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Terrifier mastermind Damien Leone has pulled off the very rare feat of building a successful indie horror franchise from scratch.
The Philadelphia native created the franchise’s star, Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), in a 2008 short called The 9th Circle, and while he only appeared briefly, Leone received enough feedback on the disturbing character design to double down on the clown. Within a few years, he made a Terrifier (2011) short film as a proof of concept for a proper feature film, and his DIY attitude would only intensify when he was told all over town that clowns don’t sell.
Leone first cut his teeth as a special effects makeup artist, and through his work on Phil Falcone’s indie Joe’s War, he became fast friends with the producer-director who later decided to bankroll a $35,000 Terrifier feature. The 2016 slasher film would go on to make roughly twelve times its budget, prompting Leone and Falcone to pursue a sequel at a similar price point. However, the film developed enough of a cult following that an Indiegogo campaign landed them an additional $220,000 for the $250,000-budgeted sequel.
Eventually, Terrifier 2 received a theatrical release of nearly 900 theaters, and positive word of mouth propelled the film to positive gains of 28 percent and 70 percent in its second and third weekends, resulting in double the amount of theaters for weekends four and five. Prior to its current re-release as of Nov. 1st, the Bloody Disgusting-distributed film has totalled just under $16 million worldwide.
Thus, Terrifier 3 became a foregone conclusion, and the Christmas-themed slasher is now dated for release on Oct. 25, 2024. And on the heels of Terrifier 2 taking a more heightened approach with supernatural and fantasy elements, Leone says the third film will also return to the grimy and more grounded tone of the first film.
“I’m trying to go back to (2016’s Terrifier), tonally. So if part two is my (A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors), I want to go back to the original A Nightmare on Elm Street tone with (Terrifier 3),” Leone tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Leone’s reasoning for returning to the original film’s tone is based on a lesson he’s picked up from other franchises that distanced themselves from their roots.
“When franchises lose their way, one of the mistakes they make is forgetting what made the franchise great in the first place,” Leone says. “They just stray so far off of that path, so that’s something I’m trying to avoid. I just want to go back in that direction so I don’t forget where I came from … And I do think (Terrifier 3) is going to be the scariest, darkest, and most sadistic one, believe it or not, of the entire trilogy.”
He also intends to offer more clarity on Sienna Shaw’s (Lauren LaVera) deceased father and why his sketchbook had drawings of both Art the Clown and the angel-warrior persona that Sienna would bring to life in more ways than just a Halloween costume.
“Flat out, I can tell you that I intend to explain a lot of things that were brought up in Terrifier 2, because that mystique was there by design,” Leone says. “I knew I wanted to make more films in the franchise, and I didn’t want to just explain everything in one movie.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Leone also expresses his excitement over hiring a full-fledged makeup team on Terrifier 3 and not having to pull double duty for the first time.
So the Terrifier movies got off the ground in part because a retired white-collar worker decided he wanted to make his retirement a bit more interesting by being both your producer and your FX assistant?
A hundred percent. I tried to shop Terrifier around for years. I made a first short film with Art the Clown called The 9th Circle (2008). That was the first time anybody ever laid eyes on that character, and while he was only in it for a few minutes, people loved him. They just said, “You have to make more things with that character.” So then I made a 20-minute short film years later called Terrifier (2011), and that was sort of a proof of concept, which really showcased Art the Clown and turned him into a slasher. That was going to be the calling card to get a budget behind this movie and turn it into a feature. So I shopped it around for so long, but nobody believed in it, even when it was growing a bigger fan base based off the All Hallow’s Eve horror anthology that included it. It just wasn’t big enough.
At that time, you didn’t have the remake of Stephen King’s It or Twisty the Clown from (American Horror Story: Freak Show). Clowns were just nowhere to be seen, and I would get the note back that clowns can’t sell a movie. So I was like, “Alright, I’ll still figure out a way. I’ve always done it on my own. I’ll find a way to raise money.” But it took years and years until I met Phil Falcone while working on his first film. When he retired, he wanted to make movies, and he made a movie called Joe’s War. It’s a war drama, and he needed special effects for a war sequence. And his cinematographer, Tom Agnello, also shot my first Art the Clown short film, and he said, “Hey, I know this guy. He’s pretty good with makeup effects. I’ll introduce you.” So I did all the bullet hits and blood spray in that sequence, and me and Phil hit it off. We became friends.
And then, years later, when I was trying to raise money for Terrifier, we wound up doing an Indiegogo campaign because nobody wanted to give us money. So I sent Phil the Indiegogo and said, “Hey, if you’re interested or know anybody else who might be interested in being a part of this, let me know.” And he just called me on the side and said, “What are you really trying to do? How much do you think you can make this movie for?” And I said, “Well, I maxed out a $5,000 credit card, and I made the 20-minute Terrifier short. With $35,000, we can make something that’s an hour and 20 minutes.” And he went, “I’ll give you the money tomorrow if you can make a movie for $35 grand. I just want to be there while you’re doing the makeup. I want to hang out. I want to be hands-on because I really love the makeup effects. Maybe you could teach me some things.” And we’ve been inseparable ever since. I owe that guy my life. He’s like my family now. So it’s beautiful, and I was so lucky.
The first film then made twelve times its $35,000 budget and developed enough of a cult following that you could bring on more investors and crowdfunders for the sequel?
Correct. We were going to do it the same way and make it for relatively the same budget, but if you’ve seen Terrifier 2, it is an epic compared to part one. So I just wrote the story I wanted to tell, and then we’d deal with reality later. And when we looked at it, we just knew we couldn’t possibly make it for $35,000 to $50,000, especially the Clown Cafe sequence. That was the sequence that I really wanted in the movie, but that was another short film in and of itself. It was a big set packed with the fire and people getting shot, and I was like, “There’s no way we can do this. We are going to have to try and crowdfund again. Now that we have a bit of a bigger fan base, maybe it’ll be easier to actually do a crowdfunding campaign, specifically just for the Clown Cafe sequence.”
So we set the goal for $50,000, and within a day, I think we raised $220,000 through Indiegogo. And I was like, “Oh my God.” It was an eye-opening moment. We realized that we had a bigger fan base on our hands than we even thought. And thank God that we raised that money because we would’ve never been able to shoot the movie at all. Every nickel of that went into making Terrifier 2 what it is, and it still blows people’s minds that we made that movie for a quarter of a million dollars. It was a lot of work, and it took a lot of time with a very limited but dedicated crew. So we’re so grateful for the fans because they really made that movie happen.
There’s a tonal change between the first and second, and the contrast blew me away since I watched the second film first. You added a pop element of sorts, as well as the supernatural and some fantasy mythology. How much of that shift was a response to feedback you received on the first movie’s tone?
Not much at all. That shift was a result of the Sienna character played by Lauren LaVera. To me, Terrifier 2 is really her movie. It’s not Art the Clown’s anymore. So that movie and that tone is really a reflection of her character. Part one is such a simplified, retro, gritty, grindhouse slasher movie. It’s straight to the point. Art is basically the star of that film. It’s a showcase for what he is as a character. It was such a low budget, and if I could just throw Art the Clown in your face, hopefully people would watch it, which they did. But going into part two, you can’t do that again. You have to grow as a filmmaker. You have to craft a story. You have to bring in some sort of mythology. More importantly, you need to bring in a protagonist that you care about and that you can empathize with, and you also need a worthy adversary to combat Art the Clown. So that’s where Sienna came in.
We also really embraced the supernatural element this time around, because Art dies at the end of the first Terrifier. And like most boogeymen, he’s resurrected and comes back from the dead, but filmmakers and writers tend to gloss over that element. It’s just what the boogeyman does. But I really wanted to embrace that and explore what that supernatural evil is. What enables a killer to come back from the dead? Why? How? What’s driving him? So I really wanted to embrace that in a very David Lynch-ian type of way.
So once I knew I was exploring that element, I wanted to take from supernatural horror movies that I loved, and one of my all-time favorites that had the greatest marriage of the supernatural and that dark, gritty tone was A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. I felt like that had the best of part one, but also reinvented itself within the genre and within that franchise. So there were a lot of elements taken straight from Dream Warriors and its atmosphere.
Lauren LaVera was a bit of a latecomer to acting. She started in martial arts and stunts, but caught the acting bug once she doubled for Anya Taylor-Joy on M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. How much back and forth was there until you knew she was the one to play the teenage angel-warrior known as Sienna Shaw?
Oh my gosh, practically none. (Laughs.) There was never a runner-up. First of all, I designed the poster for Terrifier 2 before we even cast the character, so I knew what I was looking for, visually. If you look at the poster, you don’t see Sienna’s face, but it looks like Lauren in the armor. So I knew how intense and physical Terrifier 2 was going to be, and when I saw her and her reel and all the martial arts she was doing, I said, “Well, she can clearly take on the tasks and the responsibility of going through this hell on set.” But then it was like, “Can she act?” She definitely had some cool things in her reel, but I didn’t know how far her range would stretch.
So when I had her come in to do some chemistry reads in person, she read with (Sienna’s younger brother, Jonathan) Elliott Fullam and Casey Hartnett, who plays her fiend Allie in the film. And as soon as Lauren came in and started reading, I was like, “Oh my God, this is Sienna. It’s a no brainer.” I just knew she was going to elevate the material that I wrote to another level, and working with her has been the most beautiful collaboration. I’ve had actors, and still do, who are wonderful and really care so much about their characters, but Lauren just took it to another level. I’ve never seen anybody care as much for a character that I wrote as much as she does.
She called me all the time, asking me questions about the character that weren’t necessarily addressed in the script, but it would help her craft the character, internally. And then she’d go off and write journals of who she thought Sienna was and what she’s been through just to inject more dimensions into the character. So you can’t ask for more than that as a director. It fires you up. It makes you prouder of what you’ve written, and it really makes you want to give the best you have to offer. So it’s been wonderful, and we’re so excited to continue exploring this character. There’s a lot more you haven’t seen yet.
So what’s the status of Terrifier 3?
We are ready to go, basically. Of course, we’re hindered by the strike. So, hopefully, it ends very soon, but we’re ready to go. The feedback that I’ve gotten from the script has just been amazing. The few people who’ve gotten to read it think it’s really going to be something special, so I’m excited for it. I felt really good about part two, and I feel the same, if not even more confident, about part three and where it’s going. It’s got a really cool new twist on it.
As we discussed, part two really has that fantastical, poppy Dream Warriors vibe, and I’m trying to go back to part one, tonally. So if part two is my Dream Warriors, I want to go back to the original A Nightmare on Elm Street tone with part three. When franchises lose their way, one of the mistakes they make is forgetting what made the franchise great in the first place. They just stray so far off of that path, so that’s something I’m trying to avoid. I just want to go back in that direction so I don’t forget where I came from, and I want this one to be the scariest one. And I do think it’s going to be the scariest, darkest, and most sadistic one, believe it or not, of the entire trilogy.
But it’s still going to have that great element of fun, because I always want there to be levity. Art the Clown needs to be his charming, quirky self. I want the audience to know this is just a fictional world. We are here to have fun, and I don’t want them leaving the theater feeling miserable. But at the same time, there is a way to make this one seem as if you’ve never even met Art the Clown before. That’s how I want the audience to feel. I want them to feel like this is a very terrifying, unpredictable character, and while you think you might know him, you don’t know what’s coming.
On Terrifier 2, you and Phil had to stop shooting for days at a time to create the makeup effects, but with the success of that film, you’ve presumably earned a sizable crew and a bigger budget to not have to shoulder everything yourselves.
Yeah, it’s super exciting. I get to hire a professional makeup team for the first time in my life, and some people are like, “How can you give up the effects?” But I would give up every role aside from the writing and directing. The only reason I took on everything is because we never had the money to hire somebody who could do it better than I can, and there are so many people who are so much more talented than I am, especially in the makeup world. So, now, to have a Hollywood makeup studio come in and pick up the responsibility of the effects is so exciting. It’s such a relief. But I’m still so hands-on, and there’s such a wonderful relationship and shorthand that I have with them in designing these effects. I know exactly how I want to shoot them and how to execute them properly, and it makes their job so much easier and allows them to be a lot more creative.
A lot of times, filmmakers who don’t come from a makeup effects background really don’t know how to shoot these effects. So what happens is the makeup team has to guess how it’s going to be shot. They’ll approach it the way they think it should be shot, and then when they get to set, the director has something completely different in their mind. So they’ve wasted months of their lives building effects or things that they didn’t even need to build, or they didn’t build something the director wanted because the director didn’t express their ideas to them in the right way. So it’s been exciting to have that relationship now and to geek out and get excited with these makeup people.
Will we get some clarity about the mysterious situation with Sienna’s father?
Yes. Flat out, I can tell you that I intend to explain a lot of things that were brought up in Terrifier 2, because that mystique was there by design. I knew I wanted to make more films in the franchise, and I didn’t want to just explain everything in one movie. I like revealing things as we go and uncovering these puzzle pieces as if we’re uncovering a mystery. So you will learn a lot of things from Terrifier 2 in Terrifier 3.
Terrifier 2 is now back in theaters for a limited time. This interview was edited for length and clarity.