independent Film-Making. "They laughed their butts off when I came out and told me that I better be glad that I did not come out before my director and producer did, or that I would have been shot on site." The officers ended up taking photos with Thornton — at least, the ones who weren't scared of clowns. "A few of them would not come near me," Thornton added.

The inspirations for Art might surprise you

When David Howard Thornton's acting career took an unexpected pivot into horror films, he was tasked with bringing to life one of the deadliest — and quietest — killers to hit the screen. Since Art the Clown never utters a word in the "Terrifier" franchise, instead using exaggerated body movements and facial expressions to get his point across, Thornton certainly had his work cut out for him. However, thanks to his extensive knowledge of silent comedy stars, he was more than up for the challenge.

"I have a long appreciation for great silent film actors and comedians and great physical comedians, so I just basically tapped into my data bank that's in my head, all the way from [Charlie] Chaplin to Rowan Atkinson, you know, Mr. Bean, and also my good friend Stefán Karl [Stefánsson], who was Robbie Rotten on the show 'LazyTown,'" Thornton told Dread Central, adding that he picked up a lot from the late Stefánsson in particular. "I was his understudy for five years with 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical!,' so I took a lot of what I learned from Stefán and put it into Art."

Thornton blended the mannerisms of these comedic actors with influence from horror legends like Robert Englund to create the Art that fans know and fear. Despite being capable of grievous acts, Thornton intentionally brings a sense of humor and levity to the character, traits that weren't present in Mike Giannelli's iteration. Thornton said: "I wanted to add more of that clowning aspect."

Precautions had to be taken for the infamous hacksaw scene

Before Damien Leone gave us many disturbing scenes in "Terrifier 2," Dawn's hacksaw death in the original film served as the most shocking moment of the franchise. Not only is it difficult to watch, it was also brutal to film. In an interview with Halloween Daily News, Catherine Corcoran was candid about the dangers and health risks involved in bringing the scene to life. Upside down and shackled by her feet with no rig — which is typically necessary for such a stunt — Corcoran was unable to even out her weight distribution. "So you're at risk for seizure and brain trauma," she said.

To ensure no harm came to her, filming took place in 40-second increments. When a timer went off, the cameras stopped rolling and a platform was placed under Corcoran, allowing her to have more balance in her body and prevent blood from rushing to her head. It was a tedious process, one that she doesn't look back on fondly: "That was the only thing we shot that night, and it was a full 10- to 12-hour night in 20-degree weather." Still, she said that she was "grateful" to David Howard Thornton, who regularly checked on her to make sure she was alright. He said in an interview with Cait Devin Music: "I was just so worried about her safety the whole entire time, which is kind of ironic considering what I do to her in that scene."

Damien Leone taught himself special effects makeup as a kid

From ghastly wounds to Art the Clown's painted face, the special effects seen throughout the "Terrifier" franchise are the work of director Damien Leone, a skilled SFX makeup artist who has been honing his craft since childhood. It all started when he watched a documentary series called "Scream Greats" on VHS, the first volume of which is about Leone's biggest influence, Tom Savini. He also had a copy of "The Making of Thriller," which inspired him further.

"Those two [documentaries] were the first time I ever saw makeup artists creating monsters and zombies and stuff like that," Leone told Dread Central. "So that really blew my mind. I always cherished those tapes. I was watching those when I was like 8, and finally when I was 12 I started to teach myself what they were doing in the tapes. But really, Savini was my biggest influence when it comes to special effects."

Years later, when it came time to make "Terrifier" as an independent endeavor, he knew the film would stand apart from competitors thanks to his skills. Leone's SFX makeup magic includes bringing the face of Art the Clown to life, a somewhat tedious task. Every single day on set, a mold was taken of David Howard Thornton's face and a fresh prosthetic was sculpted. Basically, there was no way to remove it without destroying it. On average, it takes between two-and-a-half and three hours to complete Art's signature look.

The Terrifier films are made with mostly practical effects

As the movie industry becomes more high-tech and digitized, some creators prefer to set the computers aside and stick with good old fashioned practical effects. Thanks to Damien Leone's skills and creative vision, the vast majority of gory scenes in the "Terrifier" franchise are handcrafted. In fact, some of those intestines that fall from Art's victims are a little too real.

"We use a lot of real meat. You can't get any better than the real thing — nothing says slimy or moves the way real fat moves. That adds more authenticity to it, but it's also very disgusting," Leone told Variety, adding that his butcher friend regularly supplied him with fat in sausage casings to use as intestines. "You gotta shoot those things quickly and can't leave them under hot lights. Some things are traditional and made out of latex and silicone, but sometimes you gotta put some chicken cutlets and bacon inside these things."

Even in Allie's "Terrifier 2" death scene, which caused some fans to get sick in theaters, there's only one digital component. In post-production, Casey Hartnett's eyes were put onto the life-sized puppet that was used on set and operated by a team moving around a series of rods. A similar technique was used for the Halloween costume shop clerk (Johnath Davis) who is beheaded by Art. To make it appear as though the severed head is still blinking, Davis' face was digitally added to a prop head.

One of the filming locations was actually haunted according to cast and crew

"Terrifier 2" might out-gore its predecessor, but the original "Terrifier" certainly has a darker tone. While the sequel features brighter sets, such as Sienna Shaw's (Lauren LaVera) school and the colorfully unsettling Clown Café (which has a pretty deep meaning to it), "Terrifier" largely takes place in run-down, grimy locations. In order to achieve the atmosphere that Damien Leone was going for, filming actually took place in some pretty desolate buildings. One of these buildings was in Trenton, where there was no running water, and the other was part of Staten Island's Seaview Hospital. Previously a healthcare facility for tuberculosis patients in the early 1900s, Seaview had shut down by 1960 and was ultimately left to rot.

Today, Seaview is said to be haunted by its former patients – something David Howard Thornton and one of the makeup artists from "Terrifier" can attest to. "Seaview was creepy as hell since we were filming in the tunnels that they used to dispose of TB patients," Thornton told Smash or Trash Indie Film-Making. "One night, our makeup lady and I decided to explore them at about 2AM while everyone else was on set. We ended up hearing a female voice about 10 feet in front of us mumbling and shuffling around. We turned back immediately and did not want to see what was there since the only other female that we knew of was on set. Crazy stuff!" If Seaview can scare Art the Clown himself then it clearly isn't for the faint of heart.

The first two Terrifier films were largely fan-funded

Art the Clown is truly a man of the people, with the first two "Terrifier" installments largely made possible thanks to fans. After gaining some popularity with "All Hallows Eve," Damien Leone felt it was time to finally make a full-length, Art-centric film. The only issue was, as an independent creator, he needed funding. Leone called on horror lovers to donate what they could through an Indiegogo campaign, which had a fundraising goal of $15,000. Those who donated were awarded for their generosity with autographed merchandise, prop replicas, and more. The campaign garnered a little over $4,300, and Leone was able to work with an overall budget of $35,000.

When it was time for "Terrifier 2," another Indiegogo campaign was launched with the goal of raising $50,000. This time, the target was surpassed by an unprecedented amount. The grand total after only a month was more than $200,000, giving Leone more financial freedom to up the ante for "Terrifier" 2, which has a lengthy runtime of 2 hours and 18 minutes ("Terrifier" is 1 hour and 26 minutes). Seeing such fan support was humbling for the "Terrifier" crew. David Howard Thornton told AL.com, "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."

The Terrifier franchise has some famous fans

As "Terrifier" became more popular, some well-known individuals took notice and expressed their appreciation for the franchise. One famous fan is Pete Davidson, a native of the original film's shooting location of Staten Island. In an Instagram post by Fuzz on the Lens Productions, one of the companies behind the second and third installments, Davidson is proudly holding up his own "Terrifier 2" jacket. The comedian and actor even invited David Howard Thornton to make a cameo appearance in his 2023 Peacock series "Bupkis" as Art the Clown.

Another fan of the franchise is none other than the legendary horror writer himself Stephen King, who tweeted: "Terrifier 2: Grossin' you out old-school." In response to this, Damien Leone said, "This is such a tremendous honor from the master! You better believe that quote's going on the poster." Of the King shoutout, Thornton was beside himself with excitement. He told AL.com, "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."

King is known to lend his support to low-budget horror films that he admires: He helped Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" reach a wider audience after calling it "the most ferociously original horror film of the year" in a review for Twilight Zone Magazine (via Entertainment Tonight). It became a well-known horror franchise in the years that followed, and King would clearly like to "Terrifier" hit the same heights.