When it comes to horror movie that cement themselves in the lexicon of earning annual Halloween viewings, there are only a handful of films that stick out with audiences, such as Halloween, Trick 'r Treat, or Hocus Pocus, with one of the only classics to emerge in recent years being the micro-budget WNUF Halloween Special. What makes the film's accomplishments even more impressive is that it has been such an unconventional project, from development to production to release, that it has yet to find the footing with mainstream audiences that fans know it deserves, as it captures such a specific tone that contemporaries have managed to replicate.
The premise of WNUF Halloween Special is that it is a VHS recording of an October 31, 1987 news broadcast, starting with a traditional news report with anchors talking about local festivities, which then pivots to a "live" broadcast of a reporter investigating a reported haunted house. The film is so committed to this concept that the broadcast is even broken up with commercials crafted specifically for the film, promoting local Halloween attractions and specials sales at arcades and pizza stores, as well as featuring moments in which the recording fast-forwards through repetitive promos.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with the film's director, Chris LaMartina, to talk about the development of the project, its biggest challenges, and what's in store for fans with the sequel he's currently working on and can be supported on GoFundMe.
ComicBook.com: Ever since I saw WNUF back in 2013, it's been a film I revisit every Halloween because of how well it captures such a specific tone of similar specials from the '80s and '90s. When it comes to Halloween, what are your films that you have to revisit every year in October?
Chris LaMartina: My favorite Halloween movie? Okay, let's go top five Halloween movies that I watch every year. In no particular order, the one that always comes to mind is probably The Midnight Hour, the made-for-TV movie that, I can't remember what network made it, but it was basically a cash-in on Michael Jackson's "Thriller." If anyone hasn't seen it, it's incredible. It's, obviously, this amazing ... sort of like, kids summon this witch and then all these f-cking weird monsters show up. Like a werewolf shows up, zombies. It makes no damn sense. It's awesome.
For whatever reason, it's not especially a Halloween movie, but for whatever reason I watch it every Halloween, is Subspecies, the Full Moon movie. I seriously just love that flick. It's one of my favorite vampire movies, but also it's forever just become a Halloween movie for me. Outside of that, I always watch Mad Monster Party, the Rankin Bass movie.
Then I always watch the cartoon The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. And Fright Night is always a classic, that always brings me to the fall. And then, I'm trying to think, what else? I always feel like, even though I wouldn't say it's a full-on Halloween movie, Lady in White is a personal favorite film, and I feel like that's one of those movies where I can watch in October or November because it goes from Halloween night into the rest of the fall and winter. But those are the big ones. I'm trying to think of what else.
It's funny how you mention there are certain movies that horror fans have to watch on Halloween and then others that are Halloween-adjacent and we have to make sure we watch them around Halloween, but it doesn't have to be on October 31st. Like, some can be watched anytime in October and others, if we don't watch it on Halloween itself, we'll ruin the holiday or something.
I'm looking around my room and I'm like, "How can you forget about Night of the Demons? Chris, don't forget to talk about Night of the Demons and Night of the Demons 2."
No, but it's funny, you watch a movie that takes place around the holiday or very specific time of year and it ends up becoming a tradition. Fright Night, I always end up watching in early October, and then I will say this: every October 1st I always start, when it's truly the spooky season, by watching a short film, it's one of my favorite short films, called "Pumpkin Madness 2." And if you've never seen this, it's incredible. It's literally like some guys out on the West Coast, I think either Oregon or Washington state, made this movie about pumpkins coming alive. And it was just made for, like, local TV; it's only like four minutes. But Pumpkin Madness 2, that's always something that immediately gets me in the fall spirit.
But there's certain things that end up becoming, just like you might f-cking put the star on top of your Christmas tree, this is literally just, I do this on this day because it's part of the Halloween tradition, and it gets me in that mode, it gets me in that mindset.
I know what you mean. I started a tradition where, because I watched a lot of John Carpenter movies one Easter, I watch John Carpenter movies every Easter, just out of tradition.
I was going to say, Easter for me is always going to be Critters 2, but I'm curious, do you change the John Carpenter movies, or how does that work for you?
Big Trouble in Little China always has to be on Easter, but since it's the whole weekend I watch them, I typically get through the same eight or so movies on a rotation. Prince of Darkness is another big one I have to watch, and I often forget how regularly I watch Christine so I watch it thinking, "I haven't seen this in a while, time to watch it again," only to remember I watched it the previous year.
"Time to watch it again."prevnext
You made WNUF with Jimmy George and you two have worked on a number of films together, so I always lose track of who had what role in what movie, especially since I always see him promoting the projects you work on across social media. How did the filmmaking responsibilities break down between you two on WNUF?
So what ends up happening, and I will start this conversation with saying Jimmy has done an amazing job of cultivating a social media presence, whereas I just never gave a sh-t about Twitter. And he was really smart to get in on Twitter very early, because he was running the Call Girl of Cthulhu Twitter for a while. So there's a lot of folks that don't even know I exist, despite the fact that I directed WNUF.
He wrote part of the movie with me, and then he also produced it with me. We were both co-writers, co-producers, but I'm the sole director and sole editor. And then I also compose some of the music and I was also camera operator and all that stuff. I think Jimmy has always been a very open ... he's never positioned himself like he's a co-director, because he's not, but it's one of those things where, on social media, people only think like, "Oh, he said he made WNUF Special," so people always assume that auteur-to-director role. So when you say you make something, it's not like, "Oh, what was your role?" It just ends up being that thing.
That all makes sense, that you both work together often and some of your duties overlap, but there are specific differences in how you both contributed to WNUF.
I mean, honestly, Jimmy [and I] wrote most of the movies we've made together, like co-writing, but he's not involved in the sequel. Not because I don't want him involved, more just because it was something I wanted to do on my own.prevnext
The first time I saw the movie was on VHS on a TV/VCR combo, so it was the perfect aesthetic to capture the tone you were going for with that movie. Given how specific of a slice of culture you were attempting to recreate for the movie, what was the development process like? How did you come up with the idea for this "forgotten" news broadcast?
So, a couple of things here. It had been a couple of years since Jimmy and I had made a movie, and the movie we had made before WNUF was a horror-comedy about cursed beer that I had written and Jimmy co-produced. And it was one of those situations where, we'd made this movie and it took forever to get done. It was this nightmare, because we had to do a bunch of ADR, it took forever to finish.
We were coming up on the second summer that we hadn't made a movie. Basically, for a while, every year we were making a movie. That was when we were a lot younger and didn't have many responsibilities. It was basically coming on the second year we weren't going to make a movie, and I was like, "Jimmy, the only way we're going to make a movie this year is if we do something simple, like found footage." Literally, "What's the Midnight Crew Studios version of a found-footage movie?"
We thought about it, and I basically sat down and I was like, "What do I hate about found-footage movies?" I wrote this list of like, first and foremost, what I hate about found-footage movies is, "Why are you recording this? When sh-t gets crazy, why do they keep recording?" Two, found footage has always felt very monotonous. Like, there's no break, it's just people stuck in the house, people in the f-cking woods. Very monotonous. And then, third, the whole conceit. When you watch a movie, or when you buy a movie with the UPC code, if you're watching on streaming, it's very clear to you upfront that this is a movie, and the whole mask of found footage is basically ruined from the get-go.
I had this really, really intense interest in making a found-footage movie, because I had worked on a film called "Lovely Molly," I was helping produce all their transmedia. I'd been helping produce all the transmedia content for Lovely Molly, so basically all their online social media franchise content that was used to market the film, and I had a blast doing it. Like, I really f-cking loved it. I love the idea of world-building, so I was like, "How can I make something that involves that same sort of world-building?" So we wrote that list.
I was really influenced by a couple of things. There's a couple of things here, and it's really funny, in the years after this, people have always been like, "Oh, you guys totally ripped off Ghostwatch." Well, first of all, I can tell you with the utmost confidence I had never seen Ghostwatch, and it wasn't until after people started comparing us to it that I finally saw it. And, to this day, I've only watched 15 minutes of it because I thought it was boring. So, no offense if you like it, no offense to the director, it's just not the movie for me. If anything, I wanted to make a horror-comedy, and that's what our brand's been. I've always directed movies that are horror-comedies.
To go back to my original list, the couple of things that influenced me were this. There's a couple of different stories; in Baltimore we have Edgar Allan Poe, and we have the Edgar Allan Poe House. And I had heard this story years ago about how they had done a live radio broadcast from the Edgar Allan Poe House. They had done a seance, a live, on-the-radio seance at the Poe House. Years later, I heard that nothing happened, but at the time I was like, "There's a f-cking story there." I think, early on, I was like, "Oh, that'd be cool, to do a radio play, or something." So I stick that in the back of my head.
Then there's other things; there's so many different things. There's an old radio show from the '40s where somebody does a live radio broadcast from Frankenstein's Castle. I think This American Life used that episode on their Halloween episode. There's things like, what was it, Halloween: Resurrection when they broadcast in the Myers' House live. Things like that.prevnext
There's all these little things where I'm like, "Oh okay, that's kind of interesting." Broadcasting from a haunted house is almost like a minor subgenre, right? It's like a minor, minor subgenre of what exists in horror. I swear to f-cking God, it's so frustrating when people say we were inspired by Ghostwatch. I literally didn't even know it existed. And don't get me wrong, it's cool, I get it. If we'd actually been able to broadcast WNUF in 1987, that would've been even better, except I was two years old.
I looked at my list and I was like, "Okay, so, inspired by these things," and there was this weird thing going on where VHS was in vogue, and that was in the back of my head. I'd always collected VHS tapes, but at this point, 2013, the VHS collecting culture was starting to bubble up.
What was going on was, I was thinking, "All right, why are they filming this when things are f-cked up?" "Well, maybe they have to film this." "Well, Chris, why do they have to film this?" "Well, maybe if they don't film this, they are losing money." And money is a big motivator; it's ad dollars, advertising, right? If they don't broadcast this, they lose money, they lose their jobs. So immediately I thought, "Okay, it's a broadcast then." And then I was like, "This monotony, this house. Well, wait a second: breaks. I could break it up. If it's truly a broadcast, truly embracing found footage, it would have commercial breaks." Now, at the time, I really had this moment where I was like, "Dude, if we do this, it's f-cking nuts. No one is dumb enough, no one's crazy enough to make this movie." And that was the joke; it was like, "We're the crazy nobodies. We'll do this because we don't give a f-ck."
Then the third thing was, how are you going to see whether this was real? The movie was finished March 2013, right before we shot Call Girl of Cthulhu, and then it was put out on VHS first in August. But for those months in March 2013, I uploaded it to Cinemageddon and torrent sites with a fake description to say like, "Oh, my God, Mother of Mary Lou, I taped this off of local TV back in 1987."
My then-girlfriend, now wife, Melissa, the "Call Girl of Cthulhu" herself, we drove around, and we put out 50 VHS tapes initially, with a white spine label that said, "WNUF Halloween Special." And we literally would throw it out the f-cking window while we were driving. We left them at thrift stores, we left them in the bathroom at horror conventions. We did that to create this whisper campaign, and it worked. Then we started taking screeners out for review and stuff, and The New York Times found out about it and all this stuff. But for the first couple months of this movie existing, you could only get it, I think from August to mid-October, maybe September, you could only buy it on VHS. And there were only 300 of those.
Those, with the original label on them and not the actual box art, they go for a lot of money. And I always think about like pulling a Charles Band and "finding more," but they're long gone. If you have one of those you're in a good spot. Because, basically I think the rights just expired, but every year [there's a release of] a tape version that had a picture sleeve, but that's a reprint every year.
I actually inherited one of those, with just a white label and a plain, black sleeve.
That is the one, dude. And I've seen people pay like $150 for those, which is insane to me, because those cost like nothing to make.prevnext
Another big part of the film's success are the commercials, not only conceptually, but because there were dozens of original commercials that all feel totally authentic to that time period. How much of the filmmaking effort was put into making those? What was the process of coming up with them and editing them and putting them together?
This is actually really comparatively interesting, comparing this one to the sequel that I'm making right now. So, for example, when we made the original, there was an early draft. Jimmy wrote a bunch of commercials upfront when we were making it, he wrote a large portion of the news, the evening news, and he basically had written commercials in his first like 10-12 pages or so. What ended up happening was he wrote commercials to produce, and I told him, actually, it's funny, I think I knew this all along, we just hadn't talked because we're always moving so fast. I was like, "Oh, dude, I don't want to actually produce that many commercials. I want to make stuff with existing footage or stock footage, and then maybe actually shoot probably like eight to 12 commercials ourselves."
A lot of the commercials themselves are made up from a couple of different things. They're either made from stock footage that we thought could believably look like the '80s, they're made from clips from filmmakers that we knew had footage from the late '80s that were friends of ours that would let us take stuff and use it without any problem, and then also a little bit of public domain-type footage. Basically me and a handful of other writers, most notably this guy Pat Storck, who was incredible, he would knock out ... he sent me 30 scripts for commercials, that I probably used like, I don't know, 10 to 15 of. We wrote to the resources.
I literally had this pool of writers come over to my house and I showed them all the clips, and then give them assignments. I'd be like, "Pat, would you write a commercial for the arcade footage I have here? Hey, I could go get my buddy [Joe Mitra] to record heavy metal songs. Could you come up with a list of fake bands? And we could do one of those f-cking '80s, heavy metal compilation commercials." I knew the types of commercials I wanted to make, and then it was figuring out, it's almost how like you use every part of the buffalo, right? There was not a f-cking clip I had that we didn't use.
Which is kind of different compared to the sequel, because the sequel right now, basically we're producing a ton of stuff with whatever I want to do in mind, and then making it happen. Very little, very little of the same thing, where I'm running through resources, which is totally different. Honestly, it's a lot of fun both ways. But then the other thing I'll just say, to make the commercials, again, we did shoot some of them. Like with the tampon ad, my buddy Nat wrote that. And then we made as much as possible, the Carve-a-Lantern pumpkin carving kit we made.
It's just one of the things where if you made a commercial that required shooting, that was at least a day to shoot it and then probably a couple of hours to edit it. Ultimately what ended up happening was, I would start my day, any of the commercials that required just stock footage or just footage we already had, I would do a scratch track with me doing all the voiceovers, and I would time it. And then I would record it that way, and then after all the commercials were cut with my voice, I would hire voice talent to basically recreate what I had done, because that way I didn't have to wait on one voice talent every time.
I mean, dude, at the time I was a single dude. I was working as a video editor at a marketing agency and I was just living in the basement. I would wake up, edit a commercial, come back on my lunch break, because I could walk from my office to my house where I was living at the time, I would come back at my lunch break, edit another commercial, come home that night, edit another commercial, fall asleep. If the commercials were just made of stock footage, I could do three a day. And it was easy. I mean, literally, from script to screen, WNUF was nine months, the fastest we have ever made a movie. And that was sort of great; it was like a f-cking big fever dream.
And then, honestly, for me it was like, this one was more of my DNA than any other movie we made, because I worked as a camera guy, a producer-director type at the government TV channel, so I knew what it meant to do local TV. And I grew up just f-cking devouring anything that was Halloween. This was so much of my identity.prevnext
Other than something like the budgetary limitations, when you look back at the experience, what ended up being the biggest challenge? Whether it was something you knew would be difficult or was an unexpected struggle?
It's really interesting. I would say the shooting was actually the easiest I think we ever had, with the exception of, obviously, it was really annoying, because the majority we shot on tape stock. We shot on DV cam, S-VHS, and VHS, depending on what we were actually filming, and what ended up happening was taking that and having to log clips that way, versus when you shoot things digitally you can literally sync up an audio file to a video file because the clips are all individual. Going through and actually just setting "in" and "out" points because they were tape stock, not just individual shots, that was annoying.
What I would say is we also had a huge amount of support. It was hands-down the easiest thing we produced from a standpoint of scheduling. When we shot the Webber House stuff, we shot 40 f-cking pages in two days. Like, that's insane. That's f-cking insane. Now, I rehearsed with all the actors. We spent this whole week where they literally came over every night of the week and I recorded them. We used to do this gag, which was really funny, we'd run lines with scripts, but I wanted them to be off-book, or at least feel comfortable to improvise, so we'd literally give them a flashlight and I'd say, "All right, we're turning out the lights now so you can't look at your script, and the flashlight is the microphone." And the big thing with that is to make sure that they got comfortable knowing that, "Hey, if you don't point the f-cking microphone at somebody, we're not going to hear what they're saying, Paul. So please, please point the microphone, the light on them."
What was difficult, in retrospect, was the costuming. But we had an amazing costume designer, Marla Parker, who literally showed up at the first production meeting with a dossier about 1987 fashion. Her and Jasmen Davis, who was our hair and makeup the big weekend, they were just f-cking great. I think that's one thing, I've been really blessed, Jimmy and I have been really blessed to get people that are really talented, especially in their specific focus, to work with us. And when you're making a movie with very tiny budgets, it's remarkable to think about what people will do for pure passion alone.
I think it's one of the reasons why I haven't wanted to make movies at a professional level, because at a certain point, you get people that care more about a paycheck than they care about making great art. If we were making a 100-grand horror movie, I think the dynamic between me and the people I'm working with would not be the same, and I'd surely be working with people that think horror films are stupid. And f-ck that.prevnext
It's insane to hear you refer to $100,000 as a "big-budget movie," because when movie trades refer to things as having tiny budgets, it's things like, "The indie production only had a budget of $10 million." You just wonder where all that extra money goes.
Well, and that's what's crazy, even that stuff, I feel like at that level, it's these weird costs people don't even think about. People will know this, WNUF was made for $1,500. Now, the thing is, Jimmy and I both probably put in more money here and there on things that we just didn't account for or didn't think about. Like, maybe I bought pizza one of the days and we just didn't take it out of the budget. So, I think at most, it was maybe like $2,000-$2,500, if you want to add in those things that really weren't considered. But it's really small. Just because of the fact that we wanted to make a movie and you beg, borrow, steal.
I think when you get to the level of making movies at 100 grand, you almost get so concerned about returning a profit that the only thing you can make are bottle movies, or a movie with one location. And then it's just sort of like, "All right, so you want to film a play. Cool."prevnext
Pivoting to the sequel, and I don't want anything to be ruined for fans because clearly part of the magic of the original film was discovering it, but is there anything you can say about what we can expect from the new movie?
Well, I've been very tightlipped about the plot itself. It is not done filming, I will say that. There's actually about 10 days that are totally screwed over because of the pandemic that's going on.
Basically what ended up happening, we had a big scene, actually Easter weekend, that's like 100 extras that we still need to film, unfortunately. All that stuff, in that context, I can't shoot until the pandemic is over. I was hoping to be done and filming in the next month, in a non-pandemic world, but unfortunately, we can't. There's some stuff that I would either need to completely rewrite, which I don't really want to do, or wait until the pandemic is over. So the situation is I've been filming as much as possible with literally a crew of me and the actors, that we've been filming over the last seven, eight months, obviously, during COVID. It's been a little tricky. It's definitely not been the way I wanted to make the movie, but at the same time, we're forging ahead. And it's like, we're working through it and we're doing our thing.
Hopefully it comes out in 2021 in the fall, but if the pandemic is not over by late spring of next year, I don't think it's coming out next Halloween, unfortunately. But we'll figure that out. But, at the same time too, I'm not going to f-cking risk any lives or anyone's safety to make a f-cking micro-budget horror movie.
What I've keyed up is, basically, as soon as we had finished WNUF, I had the most fun making that movie. As soon as I turned in my final cut, I was basically like, "Dude, I would do this as a f-cking TV show. I would do this as anything because I love this so much." And I kept thinking about, "What does that sequel look like? I don't want to re-do the same thing."
Instead, what it's basically come to is, I figured out the plot shortly after we made the original what a sequel would look like to that movie. What I will say is it takes place in the 1990s. It takes place in 1994 and 1996, so there's a weird little era-jump in the movie. Basically, the best way I can describe it without giving away the plot is, imagine if Jerry Springer hosted an episode of Sightings. And I think if you know those two shows, I feel like you're getting the same vibe from this movie. I will say this very candidly: it's more of a spiritual sequel. Don't get me wrong, there are returning characters, like Frank is in it, the Bergers are in it, Donna Miles, Veronica Stanzi, Officer Bookwalter, Stanley Allen, the dentist, a bunch of people return because it takes place in River Hill.
But I don't think people should go into it expecting a ... it's just a weird thing. What I would say is, if WNUF is about how we consumed media in the 1980s, the sequel, which, by the way, "WNUF Halloween Sequel" is not the name of the movie. The name will be revealed when people get their tape in the mail. But if the original is about how we consumed media in the 1980s, the sequel is about how the media consumed us in the 1990s. I really think it's like the start of things we have now, with problems with social media, or just sensationalism. It's, in a way, the really funny and over-the-top and cynical nature of the 1990s.0comments
You can head to the WNUF Halloween Special sequel's GoFundMe to learn more about the new project.prev