Halloween is still days away. But for the writer-director Damien Leone, Christmas is already here.
That’s because his horror film “Terrifier 2” — a low-budget, ultraviolent sequel to his brutal killer-clown film “Terrifier” (2016) — has become an unexpected and unlikely hit.
When “Terrifier 2” opened the first weekend in October, it cracked the Top 10, taking in $805,000. This past weekend it came in seventh, pulling in an estimated $1.89 million, according to Box Office Mojo, for a three-week total of $5.2 million.
So how did an unrated, almost two-and-a-half-hour slasher film — made for $250,000 and starring nobody you’ve heard of — become the little horror movie that could?
“Fun and fearlessness,” Leone said.
The film ascended from the horror underground into the mainstream mostly through word of mouth and social media chatter, especially after reports surfaced of people puking and fainting at screenings. Media outlets that normally wouldn’t touch an extreme horror release, like the CBS daytime show “The Talk,” covered the commotion.
With all of its can-you-handle-it? chatter, it’s giving big studio movies like “Halloween Ends” and “Smile” underdog competition as the most talked about horror movie this Halloween. Even Stephen King recently tweeted about it.
During a recent interview at a Midtown coffee shop, Leone kept his cool but seemed genuinely floored by his film’s runaway success. For folks taken aback by the violence, he had a reminder: It’s called “Terrifier” for a reason.
“I’m not worrying about offending anybody or putting any agendas on,” he said. “It’s coming from the place of being a genuine horror fan.”
“Terrifier 2” isn’t the first indie film to come out of left field and find mainstream success; “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” did too, on far bigger scales. But unlike those films, “Terrifier 2” is aggressively and transgressively violent.
The film is so gory, it makes other hit horror movies this year, like “Nope” and “The Black Phone,” look like “Ticket to Paradise.” It picks up where the original left off, as an American suburb is terrorized on Halloween by Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), a psychopathic bozo who slaughters his victims in stomach-churning ways, including flaying, scalping and dismemberment — and that’s just in one scene. There are new, mostly young characters, including its protagonist teenager (Lauren LaVera) and her kid brother (Elliott Fullam).
The first “Terrifier” (free to watch on several streaming services) won over many horror die-hards when it was released, in large part because of Art the Clown, a character who “threads the needle between being utterly creepy and absolutely hilarious,” said Jonathan DeHaan, who co-hosts the horror movie podcast Nightmare on Film Street. The Art the Clown Appreciation Society on Facebook has almost 12,000 members.
But what’s drawing eyeballs to “Terrifier 2” is more than another creepy clown. In details like Art’s harlequin jumper and tiny top-hat fascinator — and in the gruesome nondigital makeup effects Leone crafted himself — what moviegoers are buying is homemade filmmaking.
“People are responding to it because it’s an independent movie that feels like it’s made by people and not a giant studio machine,” DeHaan said. “There are actual people on set doing stuff with their hands, and you can feel it.”
But what about the shock, walkouts, regurgitation?
“We all wish we could see ‘The Exorcist’ on opening weekend and experience people vomiting in the aisles,” DeHaan said. “This is as close as you’ll get to that.”
Who makes a movie like this? A guy who was born in Brooklyn and raised on Staten Island, in a household led by an Italian American single mother who loved classic movies so much, she named her only son after the child Antichrist in “The Omen.”
Leone said his mother introduced him to horror landmarks like “Jaws” but also to the sword-and-sorcery sagas she adored, like “The Beastmaster.”
But as she watched “Terrifier 2,” she got a little possessed.
“She was beyond repulsed, just screaming at me, cursing me out like a truck driver,” he said.
But by the end of the movie “she was very proud,” he said. “It was a badge of honor.”
For some viewers it may be their first encounter with fantastically line-crossing gore, the kind with roots in the works of maverick directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Lucio Fulci. Leone knows the violence in his film is outrageous, and he’s buckled in for the backlash. But he wants audiences to understand that watching it comes with a purpose that’s endemic to horror.
“Our mortality is so devastating to us that we need ways to accept it,” he said. “An attraction to violent horror, he added, “is a coping mechanism.”
And if people get sick at his film — and Leone said he really hopes nobody does — hey, it’s all part of the sell.
“Sometimes you have to embrace the exploitation, especially if you’re trying to get noticed,” he said. “I don’t pretend that we are not exploiting the violence. We are. But those are the kinds of movies I loved, growing up.”
The pluses and pitfalls of “Terrifier 2” were on display at a 10:30 showing on a recent Monday night at a Times Square theater. (The 10:45 was sold out.) The 19 people who started watching the film dwindled to 17 when two men took off after Art the Clown cracked a guy’s head in half before the title credits even started. By the end there were 14, after three folks grabbed their popcorn tubs and skedaddled when a character was gruesomely beheaded.
Among those who stayed was Michelle Martinez, 22. She and a group of friends traveled from Brooklyn to see the film because, she said, “the ad looked scary.”
And her review? “I’m not really into scary movies,” she said. “But this one is nice.”
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