'WNUF Halloween Special': A Love Letter to VHS and Public Access TV

By Hamilton Morris

In my life I've watched a conservatively estimated 200 horror movies and averaged at least one horror movie per week for the duration of my high school career until I started to worry that all the blood and women having their eyeball slowly pulled into a splinter and women being shot in the eyeball through a peephole and women having their faces dissolved with hydrochloric acid and women being eerily gazed upon by a male fellatrix in a bear mask was having a negative impact on my emotional well-being, so I reduced my viewing to only one or two horror movies a month.

One horror film that I feel never got full credit for its brilliance is The Blair Witch Project. Amid all the smug suggestions that BWP was "not scary" and endless parodies of the penultimate apology scene––which were only surpassed in sheer number by parodies of Keanu Reeves dodging things in slow motion––many viewers forgot to mention that BWP was actually a well-written, original, and extremely frightening movie. Subsequent attempts at found-footage horror haven't been nearly as effective, and most horror fans feel BWP's success in convincing a significant number of viewers the film was "real" is something that can never be repeated in the future. Maybe they're right, but last Saturday the Spectacle Theater held an all-day horror-movie marathon that I caught the tail end of. And like most things at Spectacle, the marathon was a series of extremely rare VHS transfers or largely unknown foreign films. When the last film, WNUF Halloween Special, was screened at midnight, it looked no different from anything that had preceeded it... except it was a masterpiece

Presented as a damaged VHS recording of a public-access Halloween special aired in 1987, WNUF Halloween Special is not meant to convince viewers it is "real" in the same sense as BWP. The only illusion is supposed to be that it is actually a 26-year-old TV special, which I feel it created very effectively. I contacted WNUF's director, Chris LaMartina, for a Halloween chat.

VICE: I'm conflicted. Writing anything about WNUF seems like it will further decrease the chance of someone else having the same magical experience I had. How do you reconcile the desire for publicity with an understanding that it will likely interfere with the ideal viewing experience?
Chris LaMartina: 
Well, two minutes into the movie, you know it's fake. Unless your friend pops it in a VCR at a party and you're half drunk or stoned, you'll know it's a goof pretty quickly. Google is too powerful, and we've become a culture of non-believers, so the best I can do is make people remind themselves why they fell in love with VHS and blatant localism in the first place, which is what WNUF is—a love letter to VHS and public access TV.

I heard you say that in another interview, but for the record I 100 percent did not think it was fake two minutes in. I was in a dark theater and couldn't use Google on my phone—maybe I had an anomalous viewing experience at the Spectacle but I can imagine other people showing it to friends and presenting it as a bona fide found-footage masterpiece and them believing it.
I mean... I hope so. That'd be fucking rad. I would love if some people bought into it.

I called my friend leaving the theater and said, "I just saw the Citizen Kane of VHS found-footage horror films." I wanted to find the people involved with the production, and then when I looked on Google I saw the 2013 IMDB entry and was shocked.
That rules! The funny thing is we made WNUF in our spare time, and we shot it for $1,500. WNUF is my sixth feature, and we'd gotten used to making no money on distribution, so we said "fuck it," why not make a tiny little movie for super cheap that I would love to see––the type of movie that no one else wanted to make––because they probably assumed there was no audience for it.

After Blair Witch came out, I feel a lot of people thought that it was a great concept that could never be effectively repeated because future audiences would be incredulous. I think you proved it is still possible, but increasingly difficult. What do you think the future of that kind of filmmaking is, or is there a future?
Audiences are smarter and smarter, especially with low budget titles. Now low budget movie fans really need to seek out content—they can't just go to a video store and grab a box—they need to do research, read tons of blogs... so any hype or mystery is diminished. I think you can't surprise people like Blair Witch did without doing something VERY secretly. That's not to say it can't be done, it would just have to be a nonentity––no famous filmmakers––and someone who has no background or public eye on them, but I digress. Found footage as a subgenre got lame just like slashers because small filmmakers would use a formula to tell a story as a "get rich quick" scheme, which will always fail. Horror fans are not fucking stupid, they know when a film is made for money and when it's crafted with heart. We like our blood and guts... but movies need heart to pass the test of time.

Another thing that really impressed me about WNUF was the pacing. I was audibly sighing with exasperation toward the end as the commercial breaks kept interrupting the action. It seemed so excessive that, again, it added to the reality of the experience because I thought nobody would willingly alienate an audience to such an extent unless it was for profit, like television.
Thank you! I've heard people express annoyance with the structure and commercial breaks because they don't like all the commercials. I thought, Exactly right! It's a fucking TV show, it should be annoying.

But that requires confidence, you have to be willing to torment the viewer.
Totally, and the carpet-warehouse commercial runs on purpose three times because that's what TV stations did. I remember being able to recite certain ads by heart when I was seven years old like some sort of local television Rain Man. It probably creeped my parents out big time. But yeah, we also ran the "Cash for Candy" commercial multiple times because live TV broadcasts have to cut to something, you know? There's often a disconnect between movie reality and actual reality and since I wanted to craft an authentic 80s TV special, I needed to sacrifice some pacing for aesthetics.

I haven't seen your other films, but have always felt the haunted-house subgenre occupies the top of the horror pyramid. Do you have any thoughts on the horror-inducing power of the haunted house? 
The basic tenet of any good horror story is the "return of the repressed," and I think haunted houses offer mystery and memories that are haunting in an emotional sense and in a horrifying spooky sense. It's those unresolved feelings that are way fucking scarier wrapped up in our subconscious, bundled in our own sins and failures. All horror films do this, but haunted-house movies do it more directly. What causes a haunting? For us non-ghost believers it's what past events demand a haunting to be created. I think WNUF absolutely plays into "return of the repressed," both literally with the Webber murders and more abstractly in its loving homage to a simpler time.

But it is ultimately a nonsupernatural story in that it is fundamentalist Christians who are behind the seemingly supernatural phenomena. How would they work into the "return of the repressed" framework?
Well, the "return of the repressed" doesn't necessarily serve as a payoff. Let me mention this, it is going to sound really pretentious, but bear with me.

OK...
Check it: thematically the question of WNUF is "perception of reality." Is the haunting ghosts or people? Is it real or staged? Is this 1987 or 2013? Who broke the recorder? Who killed the cat? Ghosts, the religious protesters, Frank? And that theme went into the film as well as into the distribution model.

It seems that as the story progresses, the supernatural is gradually stripped away—the priest is an actor, the psychics are more concerned with the cost of their damaged equipment than contacting the undead, and the real horror is Christian fundamentalists.
Exactly.

Which is an important message that horror films can deliver very effectively. I think that mirrors the greatest horror writing—Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House offers a similar structure where the supernatural is stripped away, leaving little behind but human insanity. The same is true of Psycho. The same is true, I suppose, of the unmaskings in Scooby-Doo. OK, last question: When does your next horror film come out, and what is it going to be?
So I'm currently scoring/doing foley on Call Girl of Cthulhu. It will be released next spring and here's the synopsis: a virginal artist falls in love with an escort who is destined to be the bride of the alien god Cthulhu. Without sounding like too much of a dork, it's a Freudian horror sex-comedy inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft. It's basically about adolescent male fears of female sexuality.

Sounds good.

WNUF Halloween Special can be purchased here.

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