Meet David Howard Thornton, the nightmarish killer clown from Terrifier 2
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When the grindhouse slasher film Terrifier was released in 2016, it became an unexpected hit within the horror community almost instantly. With everything from over-the-top practical effects, suspense and at times utter cruelty, Terrifier satiated the needs of the most rabid horror consumers and laid the groundwork for a new era of risk-tasking within independent cinema. However, what audiences gravitated toward the most was none other than the film’s main villain Art the Clown, portrayed brilliantly by actor David Howard Thornton.
Art is a character straight out of your worst nightmares, with a sinister smile, grotesque features and a penchant for blood and gore. It's no surprise that the character has gone on to be heralded as one of the next great horror icons, joining a long list of notable villains ranging from Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees to Freddy Krueger. But Thornton couldn’t be further from Art in real life, showing kindness and smiles when AP connects with him from his New York home.
Thornton has a lot to be happy about at the moment. Not only has the long-awaited sequel Terrifier 2 hit theaters, but the new film, directed by Damien Leone, is already garnering acclaim from critics and fans alike. For a moment, Terrifier 2 sat at a cool 100% critic consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, and Thornton has been in high demand for interviews and convention appearances ever since. When thanking the actor for taking the time to connect with us, Thornton happily responds, “Everybody hopes for this kind of busyness. It’s better to be busy like this rather than waiting for something to happen.”
For Terrifier 2, Thornton knew he had to expand upon the character of Art, as the clown is resurrected from the dead by a supernatural force following the cliffhanger ending of the previous film. And if you're a skeptic of sequels, rest assured: Thornton promises that Terrifier 2 holds nothing back in terms of brutality, going as far as to report that during the film’s premiere, several attendees had to exit the theater due to its sheer intensity. The Terrifier franchise is most definitely not for the faint of heart, but if you can stomach the terror, it's an entertaining way to kill a couple of hours.
What do you make of the universal acclaim from critics and Art the Clown being dubbed as a new modern icon for the horror genre?
I am humbled, I guess you could say. I never expected this to happen in my life. I’m just a shy geek from Alabama who got lucky. I would never imagine being compared to the greats like Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Mike Myers or even Bela Lugosi’s Dracula — that echelon of characters is pretty surreal.
When filming wrapped for Terrifier 2, did you immediately feel like you had captured something special?
This movie takes things to a whole other level, especially plot-wise where we can build this universe now. We also have a great protagonist [Lauren Lavera] to go against Art. I don’t know if I can reveal spoilers, but there is a big kill in the movie, and when we finished that scene, which took a week to film, it was truly something else. We were like, “This is going to be a kill that people will continue to talk about.” It’s gory, very violent, but also entertaining at the same time, which is hard to do. That’s something that has been lacking in a lot of horror movies over the last 15-20 years, but we were like, “Let’s give the audience what they want to see again, take risks and let’s stop trying to kowtow to what the studio executives want” — and that’s what we did. We went crazy with this one.
How did you plan to grow the character of Art this time around, and was there anything you had to do to immerse yourself in the role?
I actually don’t have to do anything like that. I guess it comes from my years of experience as a stage actor. I understand the character and can turn it on and off at a rapid pace. As soon as the character is living in my head, I can just access it. With that being said, I definitely wanted to do new things with the character this time around. Art has come back from the dead [since the first film], and I figured he didn’t realize he was going to come back from the dead, so he’s gonna be pretty impressed with that. He’s essentially immortal now, more confident, arrogant and basically has plot armor in a way. Art’s like, “Yeah, I’m hard to kill. Let’s have a lot of fun now.” [Laughs.]
With Terrifier 2 being so hyperviolent and the disturbing nature of your character, have there ever been funny or awkward moments where you have to explain to your friends and family that this is “just a movie”?
It’s really funny: I have so many friends who have huge phobias of clowns and are like, “I love you and love watching your work, but I cannot watch this.” [Laughs.] One of the better moments was with my sister [after we finished the first movie]. She was living in a very religious group home and was so excited to show the movie to her housemates, and I was like, “Oh Vanda, you might not want to do that. It’s very violent and gory.” I told her she wouldn’t be able to handle it, and she was like, “Oh, it’s OK. We’ll deal.” Then she calls me back afterward and is like, “David, you are horrible!”
Is there any advice you could give to aspiring actors who want to break into these kinds of roles or create horror films of their own?
I would say watch a lot of movies and find inspiration. Even with history, you can find inspiration, and Damien even found ideas for some of the kills from actual historical events. One of the big kill scenes in the new movie is based on crime-scene photos of one of [serial killer] Jack The Ripper’s victims. You can find inspiration in all kinds of ways, and a lot of my inspiration didn’t even come from horror but actually came from comedies. I greatly appreciate silent film actors and physical comedians, and that’s what I pulled a lot from since my character does not talk. I had to learn other ways to convey my voice.
What kind of music do you think Art the Clown would enjoy?
I think it would probably be just some of the most disjointed, nails on a chalkboard, artsy-fartsy type of music, with Yoko Ono vocals. He would just be like, “This is fantastic!”