From films like It to television shows like American Horror Story: Freak Show, clowns have gained a bad reputation for hiding murderous intentions behind their painted-on smiles. Surprisingly, though, David Howard Thornton, the actor who plays the nightmarish clown Art in the hit 2018 film Terrifier and its recent sequel, can’t understand why anyone would be afraid of the costumed circus performers.
“I was actually never afraid of clowns,” Thornton tells Pittsburgh City Paper in a phone interview. “I used to watch The Bozo Show every single morning before I went to school on WGN. I loved clowns.”
Thornton will appear at the annual Horror Realm convention along with Terrifier filmmaker Damien Leone. Happening Fri., March 3-Sun., March 5 at the Crowne Plaza Suites Pittsburgh South, the event will feature film screenings and other activities for horror fans, as well as appearances by cast and crew members from various films, pro wrestling stars, and others.
Despite previously having no relationship with horror, Thornton, a seasoned musical and children’s theater performer, physical comedian, and voiceover artist, says he wanted to expand into film and saw an audition call for Terrifier as his way in. At the time, a number of callbacks for Broadway touring shows had fallen through, and he saw the audition notice "looking for a tall, skinny guy with clowning or physical comedy experience” as “serendipitous.”
He recalls originally seeing Art in the 2013 horror anthology All Hallows' Eve and jumped at the chance to make the character his own.
"When I saw All Hallows Eve, I was like, ‘Oh my God, there's so many things I could do with a character like that. I'd love to play a character like that.’" says Thornton. "I've always wanted to play one of those silent, mischievous types of clownish characters like Mr. Bean or Harpo Marx. I thought that would be a fun type of role to play.”
He also credits the actor who originally played Art, Mike Giannelli, for providing a good foundation from which to work.
Thronton says that, for Art, Leone wanted to create a clownish villain that was the total opposite of Pennywise from It. “He’s gonna be bald, he’s gonna be black and white, he’s not gonna talk, he’s gonna use props,” says Thronton.
Still, Thornton adds that he wanted to "add more of the clowning aspect" to Art.
"I think that the little bit of silliness to the character, the clownishness adds more of a creep factor to him as well because he's doing horribly horrific things but he finds them to be extremely funny," says Thornton. "He's not doing it out of revenge or anything like that. He gets his amusement out of killing people. He's the anti-clown. You know, clowns are supposed to be here to bring joy and amusement to other people. He's here to bring pain and misery to other people for his own enjoyment and amusement. And that's how I looked at him.”
His performance managed to make Terrifier, produced on a less-than-shoestring budget of $35,000, stand out among the many independently produced horror titles dumped into streaming platforms every year. Still, Thornton says he “never imagined that it would take off the way it did.”
As of today, the Terrifier films have both more than recouped their budget. Box office numbers for the 2022 sequel, made on a more substantial budget of $250,000, clock in at around $15 million, thanks in part to a campaign emphasizing the film’s gnarly, over-the-top kills and gore effects. Media outlets like Entertainment Weekly even reported audience members “fainting and vomiting” at screenings of the film.
Thornton admits that Art veers from a background focused heavily on performing for those too young to even watch Terrfiier. He received a degree in elementary education from the University of Montevallo, a small liberal arts college in his home state of Alabama, and his background includes a long list of voiceover and theater work aimed at kids.
He says that, right before working on Terrifier, he finished his fifth national tour playing the title character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, a show that also brought him to Pittsburgh for the first time in the early 2010s.
“I was still doing theater for children at that point, and I was doing voiceover work for a lot of animated shows for toddlers, like, on the Sprout network and stuff like that,” he says. “So, I was heavily invested in doing work for children. And then I got the role of Art and that kind of changed things.”
Now, Thornton’s IMDb page features various horror projects. Appropriately, one of them, The Mean One, allows Thornton to recall his Grinchy past in a story that adds violence to Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale.
While his new career path may seem gruesome, Thornton says the horror community has been nothing less than friendly and welcoming. This extends to conventions like Horror Realm, where Thronton says he relishes interacting with fans and fellow actors.
“It's a very collaborative, very welcoming atmosphere,” says Thornton. “And that’s what’s so funny about it, because you see all these horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible movies and all these things that happen in them, and you think, oh, these people that like them must be just horrible, horrible, crazy people. I’m like, no, they're some of the nicest, sweetest people you'll ever meet.”
Horror Realm. Fri., March 3-Sun., March 5. Crowne Plaza Suites Pittsburgh South, Bethel Park. $15-40. horrorrealmcon.com