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Fright nights: Trio of horror films at Austin Film Festival displays diversity of Austin film scene

Matthew Odam

Austin has risen to prominence in the national film scene thanks to the unique voices of indie filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and, most recently, Jeff Nichols.

But it was Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” that helped put the town on the movie map in 1974.

Thirty-eight years later, the genre is making a local resurgence, as evidenced by the trio of locally produced horror movies playing at the Austin Film Festival. And a familiar face is part of the gory fun.

Henkel wrote and produced “Boneboys,” a bloody and funny story of cannibals who roam the dark streets of San Antonio. The movie, inspired by the satirical musings of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” is directed by Duane Graves and Justin Meeks, two former students of Henkel’s at the University of Texas A&M-Kingsville.

The movie features cameos by Ed Neal, the hitchhiker in the original “Chainsaw,” and Bill Johnson, who played Leatherface in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.”

Henkle and Hooper’s influence can be seen in another horror movie playing the fest — the psychedelic horror “Saturday Morning Massacre,” directed by former Austinite and fellow University of Texas alumnus Spencer Parsons.

“Saturday Morning Massacre,” which follows a group of ghost-hunting friends who end up getting much more than they bargained for, was originally inspired by the “Scooby-Doo” cartoon. Though the source of inspiration was comedic, Parsons steers the movie into terrifying territory.

Parsons uses a constantly moving and uneasy camera style to capture the terror and confusion swirling around the amateur sleuths, a florid visual language that Parsons traces back to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

“I guess you can say I’ve been studying at the School of Kim Henkel every time I watch and re-watch ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ which is sort of shockingly often,” Parsons said. “Those guys really did it in terms of movement of the camera and freedom of the camera to just plunge down dark alleys with the characters. I guess I would say that I learned a few tricks, but it’s also my own attempt to do that kind of aesthetic work. You can imitate but you’re not gonna do much of anything if you don’t trust your own instincts. But if I did have to pin down one visual influence more than any other, it would be ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’”

Parsons, who lived in Austin for more than a decade and received a graduate degree from the Radio, Television and Film department at the University of Texas before taking his current position at Northwestern University, was happy to find a reason to return to his former home to collaborate with old friends, producer Jason Wehling and actor Jonny Mars, who had the initial idea for the film.

“Aside from New York or Los Angeles, I don’t know how many cities you can leave behind for a couple of years and return to with the full confidence that there will be a whole film crew and work with a lot of people who would be your first choice anyway,” Parsons said.

Fans of Parsons’ first feature, the continent-hopping broken romantic comedy ‘I’ll Come Running,’ may be surprised to see the director tackling genre material, but Parsons says the first filmmaker of whom he became a fan was “The Fly” director David Cronenberg.

“’The Fly’ is this big beautiful Shakespearean tragedy with gore,” Parsons said. “When I saw ‘The Fly’ I will admit I came for the gore and the latex and the crazy special effects, and I stayed for the tragic romance between Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. … At the end of the day, it’s all stories, and it’s all about storytelling.”

Joining “Boneboys” and “Saturday Morning Massacre” in the Dark Matters category is “It’s in the Blood,” a suspenseful and impressionistic horror powered by the tortured relationship between a father and son. The movie, directed by Scooter Downey, was produced at Austin’s Spiderwood Studios.

The collection of films is evidence of a film scene that has a diversity (and history) that sometimes goes unnoticed.

“I was thrilled to get three great horror films that were shot in Austin, but not surprised,” AFF film programmer Stephen Jannise said. “I think it shows that Austin is anything but a one-note town in terms of its homegrown filmmaking talents, and that there are a great number of imaginative and inventive filmmakers who are either working in this town regularly or coming here to work on projects.”

“Saturday Morning Massacre” screens Friday at 11:30 p.m. at Alamo Ritz and Tuesday at 10 p.m. at Alamo Village.