The following contains spoilers for WNUF Halloween Special.
In 1987, local news station WNUF held a special publicity stunt on Halloween night. Reporter Frank Stewart, joined by paranormal investigators and a priest, entered the infamous (and presumably haunted) Webber House, an empty home that was the site of a gruesome double murder. Hoping to get some ratings by doing a live call-in séance and an exorcism, Stewart and the others bit off more than they could chew as the event went completely awry. While the televised special ended in confusion, a special VHS tape was discovered years later that showed what really happened that Halloween.
That’s the plot of WNUF Halloween Special, released in 2013 by director Chris LaMartina. Told in the form of a news broadcast and follow-up special that were taped off TV, the found footage movie has garnered a cult following due to its unique 80s throwback style, realistic awkwardness, and loads of made-up commercials that add to the at-times casual experience.
If you have Shudder, WNUF Halloween Special is now available on there for you to watch this Halloween season.
In the meantime, I got to discuss the film with prolific indie director Chris LaMartina as he discusses the making of the film, its lovable quirks, and the inevitable follow-up.
Den of Geek: I have to imagine the WNUF Halloween Special was a unique process to put together what with the news prologue, the Halloween special itself, and the many commercials, especially since the commercials seem to get thematically darker as the special gets more ominous. How was that puzzle put together, especially compared to your other films?
Chris LaMartina: It’s really interesting. WNUF came together faster, believe it or not, than any of my other features. It’s kind of funny, it had been a couple of years since we made a feature. It was the second summer we weren’t making a horror film, and that really bummed me out. But what ended up happening was, I sat down with my frequent co-writer, co-producer Jimmy George and I was like, “Dude, the only way we’re going to make a movie is probably if we make a found footage.”
When I figured out what I wanted to do with found footage, when I literally was like, “Okay, how
do we actually make the fun version of a found footage movie?”
Basically what ended up happening was we made it the most ass backwards way, making something that has so many more set pieces, so many more working parts. But the thing is, basically it was the fastest thing we’d ever produced because from script to screen it was nine months. Literally from sitting down to write the first treatment to finishing the final product was nine months.
I will say that I did that while we were raising money to make another film Call Girl of Cthulhu. We were running a crowdsource campaign while we were shooting and editing WNUF. The only thing I can say was, I was 27 years old, I was a single guy, I was living in a basement, my job had not become a career. Literally all I did was just live and breathe making movies and playing in a punk rock band, but that was when I wasn’t working. It was a crazy time.
The commercials were done in a certain way. I knew I had resources, a lot of stock footage, either royalty-free stock or public domain footage, that I knew I could turn into commercials. Basically, what we ended up doing was, the movie was written like a movie, it was written with commercial breaks, it just said “COMMERCIAL BREAK.” At that point what I did was I had myself and my buddy Pat Storck, and a couple other folks wrote just an absurd amount of commercials. There’s commercials that we wrote that were never even made. There’s commercials that are on the DVD but not in the official movie. There’s tons.
What I did was, I had all the people that were helping write some of the commercials come over
and watch all the stock footage I had and I would tell them, “All right, I have enough footage for you to make a petting zoo commercial,” or, “I have enough footage for you to make– See this little short film that my buddy Jeff Herberger did? We’re going to take that footage of the space guy and make Galaxy Pilot.”
The majority of the commercials were stock footage of some sort, with the exception of the tampon thing. We shot that one. The King of Castle Lane was actually produced by my buddy Scott Maccubbin. Parents Against Partying was produced by my buddy Jim Branscome. We had four or so guest directors for just four commercials around that at least, no five. Shawn Jones was also Phil’s Carpet Warehouse. But the writing and the other stuff was mostly me and Pat but they involved other folks.
I would wake up at 6:00 in the morning, I would edit two commercials, go to work. I could walk to work from where I was living at the time. I’d come home on my lunch break, edit the commercials, go back to work, come home that night, edit another commercial, that type of thing. It was exhausting, but I had so much fun making WNUF and it was such a thing that was in my DNA.
I worked at a TV station right out of college, it was a government TV channel. At the time I was working in marketing. The year after that I became creative director for a digital agency, so I just loved writing ad copy.
Basically, what I did with WNUF was, I let it be an excuse to say all the shitty, stupid, cheesy things they would never let me keep in a commercial I wrote, so that was pretty cool.
So that’s the physical process of what you went through. What was the mental process that led to you guys putting together this nostalgia/horror/found footage cocktail?
We wanted to make a found footage movie but we were like, “What’s our found footage movie?” We made horror comedies. Basically, what we arrived with was sort of like, imagine if Christopher Guest made a found footage movie.
Yeah, it’s funny you say Christopher Guest because every time they show the anchorman, I kept thinking like he is just so close to being Fred Willard.
Dude, yeah. Yes, Gavin Gordon as played by Richard Cutting, he just channeled that. He’s such a sweet guy. It’s just funny.
Anyway, but yeah I was going to say, I sat down and I wrote down a list of everything I hated about found footage movies. It was like 1) why are they filming this? When things get crazy, why are they filming this? It makes no sense. 2) Found footage movies largely are small casts, so that’s not really interesting to me. 3) There’s never breaks. There’s literally never … It’s just one location. This sucks.
There’s no way to break up the monotony of shitty found footage. Finally I was like, as soon as you go into a store and buy a movie with a UPC code, the illusion of watching a found footage film is immediately broken because you know you’re watching commercially available film, and if it was some sort of snuff movie, there’s no goddamn way people would see that.
First and foremost, why are they filming? I had this idea that they’re filming because it’s their job. It’s a special, it’s TV. If they don’t film they don’t cut to ad, they can’t make money. It’s literally their job, it’s their lifeblood. So then the idea of a TV show was kind of great because you have commercial breaks. Now most movies, when you do commercial breaks people just do one commercial or cut out the commercials. I figured, “No. That’s what we need to do.”
We need to show the commercials, because no one is crazy enough to do that. And there we were, we were the crazy nobodies. Yes, we’re going to make an 81-minute movie where 25 minutes are commercials. That’s insane, but that was fun for me.
And then the whole idea of having an ensemble cast. I had always liked ensemble movies or
ensemble films so it was one of the situations where it’s like that was fun to have guests and things like that. And then after that, the big thing for me was the conceit of the story, the conceit of the distribution, how are you buying this movie? When we finished WNUF, for the first three months it was only available on VHS, you could only buy it on VHS, but for six months prior to that I had uploaded the WNUF Halloween Special on sites like Cinemageddon, on torrent sites, for people to think that they were real.
And then we had made copies on VHS ourselves before they were on sale and left them at
horror conventions or dropped them off at the thrift store or threw them out of the car window. We had about 50 tapes back then. I don’t know if anyone found any of those. I think a couple of people found them at the horror convention. But that idea of building the mythos and having a whisper campaign was really, really important to me.
Going back to the commercials, like you said, your friends worked on those. Are there any in particular that when you looked at it you were, more than any other, just like, “Wow, that is perfect. This fits perfectly into the eighties aesthetic that we’re doing here.”
It’s funny, I have to think about that. I really think of the eighties local thing because I think there’s a couple of ones that look like national TV ads, but I feel like the local edge is what I really was attracted to in the movie, at least to make the original. I would say the ones that stick out to me are…
I actually really like the ad for the WNUF Halloween Special that you see during the commercial break. I also think the ad for High Pike Farms, feels very like regional TV.
In my head I was like, “Okay, this is a small market somewhere east of the Mississippi, because
the call letters there start with a W.” I had this moment where I was like, “I imagine the same company probably paid at least 20% of these commercials if they’re all local ads, but there’s not going to be six video companies in this small town.”
There were certain things… I was very careful not to make fonts based off the really, really local, local ones. But yeah, I can’t think of one that really, really stands out to me. I love something like the Frumkes Wine Cooler. I think Galaxy Pilot is a lot of fun.
Obviously, Paul Fahrenkopf steals the show as Frank Stewart. What other performance, supporting or minor, really sticks out to you? Personally for me it’s the guy dressed up as a vampire who appears in the background of the event and he’s the one who awkwardly realizes like, “Wait, there was a murder here?” That’s just such a great response, and it’s just such a perfectly awkward moment.
I’ll tell you two things. One, it is seriously my dream for that picture of, as we call him, Acid Dracula. I just want a picture of Mike Walls in that role turned into a meme that says, “Somebody died in this house?” just because I feel like his face is so priceless there. But no, here’s what I’ll tell you. When we shot those—
Oh, real quick. I just want to point out. I don’t know if it’s because of you, but I’m pretty sure on the IMDB page, he’s one of the images that pops up immediately.
That’s amazing. Yeah. Mike Walls, who plays Acid Dracula, he’s incredible. It’s really interesting, I’ve known Mike for a long time through the punk rock scene, but Mike told me, he was like, “What is my character?” Because people were just extras, literally I just said, “Hey, just answer the question and you can say whatever you want.” We had 15 people do that and we ended up using three or four on each segment.
Mike told me later on, “My character has gone to be on TV and right before he’s on TV has dropped acid.”
If you look at the outtakes on the DVD, the other thing that Mike did was during a take, which
was insanely funny, was Frank asks him whatever the question is and he says, “I want to win.” And Frank’s like, “What?” He’s like, “Win. I want to win.” And he literally just keeps saying, “I want to win.” And then he says, “Thank you.” It’s just, it’s nuts. Because I was camera operator for a lot of the things too, it was me and my buddy Jim, who I used to work with at this TV station. Literally there were so many moments where I’m shaking, I’m trying not to shake the camera because it’s one of those huge shoulder mounted cage cameras.
But yeah, Mike had me on the floor.
Is there anyone else that you look at in the movie and just like, “That’s just such a great, perfect performance?”
Dude, I’d say right now, I could go down the list. I think the world of Paul Fahrenkopf and wrote the role of Frank Stewart for him. He had been in a film we made called President’s Day and I always felt Paul was just like… It’s sort of weird, man.
When I think about the movies we made, it ends up being this thing like summer camp where your crew becomes your family to a certain degree and hopefully they come back next summer and you make another thing together. Paul, for me, there’s something about Paul and his attitude and his snark that just makes him such a true character.
But basically we wrote that movie knowing that Paul could be smarmy and like a dick, but still be really charming and funny. That’s one thing that I’ve always done, as I write I try to imagine who the character is going to be played by. It’s based on people I know. Louis and Claire Berger, Brian St. August and Helenmary Ball, they were just phenomenal. All those folks I really do consider an extension of my family.
I was going to say, I think even minor characters, even Acid Dracula or even Kendra North who plays the head of HARVEST. I think they bring something very funny but they’re all very funny in different ways. I think it’s really important to not do something where it’s everyone’s hitting the same note. I think Paul’s humor is a lot different than the Bergers’ humor, but yeah.
WNUF Halloween Special has become one of the annual standbys in my household. What Halloween movies do you always find yourself going back to year after year?
Okay. What I would say is the ones that are like quintessential, like this is Halloween to me…? I have to watch The Midnight Hour, the made-for-TV movie from the early 80s that was basically made to cash in on “Thriller.” What was great was that we did a double feature. My buddy Jim Branscome, who runs a screening series in LA called Cinematic Void, he did a double feature with WNUF and Midnight Hour, so that was one of the best nights because it’s my favorite Halloween movie and a movie I made.
During the day of Halloween I always watched The Halloween Tree, the Hanna-Barbera based on the Ray Bradbury story. It’s funny, I have a long list of Halloween shorts that I find myself, because I collect film print, so short films I like watching. I like Disney’s Skeleton Dance.
Also there’s a great version of Legend of Sleepy Hollow narrated by John Carradine that’s just… I honestly think Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the story itself, is one of the most perfectly Halloween ones as an experience because basically, you don’t know what’s real or not until afterwards and you’re just like, “Yeah, it’s a prank. It’s not real, but it’s still scary and wrapped in disguise in this mythos.”
I recall that there was an attempt to crowdfund a WNUF sequel.
Unfortunately that didn’t hit its goal but I have to ask, what would it have been about and is there still hope for it one day?
Oh dude, I’m making it right now!
Oh, you ARE making it?!
Yeah. That’s why I did GoFundMe. I did a GoFundMe because I don’t have to hit my goal. Look, I’m going to make the movie no matter what we raise. If I had raised 20 bucks, I would have figured out a way to make the movie. What ends up happening is the change in scope. What I have right now is, we’ve raised a decent chunk of change. People can still donate and get copies if they want to because as of right now the GoFundMe link is basically pre-buys at this point. You donate and then I’ll send you the DVD or the VHS or whatever.
Okay, so let me talk about the movie. I’ve been very tight-lipped about what the movie is about. There’s plenty of people who have worked on it so far that know what it’s about. Here’s what I’ll say, it’s not a reboot, it’s not a remake. There are returning characters, but I’m very careful about what I explain the plot to be. What I will say is, it takes place in the nineties. Characters do return, I think about 10 characters return.
Did Dracula get over his acid problem yet?
Did Acid Dracula? I’ll tell you this, Mike Walls is in the sequel and he plays a vampire of some sort but he is not, as I would call him, Acid Dracula.
Yeah. The movie takes place in 1994 and 1996. I think the best way to describe this one to people without blowing what it’s about is, imagine if Jerry Springer hosted an episode of Sightings.
And also I think it’s really interesting too, it was really a lot more difficult and dynamic trying to satirize the 1990s in a way that felt believable, but still accurate and still sort of snarky, like you do with the ’80s. We’ve been far enough away from the ’80s when we made WNUF.
I know one of the reasons why WNUF is so important to make for me and just a different experience was like, I had seen so many people make fun of the 80s in a way that’s kind of like laughing at it, not laughing with it, or it doesn’t come from a place of love. Honestly, man, I grew up the youngest of three kids, I was an accident, and I used to get the tapes that my brother and sister taped off TV, but those were my intro to a lot of classic horror movies or TV shows, and they had all the commercials and I watched those tapes and commercials well into my high school years. Basically, I had a really encyclopedic knowledge of what would be accurate for that era, even though I wasn’t a teenager in 1987.
But what I was going to say was, the ’90s for me, where we’re doing the sequel is, that’s the shit I grew up watching. I’d come home from school and there’d be Jerry Springer on or there’d be Power Rangers or even just like things like Mysteries, Magic, and Miracles that was on the Sci-Fi channel or Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion. I think that was the name of it, it had Franklin Ruehl was the host. It was a weird show, I think it was a public access thing from New York that got syndicated and it got picked up. It was only on Saturday mornings for the Sci-Fi channel. I’m totally rambling right now.
What I’ve experienced as I’ve gotten older, but then also as I had the distance of making WNUF and who reacted to it and seeing what’s happening next, the fact is there’s the same type of tropes and type of almost archetypes that exist in every era, but they evolve and change a little bit. I think it’s really interesting, almost like what the type of commercial for a wine cooler might be in 1987 versus what that might be in 1996.
Oh, that’s great. I’m very excited. One of the things that my wife and I would do sometimes, especially in the quarantine, is go on YouTube and just watch a 15-minute block of commercials from maybe the 80s or the 90s. It’s always interesting to see how they stack up compared to each other, especially if you don’t remember them at all.
Right. Yeah, definitely. I was going to say, what I thought was really interesting was, occasionally when I’m doing edits or whatever I’d just want to palate cleanse and look at something just to remind myself of the era, or even just be like, “Man, let’s go look at some fonts that they might have been using for this ad.” And then I’ll find another commercial that’s like, “Holy shit, dude. In this other commercial block I watched I had written something that was almost identical.”
That happens. There were so many times, even with the original, where years later I’d be watching something on YouTube and I’d be like, “Oh my god, people are going to think I ripped that off,” but I didn’t. I literally just didn’t know that existed. I found some public access Halloween thing where somebody made some contacting Elvis joke and I was like, “Jesus Christ, I didn’t see that but somebody probably totally thinks I ripped it off.”
The one trope that I would say absolutely needs to be in at least one commercial is the idea that every kid fucking hates adults.
It’s always, “Yeah, my gym teacher’s an idiot. He doesn’t get why I like this cereal.” Or the kid’s all, “Yeah. I saw my uncle today. He absolutely sucks.”
Yeah. No, I think I’ve got you covered.
All right, that’s good.
And I’m pretty sure I have you covered twofold if I’m remembering correctly, but yeah.
Speaking of the sequel, WNUF Halloween Special has its share of, I guess I’ll call it the expanded universe. I know you guys put together an album of earlier Frank Stewart broadcasts. There’s a commercial on YouTube for the WNUF Christmas Special which has some very sly foreshadowing in the description that relates to the ending of the movie. Was there ever any intent to go further than just a commercial? What made you guys think to just put that up or put that together?
The second I finished making WNUF I realized, I had too much fun making this movie. I missed the idea of making something with commercials or the idea of something that feels a little bit more improvised a little bit. It was one of those things where it was like I wanted to make something again, and then when the movie came out, we had never seen such a response to one of our films. I’ve directed eight features and this was the one that people really cared about. I think the idea of the budget being low is what helped people really respond to it and understand the aesthetic.
In December of that year what ended up happening was, or maybe November of that year, I was
like, “Dude, let’s do a Christmas special as a joke, almost a social media Christmas card.”
And that’s what we did. If I was actually going to make a WNUF Christmas Special, it would be a goofy, community theater, Frank Stewart and Scrooge, and all the other anchors as the Ghosts of Past, Present, Future.
That’s an awesome mental image. You talk about the big sequel, but re there any other projects that you’re working on that we can look forward to, and perhaps a full-length version of Sarcophagus?
That’s funny. I was going to say, the mummy clips from Sarcophagus are from another film we made many years ago. We made a film many years ago called Grave Mistakes and there was a mummy, so all that stuff put into the mummy is from an actual movie we made, but granted, the whole movie is not nearly as entertaining as that 15-second ad for Sarcophagus.
I’m still working on the WNUF sequel. I’ll tell you right now, I was hoping to have it done a lot sooner but COVID happened and I can’t, really. We’re doing social distance shoots and I’m figuring out how to do everything safely without risking anyone’s health, but a lot of the stuff is not possible to do so I’m going to have to wait at least until the pandemic is over to do some of the things we had planned.
But that being said, I have another film actually co-written with my buddy Jimmy called What
Happens Next Will Scare You. What Happens Next Will Scare You is a viral video. It’s like a clickbait horror anthology. It’s about these clickbait journalists who are—
Oh god, I’m screwed.
—who vote on the top 13 scariest viral videos for a listicle on Halloween. An early entry into the night unleashes this curse that brings all the monsters and weird things from the viral videos into the real world. That’s actually premiering virtually at the Nightmares Film Festival in October. I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing some sort of Q&A of some sort, but there’s that.
And then also the Bergers, the Bergers are in that, the paranormal investigator couple from WNUF are in that film. Basically, one of the segments is from an old TV show they did.
Oh, that’s cool. This all ties together.
Oh, I’m sorry. My wife just walked into the room with her own question that she just wrote down for me.
“Is Shadow going to be in the next movie?”
The cat that played Shadow is dead, unfortunately. I know, that’s really, really sad. Without giving anything away, Shadow – I’m actually looking at my cat right now as I talk about this, which just funny. She’s probably wondering, “What the fuck are you talking about, Dad?” My cat is not Shadow, by the way.
The Bergers are in the sequel and Shadow is involved in some of it, but not in a very direct way, it’s very minor, mostly because I tried to find a cat like Shadow and it was just a nightmare. Trying to replace a very specific cat with a very low budget is not easy.
WNUF Halloween Special is available on DVD and now available to watch on Shudder. Any final thoughts on the project for the readers out there?
I think WNUF was a pretty rare gift and I don’t think anything I will make going forward will ever resonate like the original WNUF did. It really is, it feels like lightning in a bottle. It feels like all the stars aligned and how that movie exists is just really special and unique. It’s interesting to me because Halloween, as just a horror fan, somebody who just loves October, is one of those nights where you want everything to be magical and perfect. Sometimes you have these expectations, it’s really hard to have those expectations live up to what Halloween is in your mind.
We shot WNUF in October. Literally, we shot the majority of the movie in about five-ish days. All the stuff in the Webber House was three or four days. It felt like a fever dream, it was this big convergence of just the right elements.
Yeah man, I don’t know what else I can say except that I feel very lucky that I directed a movie that people tell me they watch every Halloween. I don’t know, that’s really special. I don’t know, I don’t make movies for a living and I don’t know if I even want to. It’s more just like I love the fact that I made that movie out of pure love and not for a paycheck, and I think that’s something that you can tell, when somebody makes a horror movie to further their career versus somebody making something out of pure joy. And everyone who worked with us on those movies was the same way. Nobody got paid for that movie. The budget was $1500.