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Not-so-rocky Horror Show

On the walls of Mitchell Altieri’s compact second-floor office in downtown Petaluma — directly across the street from Andresen’s bar, where trophies of deceased animals adorn the tavern — hang trophies of a very different kind. They are movie posters, photos, and props, representing many, if not all, of the films Altieri has written and directed over the last fifteen years.

Near the door is the poster for “Lurking in Suburbia,” his breakout film from 2006 — the movie that first captured the attention of Trevor Groth, a programmer at the Sundance Film Institute. The poster shows a young, bedraggled guy in slippers and bathrobe holding a bowl of cereal, and smoking a cigarette. The tagline reads, “A new dark suburban comedy about a writer’s coming of age … into his thirties.”

“That was a significant milestone, in many ways,” Altieri acknowledges. “For one thing, it’s pretty much the one-and-only non-horror comedy I’ve been a part of.”

Hanging next to the “Lurking” poster is a well-weathered skateboard, a prop from his 2014 scare-flick “Raised By Wolves,” filmed with longtime collaborator Phil Flores under the catchy moniker The Butcher Brothers. Other Butcher Brothers films are represented as well: 2010’s “The Violent Kind” — with a proclamation, “From the producers of Halloween and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — and the recent horror-comedy “A Beginner’s Guide to Snuff,” currently playing in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York. “Snuff” is about two filmmaking brothers who try to elicit a more realistic performance from their lead actress by fooling her into believing she’s going to killed on camera. It turns out they picked the wrong actress to mess with, and the tables are turned — with outrageous, and messy, results. Reviews have called it a highly entertaining satire that is genuinely funny and scary, while rising above the potential tastelessness of the subject matter.

Altieri co-wrote the script, and directed the film.

“In L.A., they’ve been running the trailer for “Snuff” in theaters where the new “Alien” movie is playing,” says Altieri. “That, I’d have to say, is pretty good validation for a guy who makes horror movies.”

One film that is not represented on these walls is “The Hamiltons,” an eerie 2006 vampire-serial killer film that marked Altieri and Flores’ first movie as The Butcher Brothers. The well-reviewed, cult-hit film opened the doors to a career filled with lots more blood, death, and creepy people — the studio film “April Fools Day,” a remake of the classic 1986 revenge shocker, the suspenseful “Holy Ghost People,” and Altieri’s latest, a killer-clown horror comedy titled “The Watchmen.”

What is indicated by all of this giddily grotesque memorabilia — including the in-the-works script currently displayed on his desk computer — is that Mitch Altieri — after years of hard work and dreaming of making a living in the film business — has become one very busy filmmaker.

“It’s true! I work a lot, I travel a lot,” he says. “I’d say I spend about a third of my year in L.A., or on location somewhere. I’ve been pretty fortunate to shoot about one movie a year, and then, obviously, I’m on set for three or four months. Then I get to leave L.A., or wherever, and come home. It’s nice to have Petaluma to come back to. This is where I get my creative mojo. I just love the energy here.”

Flores, the other Butcher Brother, does live in Los Angeles.

“There’s a good bridge there, having Phil in L.A, in case anything comes up while I’m home writing,” Altieri notes. “But then, if I am needed, I can usually be on a plane and in L.A. within a few hours. That does happen now and then.”

The first film that Altieri and Flores made was 2002’s “Long Cut,” a drama about a wounded man and a mute, emotionally damaged girl bonding over their mutual love of horses. Filmed in Petaluma — with one scene shot out at Ernie’s Tin Bar — that movie was never released, but Altieri says it was a great education. At the time, he never imagined they’d someday become wholly committed to making scary movies.

“Phil and I always loved dark subject matter,” Altieri says. “We’ve always been huge Cronenberg fans, David Lynch fans. Horror, as a genre, was always in our creative locker of possibilities. When the opportunity to focus on horror films arose, it was something we knew we’d be good at and have fun with, and it was also a smart business move.”

As Altieri soon learned, in a world of video-on-demand and Redbox and Netflix, with a business model in which a film needn’t open on a thousand screens in order to make a profit, untested filmmakers have a better chance of getting paid for their efforts if the movie is a low-budget genre piece. Horror definitely sells — and funny horror sells even better. Not that horror-comedy is the only flavor The Butcher Brothers deal in.

“Holy Ghost People” and “The Violent Kind” were straightforward dramas, with plenty of tension, violence, and horrific plot turns, demonstrating a strong command of story and an impressive way with actors.

“We are storytellers, first and foremost,” says Altieri. “The rule that Phil and I set for ourselves from the beginning, is just that, to tell good stories. Every time I write a new script, the question I ask is, ‘If I stripped the horror elements from this script, will I still have a good story? Will people care about the characters, and want to know what happens next? Will it still be entertaining?’ ”

With a smile of mischievous, slightly fiendish delight, he glances about at the grisly “trophies” of his still-just-beginning career.

“That hasn’t always been easy to maintain,” Altieri says, “but I’d have to say the answer is yes.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@argus-courier.com)