The Butcher Brothers: takin' a bite out of horror

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Finally, a horror movie that can be called both subtle (despite gleeful bloodletting) and refreshing. Another Hole in the Head pick The Hamiltons, codirected by the Butcher Brothers (the nom de screen of Bay Area filmmakers Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores), imagines a family of naughty orphans who just can’t stop themselves from trapping and killing any vaguely expendable human who crosses their path. What makes the Hamiltons different from the Texas Chainsaw fun bunch or Rob Zombie’s skeezy butchers is that they’re just so freaking normal, conducting their nasty business behind a white picket fence in the suburbs.

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An early victim (Brittany Daniel) contemplates her basement-bound fate in The Hamiltons.

Straight out of American Beauty is video camera-wielding teenager Francis (Cory Knauf), who embodies that tossed-off Heathers line about teen angst bullshit having a body count. Will the awkward Francis keep it all in the family or will he develop a conscience as a side effect of growing up? And what’s motivating this strange clan’s bloodlust anyway? To say more would spoil the pleasures of The Hamiltons, though it’s safe to say the character-driven film represents the best possible melding of indie-film family drama and splatter cinema.

Recently, I talked with Altieri and Flores, both of whom are understandably excited about the success of their first Butcher Brothers production.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: The Hamiltons was recently picked up for distribution by Lions Gate Films, due for a theatrical run in 2007. What’s the timeline been like for you since you first went into production?
Mitchell Altieri: We shot it in 2005. When Lions Gate picked it up, it was only about a year from production to post, and then started doing festival runs. They came in pretty much right after our first festival, then getting everything together with them took a little time.

SFBG: So it got picked up based on its festival success? Which festivals did it play besides the 2006 Another Hole in the Head, here in San Francisco?
MA: Its first festival was the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. That was its world premiere. Right off the bat it won the Gold Vision Award, for the most groundbreaking, unique vision. It was like a $30,000 prize. And from there on out, we were invited to one festival after another. We won the jury prize at the Malibu International Film Festival.

SFBG: Is this your first feature film?
MA: As the Butcher Brothers. I did another film called Lurking in Suburbia, which is out now on DVD. It came out on DVD this year and is doing extremely well. That’s a comedy. It’s kind of a Dazed and Confused for 30-year-olds, with kind of a High Fidelity feel to it.

SFBG: How long have you known your fellow Butcher Brother, Phil Flores?
MA: We grew up together -- we met in South San Francisco at the beginning of high school. We’re both South City boys. That’s kind of how we connected. We pull from the same places because all our experiences were the same. We were always together, always hanging out. We met over our love for stories. We have the same influences, like David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Not necessarily horror per se, like slasher-style stuff, but we were very into the dark.

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Phil Flores and Mitchell Altieri ponder their next act of Butchery.

SFBG: How did you get your nickname -- your nom de screen, if you will?
MA: The Butcher Brothers? It was something we just liked, and it felt right for the film we were doing. We kind of say, the Butcher Brothers is our alter ego for our darker side. We said, “Well, if we’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna do this together” -- Phil and I like dramatic and comedy films, so we wanted a different brand for the horror films. Obviously, we love the dark stuff and the horror films as well, but we thought it would be a good idea to separate them.

SFBG: So you’re only going to make horror movies under that name? No Butcher Brothers romantic comedies?
MA: [Laughs] We’ll stick with the horror and the darker dramas with the Butcher Brothers. Other stuff Phil and I direct separately will probably just be under our own names.

SFBG: The big trend in contemporary horror is torture, with Saw and Hostel and films with similar themes doing really well at the box office. The Hamiltons has some torture elements, but it has quite a different tone than those films. How would you describe it?
MA: We describe it as, like, Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Party of Five. A lot of people do compare it to Texas Chainsaw Massacre because of the family element. Also, a lot of people have compared it to the vibe of Six Feet Under. Our whole idea was, since we weren’t really horror guys, we really wanted to make a horror film that we wanted to see. We felt that -- as you just said -- one film will come out and be a hit, and then it seems like ten will trail it. It’s always kind of becoming the same stuff. Cookie-cutter films. We wanted to do something that was really different, and bring in our own style. We said, “Look, let’s make a story that’s really good,” then we added the horror elements into it. The idea was that the horror of the story was that these characters are actually trying to fit into society -- this dysfunctional family is even scarier than them torturing people in the basement.

SFBG: The parents in the family are killed before the movie begins. What inspired that choice? Was it because you saw it as more of a sibling story?
MA: Yeah, exactly. I think it just adds to that, how did they try to fit into society, not having parents to help them. It just seemed like more of a sadder story with these kids really trying -- not just about them being killers, it’s something that everybody has to go through. And that’s something that a lot of people have said to us: you could still identify with this film, because everybody thinks that their family is dysfunctional.

SFBG: You also have the teenager who can’t fit in ...
MA: Exactly. It’s a horror coming-of-age story, and you just don’t really see [films like] that. We knew that there’s so much of the same horror stuff -- brutal, gruesome stuff that’s coming out -- and we wanted to take it in another direction, where horror fans and mainstream people would really like it, and that’s what happened. The awards that we’ve won haven’t been in genre festivals.

SFBG: What’s the collaborative process between yourself and Phil like? There’s also a third writer, Adam Weis, credited on the screenplay.
MA: The writing process is, the three of us just sit and brainstorm and get the thing out there. Then, for me and Phil directing, we have a lot of stuff planned out before. Me and him will talk, so when it comes down to it, we know what we’re gonna do and we have everything set up and then if there’s questions, we’ll figure it out right there. That’s pretty much the only way to do it. If an actor has an idea or if we want to change something up, then me and him will just kind of talk in the corner and come to a decision.

SFBG: Are there advantages, then, to directing as a team?
MA: Oh yeah. It’s amazing. When I directed Lurking in Suburbia, Phil was the producer on it -- but co-directing, you get so much more done faster. You take care of this portion, I'll take care of this portion, and you can double up. On an indie film set, things get pretty wild because you’re moving so fast. We shot this film in 15 days. You can imagine the hours that we were putting in. So to have two people working helps quite a bit. It’s an advantage.

SFBG: And the whole film was shot in Petaluma, right?
MA: Yes. All of our projects that we’ve worked on -- we’ve been pretty loyal to the Bay Area. This is home. It’s a great community, and there’s a lot of talent here. We like to tell Northern California stories. It’s what we grew up with, and we like to add those touches to our films.

SFBG: What are you guys working on next?
MA: We have a handful of projects in development. There’s a few horror films that we’re very anxious to do. We have one that looks like it’s gonna go and be pretty big, pretty awesome. We’re really, really excited. Phil, Adam, and I literally just finished the script, and there’s a lot of hype behind it. A lot of people are very interested in it. It’s not as indie -- it’s more mainstream, but still with the Butcher Brothers twist to it. It’s another horror film, but it’s very slick, and again, we just went for the whole original idea behind it and just added what we do. There’s a lot of offbeat characters and things like that, which we love. We’re hoping something will be coming out late 2007, early 2008.

SFBG: How would you sum up your style?
MA: I think it’s really character-driven. We spend a lot of time with our characters. We want our characters to fill the screen and fill the story. Story, as well -- that’s what really makes our films different. It’s not just the jock, the cheerleader, the nerd, and they’re just gonna go out and you don’t care if they die. What we try to do is make you really care for these characters and really feel fear for them, and really care what’s going to happen. And also, be truly scared in a Cronenberg or Lynch kind of way. It’s really just characters and story, is really our style -- and making them as dark as we can.

SFBG: They’re villains, but they’re sympathetic.
MA: Yeah, with The Hamiltons, that was another thing we wanted to do. We can’t have the hero, we can’t have the heroine -- but do we really want to? We’ve seen that. How about we make it about the villains, turn the whole thing around, and see what happens? Mess with people’s emotions. You’re like, OK, I know I shouldn’t feel bad for them, because they’re doing wrong -- but I do.

*****

Coming tomorrow: The Hamiltons co-director Phil Flores -- aka the other Butcher Brother -- talks about casting the film and drops a few more hints about that new project the pair has in the works.

Locally, The Hamiltons plays as part of this weekend's After Dark Horrorfest, with complete theater and ticket information at www.horrorfestonline.com. More on the film at www.sffilms.tv/thehamiltons.

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