‘Hatchet Jack’ screening

In a still shot from “Hatchet Jack,” actors Aaron Bernard and Shayna Hickman look terrified as they search the woods of Rivesville where, in the movie, the legendary mass murderer is said to be hiding.

This weekend, two local filmmakers will be rolling out a red carpet in downtown Morgantown to celebrate their first exclusive screening of “Hatchet Jack,” a full-length independent horror flick set in the heart of Rivesville.

Inspired by different accounts of an historical series of real legendary murders in nearby Pennsylvania, “Hatchet Jack” is the story of four teenagers from Pittsburgh who come to a small Marion County town in search of the hideout of a serial killer.

“I heard about the legend of Hatchet Jack from many different people, and it was never the same twice,” said executive co-producer Justin Sago. “‘Hatchet Jack’ came about from stories being passed down from generation to generation. The movie shows that no two stories are alike.”

Beginning eight months ago with a 24-page script drafted by Sago, the movie was originally intended to be produced as a short, 20-minute art film. But as Sago and local filmmaker Ed Mahalick, the movie’s other executive co-producer, started working, it quickly developed into a full-length production.

“I was really inspired by what (Sago) had written, and ‘Hatchet Jack’ just took off from there,” said Mahalick. “We shot the ending first and then the beginning the next day, and then just started plugging in new scenes. We made it our own story.”

With a cast of 31 primarily local actors consisting of nine main characters and four stars, a sound score produced mostly by local bands and infinite shots of Rivesville’s vast landscape, the movie will surely put West Virginia on the map if it ends up making it to the box office, which is where the producers would eventually like to take it.

“Ultimately, what I’d like is for everyone to see this thing Justin and I created,” said Mahalick. “It is important for people around here to see it, too, because it will show a lot of West Virginia and how beautiful it is. There are a lot of beautiful frames that we couldn’t have accomplished if we wouldn’t have had West Virginia as a backdrop.”

Presently, the 90-minute film is registered with the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where producers hope it will be shown during the film event in mid-January. Until then, “Hatchet Jack” will only be shown locally in exclusive private screenings, with the first scheduled for the cast and crew at 7 p.m. Saturday at Morgantown’s Warner Theater.

“I’m looking forward to seeing it on the big screen. That’s going to be the big rewarding part,” said Lee Whittle, who worked on editing, camera work and post-production design for the film. “I think it was pretty well imagined and well shot, and I’m interested to see it play itself out as everyone else is watching it.”

A Johnstown, Pa., native, Whittle said he did not know what to expect going into this film, which was his first. But that he enjoyed working on it and plans to be a part of Sago’s and Mahalick’s next movie project, which is in the works.

“My expectations in the first place were that this would be a 25-minute short film that was just going to be done for the film festival,” said Whittle. “But once we made it into a feature length film, we opened it up to different opportunities.”

For the actors, who were mostly local, many long hours were dedicated to putting together this independent film. However, two of the main characters said that being on a real movie set and getting to work with the crew made it worth all the effort.

Joe Hardesty, a Rivesville native who in the movie played Jimbo, one of the five hunters who also go out into the woods searching for Hatchet Jack, said he loved getting to be in the film and also looks forward to the producers’ next movie.

“It was fun and enjoyable doing it,” he said. “I just about figure I’ll be in another one because it’s something I enjoyed doing, and I figured out I kind of like acting. Eddie and Justin have a lot of fresh ideas, and I’m looking forward to their next movie.”

For Rivesville native Rebecca Hartley, who played Niki, one of the teenagers who goes searching through the woods for the legendary mass murderer, working on this film was a great experience that she was happy she had the chance to be a part of.

“I liked just getting to do this, and I’m very honored that (Sago and Mahalick) asked me to be a part of it,” she said. “I just hope once we get this in the Sundance Film Festival, we can get it out and let everyone see it. I know Eddie and Justin put a lot of time and money into it, and I hope they get something out of it.”

Fronting approximately $15,000 from their own pockets to complete the project and set up the premiere and dedicating long hours over the last eight months to the production duties, there is no denying that Mahalick and Sago have put a great deal of effort into this film.

However, both are very pleased with the result and said that everything they put into it was well worth the finished product.

“Actually, seeing ideas come to life and the magic on set is like nothing else in this world,” said Mahalick. “There is no better buzz than seeing something come together on film.”

For Sago, “Hatchet Jack” was his first major production, and he said that it has always been a dream of his to see something he wrote come together on screen, especially in the unique way that “Hatchet Jack” was filmed.

“It’s extremely different this day in age than the big budget Hollywood films,” he said of the film. “Here, we took different mediums and made it different than anything anyone has done. Plus, it was shot in the town we were raised and around people we were brought up around. When people watch it, they’ll know it’s ours.”

E-mail Mallory Panuska at mpanuska@timeswv.com.

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