Scary Movies: The Knoxville Horror Film Festival Grows Ever Larger and Scarier

Sometimes loving horror movies is lonely. Horror doesn't get much recognition at the big award ceremonies. Related genres such as fantasy and science fiction are well represented in the list of all-time highest-grossing movies, but horror blockbusters are rare. When you think of horror, you may think of devotees watching at home in the dark, by themselves or in small groups.

"You see a lot of this stuff on your own," admits William Mahaffey.

But thanks to Mahaffey's efforts, East Tennessee fans of dread and gore can enjoy an annual weekend of togetherness. Mahaffey, 30, is director of the Knoxville Horror Film Festival. With fellow organizers (and Metro Pulse contributors) Nick Huinker and April Snellings, Mahaffey is readying a slate of more than 50 scary shorts and features for this year's fest. Among the selections are films by local, regional, and national filmmakers, as well as contributions from Canada, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand, Finland, and Spain.

A native of Johnson City, Mahaffey studied broadcasting at East Tennessee State University for two years, then focused on English and cinema studies at the University of Tennessee. He works in the production department at Jewelry Television. He first got a taste for horror when, as a kid, he visited the video store and was fascinated by "VHS boxes with crazy images."

He admires filmmakers like David Cronenberg, "who has very high concepts but also gory, crazy horror films," he says. "When you're watching something like The Fly, there are great special effects, but also deep things in the movie that you think about. It's interesting to make people think and be entertained."

The festival begins Thursday, Oct. 25, at Regal Downtown West Cinema 8. The marquee event for that night's program, which begins at 9 p.m., is the horror-comedy feature John Dies at the End, about young men who take a drug that lets them see alien invaders. Don Coscarelli (the Phantasm series, Bubba Ho-Tep) adapted the screenplay and directed. Short films, a staple of the festival, are also on the bill.

The rest of the festival takes place at Relix Variety Theatre on North Central Street. Friday's screenings, which start at 6 p.m., include four blocks of shorts, as well as Excision, writer-director Richard Bates Jr.'s horror-comedy feature, based on a short that earned the Best U.S. Film nod at the 2009 Knoxville Horror Film Festival, about a high-school student who aspires to be a surgeon.

Saturday's events, which start at 6 p.m., include screenings in the Grindhouse Grind-Out filmmaking competition. Also on that program are more shorts and the horror anthology movie V/H/S.

After three years, KHFF is still growing. The first festival was held at Pilot Light in 2009; the event subsequently moved to Relix and spread over two nights, then three. The 2009 festival featured short films exclusively, and the emphasis was local.

"I love supporting local filmmakers, and I love local films," says Mahaffey, a filmmaker himself. But, he says, he would like to show more features. "A lot of times, people don't want to watch five hours of local films. There's a difference in production values."

No matter what, he says, "There will always be a short film component. It kind of sucks that there are so many short films out there, especially genre films, and there's not a place for people to see them. I like being able to show those."

Short films by local artists are the focus of the Grindhouse Grind-Out, a contest in which teams have six days and 66 minutes to complete a mock trailer for an imaginary grindhouse film. The Grind-Out, which debuted at last year's festival, is a cousin of quick-turnaround filmmaking rallies like the Knoxville 24 Hour Film Festival and the Secret City Seven-Day Shootout.

In the Grind-Out, teams are assigned classic grindhouse genres such as blaxploitation or women in prison, or a screwball category, like Shakesploitaion. Yes, last year, Puppet Show Pictures notched a Best Ensemble award on the strength of its bloody preview for William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.

"Because of the subject matter, you don't know how offensive it's going to be," says Mahaffey of the Grind-Out. "It's a lot of fun."

Films don't get more local than the trailer for Singed Fur 2: Urban Vengeance, the merrily violent tale of a Great Smoky Mountains bear who uses a nail gun and other weapons to avenge a dead relative. Singed Fur 2 picked up the Film We'd Most Like to See honor in the 2011 Grind-Out.

"We were among the last groups to choose our category, and ‘bearsploitation' seemed more fun and challenging than the other ones that remained," says Matthew Amundsen, whose production company, Galloping Foxley, made Singed Fur 2. One of the bear costumes came from Big Don the Costumier, notes Amundsen, 38.

Last year, the Best Cinematography award was won by Burning Crow Pictures' Velvet Huntress, in which young women are slain by a masked killer. For his genre, Velvet Huntress director Justin Demeere drew giallo, a category of vivid Italian horror films. "One of my influences is a giallo film called Suspiria by Dario Argento," says Demeere, 36, a stay-at-home dad who also makes commercials and does corporate video work. "You can watch Suspiria and learn all there is to know about giallo."

Demeere likes working in the horror genre. "Fear gets the heart pumping and the eyes dilated," he says. "I'm also a big fan of special-effects makeup, since that is how I got into filmmaking."

For a pro like Demeere, the Grind-Out is good practice: "I think of competitions like these as training for when clients of mine demand high production value with very limited time and budget."

This may be a horror festival, but Grind-Out entries needn't be horror films. The winner of last year's Audience Award, Dream Brother Pictures' Highstreet Roundhouse, is "a classic story from the '70s action-film era," says Dream Brother founder and director Steven Wesley Miller, 25. The clip is funny, vulgar, and deliberately amateurish; at one point, a boom microphone drops into the frame.

Miller and Demeere are competing again in this year Grindhouse Grind-Out. Amundsen isn't. "We accomplished all of our goals," he says.

Knoxville Horror Film Festival activities aren't limited to October. The festival presents happenings throughout the year, including recent showings of Juan of the Dead, Videodrome, Klown, and Miami Connection.

"I like to make them events, so it's not just going to see a film," says Mahaffey of the screenings. "We always do an intro and have trailers or shorts beforehand."

The state of horror is strong, Mahaffey says, at least in the independent realm. "Mainstream-wise, it's not that great," he laments. "Studios just want to do the same thing over and over, find the next Paranormal Activity and do one every year." Meanwhile, he notes, large audiences watch television horror fare like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, in the same way that they seek out quality shows in other genres.

While Mahaffey was in the middle of planning the first Knoxville Horror Film Festival, in 2009, he traveled to Austin, Texas, to attend Fantastic Fest. That gathering presents horror, fantasy, and science-fiction movies—"the biggest genre festival in North America," he notes. What he saw in Texas convinced him that genre events like the Knoxville festival can succeed.

"I saw how much fun and how enthusiastic people can be at festivals," he says. "There's this reaction. People are excited. That vibe really struck me."