The Academy Award for Best Makeup (which added Hairstyling in 1993) has only been around, in earnest, since 1981. That year, macabre special effects genius Rick Baker won for transforming David Naughton into a grotesquely hirsute lycanthrope for “American Werewolf in London.” In that same decade, Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won for turning Jeff Goldblum into the sticky, disgusting Brundlefly for David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”
Save for a handful of gruesome gothics like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — both prioritizing practical effects over digital — winners in this category can be awards bait (“Bombshell”), fantasy franchise entries (“Lord of the Rings,” “Star Trek”), or the rare original auteur vision (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). And there have been major short shrifts, such as John Carpenter’s “The Thing” not landing a nomination in 1982 for its human-alien chimeras courtesy of Rob Bottin.
In short, the Academy tends to shy away from hardcore genre movies that test audience’s limits, especially those using practical effects that often look and feel all too harrowingly real while retaining more charm than their CGI-pumped contemporaries. Enter Damien Leone’s “Terrifier 2” into this year’s mix, a Halloween box-office sleeper about a serial-killing clown named Art (David Howard Thornton).
He hacks, saws, and dismembers his way across nearly two and a half hours of unparalleled slasher set pieces filled with putridly realistic-looking entrails and viscera made from actual meat and other tasty sundries from the horror artisan’s toolbox. And you wouldn’t know it from the budget: “Terrifier 2” is a marvel of practical effects made for $250,000. The sequel has already grossed more than $10 million worldwide and, at its apex, screened in over 1,500 theaters in the U.S.
“It’s very unprecedented for a sequel to a very obscure movie, that’s a hardcore, unrated slasher movie that’s two hours and 18 minutes long. I’ve heard people keep going to the movies to see it. Some people have seen it three times,” director Damien Leone told IndieWire in an interview.
That’s a far cry from the glue-and-paper clips release of 2016’s “Terrifier,” and its unexpected success empowered distributor Bloody Disgusting (working with Cinedigm on theatrical) to mount an Oscar campaign for its outré makeup effects. “Because it’s too funny not to.”
“Terrifier 2” is hardly an Oscar contender, but in that category, it deserves your attention. In one scene that leaves anyone who’s seen it gasping for air, a woman is scalped with bandage scissors, disemboweled, repeatedly impaled, and ripped apart limb from limb. Oh, and then she’s doused in acid and salt, with Art the Clown’s impassive rictus grin intact throughout as he merrily goes about brutality. The woman (part prosthesis, part actual human actress, and part CGI creation in one clever little way) survives, and it’s not played for laughs. If anything, “Terrifier 2” is deliberately missing that dose of irony that makes us feel safe in the razor-wire clutches of a slasher movie.
The scene, which IndieWire discussed with Leone, among other topics below, is almost operatic in its violence, with the filmmaker and his producing partner Phil Falcone mounting the majority of the practical effects themselves.
But is the Academy allergic to hardcore movies of this kind?
“Oh without a doubt, and it’s always kind of frowned upon,” Leone said of gory practical effects historically making the cut at the Oscars. “It’s always been because it has such a visceral reaction from the audience, where the last thing they do is appreciate the art form and appreciate how much work goes into creating something like that. The context takes over the dialogue, whereas you’re not thinking about the hours of sculpting and the materials that you’re using. It’s very rare that a horror film gets the praise it deserves, especially one that has some really graphic violence or something really disgusting.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
IndieWire: In talking about brutal, disgusting genre movies that have achieved at the Oscars, there are outliers. Which ones come to mind, and did any of these inspire you to try and top yourself from the original “Terrifier”?
Damien Leone: One that comes to mind is “The Fly,” David Cronenberg’s version, which is one of the greatest horror movies of all time and one of the most disgusting movies ever. That movie was nominated for an Oscar [and won]. That’s a rare movie where they appreciated the grotesque artistry that went into something like that.
But for the most part, when it comes to movies with graphic violence, I don’t think they’ve ever been nominated for an award. It’s a shame. You’re talking masters of their craft really creating these things. The reactions of people getting sick and not being able to watch it, that’s a testament to the skill going into these effects.
“Terrifier 2” relies almost entirely on practical effects, though your film subtly integrates digital in a few key scenes. Is it impossible not to rely on digital effects in some form these days?
You have to embrace the technology. There are so many amazing things you can do with digital effects. The problem is that, not always, but they abuse them. A lot of times, when they absolutely shouldn’t be using CGI, they’ll use CGI blood. That takes me out of the experience as a viewer because it just looks like a cartoon all of a sudden.
But I learned a lot from watching Guillermo del Toro because he’s one of the masters at marrying practical and visual effects. For example, there’s a scene in [“Terrifier 2”] in the costume shop where the guy working there gets his head severed. I built this elaborate replica of his head, and it was anatomically correct. Phil and I built it from the inside out. It took us about a week and a half to build this one head and to get it to look as realistic as possible. On the inside, we had all these layers of fat and muscle. We put real chicken cuts and bacon in there. You’re not going to get any better than the real thing. Then, we put all these blood tubes in the neck and through the head, so it was ready to go. But then we digitally put the actor’s real face onto that head so that, while it’s getting decapitated, you can see his eyes blinking and his mouth moving and twitching. People don’t know what they’re looking at. “Is that an animatronic? It looks so real.”
The most iconic scene from the movie is Allie (Casey Hartnett) getting brutally murdered and literally torn limb from limb. What went into the practical effects of this scene?
We built this whole-body dummy of her that’s sitting on the bed. I don’t know how to do animatronics, but I have other crude methods to bring that thing to life. The whole room was a set. I had people underneath that bed. We basically turned that body into a giant rod puppet. Under the bed, there was somebody sticking rods into her legs that could puppeteer her like that; somebody was behind the wall with a rod going through her head. I had latex gloves in her chest that people could breathe into to make it look like her chest is inflating.
The cherry on top of that was we digitally put the actress’ eyeball onto it, so that when the head comes up, you just see the eyeball open, and it’s very jarring. You don’t know if what you’re looking at is the actress, is it a dummy? Little things like that with CGI can bring your practical effects to another level.
The audience for extreme horror movies is limited these days. With Cinedigm releasing this in as many theaters as it has, what were the conversations behind the scenes? It was surely a gamble on everyone’s part.
I knew this thing had potential. I’ve always known since the second short film I made with Art the Clown, he had something special. Everybody just kept talking about him, saying, “You have to make more.” When I started developing his personality, I saw his potential. If you just get him in front of enough people, the horror film community might embrace him. When they took “Terrifier 2,” I was expecting it to be a little bit of a bigger release than “Terrifier,” which played in maybe five theaters across the country. It wasn’t until we were lucky enough for Netflix to pick it up that people started noticing it.
With the theatrical release for [“Terrifier 2”], they said they were going to try for, like, 200 to 500 theaters. A week goes by, and then it was really looking like 500. Then it went to 700 and 800. That’s pretty amazing. As soon as people started talking about fainting and getting nauseous in the theater, that’s when it started to snowball.
Cinedigm wasn’t prepared for that because it took a huge dip after that first weekend. They had to scramble and talk to this company Iconic, who’s the middle man getting it into theaters, and desperately get it back into theaters the next weekend, and when it did, it had a tremendous jump, which is very rare for a movie like this: to play on fewer screens the second weekend and it made way more money. It’s only playing two times a night. Most Hollywood movies play on 4-5,000 screens, and we’re playing on 700 to 800 and making a lot more money.
It was only after that second weekend did we realize, “This is pretty wild. We have to keep this going.” If this was just released like a Hollywood movie and pumped out, and there was a $20 million marketing campaign and TV spots and billboards in Times Square, who knows what this thing could’ve done in theaters? This whole experience has been so surreal and very unprecedented.
“Terrifier 2” is currently in theaters.