For decades, the vast and beautiful land of Texas has been used as the backdrop for dozens of feature films, spawning beloved classics from virtually every genre. Yet when it comes to horror, it seems that the one title most associated with the state remains Tobe Hooper's masterful The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). A great film which, without question, will live on, Chainsaw was one of the first instances which successfully portrayed the wide-open spaces of Texas as potential landscape of sheer terror.
In the years following the film's impact, a variety of features -- most notably a number of Chain Saw sequels/remakes -- have continued to paint Texas as a rich setting for some truly inventive and fright-filled tales. In time for Halloween, and in celebration of the Texas-set 2014 remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown (currently in limited release and on VOD), here are a few titles that have, in their own way, given a chilling new face to the Lone Star State. Put together your own Texas-themed horror night sometime soon with these movies.
Shot and released two years after Chain Saw, 1976's The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a retelling of a true story that had plagued a small Texas town in post-war America. In the small community of Texarkana, a hooded killer known as the Phantom stalks and kills various citizens in unpredictable ways while continuously eluding authorities. Shot in the almost documentary-like style common with independent films of the decade, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was one of the first horror films closely based on true events; a fact the film relishes with matter-of-fact narration. That, combined with the film's open ending, a random cast that includes Ben Johnson and Dawn Wells, and a killer whose mere still presence in front of the camera gives off instant chills, made the movie an instant event for horror fans.
I enjoyed several of this year's panels at Austin Film Festival, with my only complaint being how to choose between concurrent sessions. The quality and diversity of conversations and panels were superb.
My highlight was "Science Fiction versus Science Fact" on Friday, when Scott Z. Burns (Side Effects, Contagion), Eric Heisserer (Hours, The Thing) and Ashley Miller (Thor, X-Men: First Class) discussed the fictional future we see onscreen and how they've addressed unknown possibilities in their own screenwriting.
Burns spoke about preparing for Contagion by approaching it as if science fiction movie by asking experts, "Tell me what's possible? What hasn't happened yet?" He emphasized the importance of research first -- "it's a phenomenal procrastination tool, and you can get amazing gems for narrative" -- citing cell phone jammers as an example of how authorities plan to control the flow of information during crisis, which makes for a good dramatic point.
Boxer Heather "The Heat" Hardy lives with her parents, sister, nephew and her own young daughter in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. She trains with her trainer/boyfriend Devon at the famed Gleason's Gym and dreams of making a full-time career out of fighting and moving out of her current crowded living situation. In the documentary Hardy, from first-time filmmaker (and Austin native) Natasha Verma, the boxer asserts, "I don't wanna get paid like a female, I wanna get paid like a boxer."
The film shows Hardy's path toward signing with a big-time promoter and making more money. In 2012, boxing became the last sport at the Olympics to accept women, and Verma's film displays some aspects of the macho culture still involved in the sport. Posters plugging fights for the male athletes adorn the gym, while Heather is responsible for selling a certain portion of tickets to her bouts. As she waits impatiently before one of her fights, rapper 50 Cent comes into the dressing room full of mostly men and makes disgusting jokes about domestic violence and women who fight back.
The winter holidays can, indeed, be out of this world. And a group of local filmmakers and science-fiction enthusiasts are pushing those boundaries with the launch of Austin's first dedicated science-fiction film festival, Other Worlds Austin, from Dec. 4-6 at Galaxy Highland 10 (6700 Middle Fiskville).
Less than six months after its founding, Other Worlds Austin recently announced its lineup, which includes:
- The Well (Texas premiere, opening-night movie) -- It hasn't rained in a decade, and a greedy water baron has laid claim to the remaining resource. Because of this a teenager must decide whether to run and hide or fight for the people and things she cherishes most.
- Time Lapse -- A thriller about three friends who discover a camera that takes photos 24 hours into the future. They decide to use the machine for personal gain, until disturbing images begin to appear.
- Apt 3D (world premiere) -- A young couple moves into a New York City apartment only to be assaulted by strange noises and suspicious, paranormal activity. The movie stars Jordan Lewis, who produced the SXSW feature The Heart Machine, and Harris County native Maxxe Sternbaum.
Writer and director Nick Matthews made his feature debut at this year's Austin Film Festival with One Eyed Girl, a riveting psychological thriller that takes place in South Australia but could just as easily occur anywhere. Co-written by co-star Craig Behenna (The Babadook), this film -- which just won the AFF 2014 jury prize in the "Dark Matters" category -- slowly reveals the layers of pain and guilt experienced by a psychiatrist and the unexpected rocky path to redemption and salvation.
Travis (Mark Leonard Winter) is a thirtysomething psychiatrist severely damaged by the death of former patient Rachel (Katy Cheel). Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Travis' relationship with Rachel extended beyond and was impacted by her mental health. Travis' inability to connect to his patients and Rachel is compounded by the desensitization to the violence and corruption of the modern world, as well as a refusal to accept his own identity. He is emotionally lost and on the brink of a nervous breakdown when he meets the mysterious teenager Grace (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), who's handing out brochures about a charismatic leader, Father Jay (Steve Le Marquand).
In a near frigid Driskill ballroom, the Austin Film Festival audience sat to listen to "A Conversation with Whit Stillman" on Sunday afternoon. The director of Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress was suffering a cold from a trip to Poland and seemed to huddle in the chair he'd moved out of the way of an A/C vent. For the first ten minutes, the moderator asked about Stillman's entry into the world of film.
We learned that the first film Stillman saw was Bambi, and that at the age of 16, he wanted to be a novelist like F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his twenties, he viewed journalism and writing short stories as his career option -- until he saw John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven. That film showed Stillman "the way a short story writer could become a filmmaker." He worked on his script for Barcelona while living in Madrid, but didn't think it strong enough for a first film.
My friend and I attended the Austin Film Festival's opening night screening of musical The Last 5 Years, starring Anna Kendrick (Up In the Air, Pitch Perfect) and Jeremy Jordan (a Corpus Christi native who's been in Joyful Noise and Smash). My heart was in my throat as soon as Kendrick's Cathy started singing, and this twisty story kept my emotions on edge from then on. Jamie (Jordan) and Cathy sing monologues about the current state of their relationship; her songs move backward in time as his move forward (which seems obvious after the fact, but I didn't note this at the time). They only sing together in the proposal scene.
Director Richard LaGravenese (who also directed the less-extraordinary Beautiful Creatures, which the same friend viewed with me) warned the audience before the film that The Last 5 Years is practically all song. The movie contains very little dialogue -- the songs pretty much say everything.
Post-screening, the director talked about working on this film for seven years. He hadn't seen a production of the original 2002 musical by Jason Robert Brown, but fell in love with the cast recording and felt moved to bring the story to film. He and his crew filmed in Harlem in 21 days, with the actors working on multiple takes of the same song in one day (incredible when you consider the challenging nature of the music involved).
Sunday is the last full day of the Austin Film Festival (there are no more conference panels after today, but plenty of late afternoon and evening film screenings run through Thursday). Remember to check the website to keep up with schedule changes, and take a look at a few top picks.
Sunday Panel Picks:
A Conversation with Luke Wilson -- The Dallas-born actor has starred in over 50 film and television projects and has several upcoming releases, including Satellite Beach, which he co-directed, wrote and stars in. Today he sits down with moderator John Merriman to discuss his career and answer questions. (Sunday, Oct. 26, 11:30 am - 12:45 pm, Driskill Hotel Ballroom)
A Conversation with Susannah Grant -- Susannah Grant has an impressive list of writing credits, including Erin Brockovich, Pocahontas, Ever After and In Her Shoes. Come learn about her career and bring your smartest question. (Sunday, Oct. 26, 11:30 am - 12:45 pm, Driskill Hotel Maximilian Room)
A Live Script Reading of Flarsky, written by Dan Sterling -- Live script readings are a fun AFF tradition, and this one will feature actors Mike Birbiglia, Jason Ritter, Austin Nichols and Sunny Mabrey taking on a romantic comedy about a down-on-his luck guy pursuing a powerful politician. (Sunday, Oct. 26, 12 pm - 2:30 pm, State Theatre)
Sunday Film Picks:
Whit Stillman Presents Excerpts from The Cosmopolitans -- In films like Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, director Whit Stillman explores the lives of young city dwellers who are entertainingly self-involved. He now has a new Amazon series that explores similar topics and themes, this time amongst a group of Americans living in Paris. (Sunday, Oct. 26, 1 pm, Alamo Drafthouse Village)
Although Michael Keaton has stated the personality of his character Riggan Thomas is the most dissimilar to himself of any he has ever played, Birdman, it could be argued, is his JCVD. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful) and scripted by Iñárritu along with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, it chronicles the efforts of a former Hollywood superhero to reignite the spark of his ailing career.
Hoping to regain relevance, pay homage to the hero who inspired him, and put his family life back together, Riggan Thomas is in the final days of launching a Broadway play he has written, directed, produced and stars in. Guided by an inner voice that sounds not unlike the growling baritone of Beetlejuice, Thomas confronts innumerable internal and external crises that threaten to crush the production.
Behind the scenes, his daughter (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, is intent on punishing him for being an absent father. On stage, he must deal with the antics of Mike (Edward Norton), the Broadway darling who is not only perfect for the role but will also bring legitimacy and more importantly, ticket sales to the production. Internally, he struggles with remorse, self-doubt, anger, desperation and an angry flirtation with being a drunken asshole.
So, Thomas has a completely different personality. Keaton may not bare his soul in this, but he bares nearly everything else. He and Norton spend a sizable amount of time in Birdman performing in tighty-whiteys, both for shock value and comedic effect. He doesn't stop at shedding his clothing, however, as even his hairpiece is stripped away. Layer after layer, we peek behind the stage, through the dressing room door, and beneath the clothing and pretense to explore the psyche of an A-list actor.
It's another full day at the Austin Film Festival -- are you ready? If your brain is starting to lag a little and you need some direction, here are a few promising film and panel picks to help you plan the next few hours.
Saturday Panel Picks:
Independent Filmmaking Track: The Climate of Indie Film -- Local director Kat Candler is one of the indie filmmakers on this panel geared towards aspiring creatives. Texan (and former AFF staffer) Ryan Piers Williams, Frank Hall Green and Jeffrey Brown (co-producer of No No: A Dockumentary) join Candler for this discussion, which aims to help attendees make sense of a changing industry. (Saturday, Oct. 25, 9 - 10:15 am, Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Assembly Room)
Scribble to Screen: My So-Called Writing Process -- If you're here to perfect your craft or learn how the experts work, sit down with Winnie Holzman, the creator of My So-Called Life and writer of Wicked and Thirtysomething, as she discusses her storytelling methods. (Saturday, Oct. 25, 9 - 10:15 am, Driskill Hotel Citadel Room)
A Conversation with the 2014 Awardees -- If you don't have time to make it to the individual conversations with this year's festival honorees, see all three at once at this panel led by AFF Executive Director Barbara Morgan. Jim Sheridan, Matthew Weiner and Edward Zwick will draw on their impressive histories to discuss their careers and offer advice to developing writers and directors. (Saturday, Oct. 25, 10:45 am - noon, Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental Ballroom)