Aug 29, 2013

REVIEW: WNUF HALLOWEEN SPECIAL

 

A package awaited me on the porch as I approached my front door. The return address didn't look immediately familiar, and inside the package was nothing but a single VHS tape.

No typical accompanying press release. No pre-sale ad. No tear sheet. Just that lone, ominous VHS tape with the hand-scrawled label:

WNUF Halloween Special.

Naturally I was intrigued. Who wouldn't be?

I was hesitant to pop in the tape, halfway expecting to see shaky, nightime footage of myself asleep in my bed, unaware of my image being captured by my phantom visitor. Also, Bill Pullman might be playing fusion jazz saxophone right behind me. (Lost Highway reference, for the win!)


After a bit of research, I found this:
Recently discovered VHS videocassettes of the infamous and terrifying Local-TV Halloween Show broadcast-gone-bad. Only 300 in existence!

Taped off of WNUF TV-28 on Halloween Night, 1987, this strange broadcast follows local news personality Frank Stewart and a team of paranormal researchers as they set out to prove that the abandoned Webber House – the site of ghastly murders – is actually haunted, through a fascinating live on-air program featuring shocking EVP recordings and one-of-a-kind Call-In seance.
Thoughts of the BBC's Ghostwatch popped into my brain and my excitement grew. Needless to say, my Halloween-loving fires were stoked. I popped in the VHS and awaited my adventure in live TV gone wrong.


The Weber house: Twenty years earlier the scene of a double-murder, where a young son named Donald decapitated both of his parents with an axe. The legend states that young Donald was found sitting on the curb in front of his house, mumbling "demons made me do it." He was later executed for his crimes. And it is this very same house where local television station WNUF will be filming their Halloween special, featuring anchorman Frank Stewart, husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Louis and Claire Berger, and Father Joseph Matheson. Frank will lead his team into the Weber house for the first time since it was sealed following the murders in an effort to put to bed the rumors that the house is haunted including the rumor concerning the headless specter that was often spotted in the house and on the grounds. Almost immediately upon entering they hear noises in far off rooms. Then some unseen force destroys their equipment. Are the legends true? Is the Weber house haunted? Or was young Donny framed and the real killer still stalks the grounds?

Frank et al. will find out...whether they want to or not.

Can I just say flat-out that I fucking loved the WNUF Halloween Special? As I hit play on my VCR (which I literally had to dig out of storage strictly for this occasion), I'll admit to expecting something other than what I got. What I found, however, was something I adored not five minutes in. 

I don't think I am ruining anything when I say this is not "recently discovered" video of "an actual television broadcast." Sure, it's a fun way to promote a film, I get that, but I'd like to think that the distributors know that we know better. And I bring this up not because I want to spoil the fun, but I kind of have to if I am going to successfully applaud co-writer/director Chris LaMartina for his flawless recreation of an extremely realistic 1980s television program. This may not sound like a big deal to some, but these some have certainly not seen the film for themselves. To a tee, LaMartina and his crew have created an uncanny homage to this gone-but-not-forgotten decade, not just of television, but of pop culture, fashion, and even the political landscape. 

The WNUF Halloween Special (which is the film's actual title) is a painstaking recreation of the following: a news broadcast, broken up by commercial breaks, which then leads into the actual "live" special, which is also broken up by commercial breaks. It looks as if someone literally hit "record" midway through a news broadcast and let the tape capture everything that followed. From the actors playing the news anchors to those taking part in the special, everyone (for the most part, anyway) comes across as perfectly genuine. The news anchors, after highlighting a typical schmaltzy human interest story about a local dentist instituting a "Halloween candy buy-back program" to lower the risk of cavities, even spit out insufferable cornball exchanges because that's just what they did in the '80s.

I like to think that LaMartina is a super-fan of the genre, because that would mean all the easter eggs I grinned at like a schmoe weren't coincidental. I think it's safe to assume that the "Weber murders" actually refer to the DeFeo murders, which took place in Amityville, New York, and inspired an infamous book and film series. And I think it's safe to assume that Louis and Claire Berger are based on Ed and Lorraine Warren (of recent dramatized fame in James Wan's The Conjuring) who investigated the Amityville house. But when it comes to Louis' on-screen look, am I going out on a limb when I see a purposeful recreation of legendary writer (and Halloween enthusiast) Ray Bradbury?

  

And what about the name of the priest, Father Matheson (as in Richard)? And am I really reaching when I recognize a reference to Shadowbrook Road, aka the location of the mansion in which Dracula and his monsters dwelled in The Monster Squad, a Halloween-set adventure? (And also made in 1987...the same year in which this film takes place.)

I'm not sure what makes me a bigger geek either recognizing the references before me, or seeing connections that are strictly happy accidents. Either way, I don't really care, because this thing was a hell of a lot of fun.

Speaking of fun, that's actually something I should emphasize. Despite the film's marketing campaign, the WNUF Halloween Special is actually pretty hilarious. And it's supposed to be. If you've seen any of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries (Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman), then you're familiar with his dry style and his ensemble of oddball characters. LaMartina takes this style and weaves it through a fairly typical (at least at first) television special, including interviews with slack-jawed gawkers who shouldn't be anywhere near a microphone. Not every gag is knocked out of the park, but it's a safe bet that at least all of them will have you smiling.

My personal favorite aspect of the film is probably the bleakest, and might also very well be the most under-the-surface and easily missed and this would be the world of 1987 versus the world of today. LaMartina isn't content with simply pointing his finger and laughing at bad '80s culture. He's quick to remind you that the world and our country, specifically has changed. This comes across in the commercial that depicts an airline offering wide and comfortable seats and gourmet meals, which ends with a stock shot of the New York skyline pre-9/11. Because this is a thing of the past. With soaring gas prices and a suffering airline industry, all the old airline perks have been tossed; seats were condensed, and forget gourmet meals if you want a cold tuna sandwich and an apple, it's gonna cost you big time. And this goes with the oil company commercial, too, which pledges to do its best to contend with "unavoidable and accidental" spills. And don't even get me started on the commercial for the shooting range, stressing "fun for the whole family" and the importance of exercising your "second amendment rights." It's not my intention to bring down the mood, but it's clear the world was incredibly different 25 years ago, and while the film makes this obvious in the lighter and more comedic moments, it also wants to state the same thing in a more somber yet less confrontational way. It's in no way political, but present all the same. I think it's safe to say it's the last thing I expected in what is essentially a low budget horror film majorly assembled by stock footage.

As a film in and of itself, the WNUF Halloween Special is mostly successful. For the most part, the acting never feels forced or disingenuous. The humor works like gangbusters, but the horrific aspects are slightly less successful. Earlier I mentioned Ghostwatch, a legitimately frightening scripted narrative also masquerading as a live on-air special. The WNUF Halloween Special comes nowhere close to matching that film's level of intensity, but it doesn't want to, either. That's not its goal. What it wants to do is recall a time in our not-so-historic history where things seemed purer when people bought heavy metal compilation CDs or took in-store lessons on how to use "floppy discs" and this forgotten time also includes Halloween, as our society simply doesn't seem to care as much about October 31st as it once did. And this super legitimate approach to maintaining the "recorded off television during the actual 1987 events" vibe might turn off some viewers who want an uninterrupted experience; the commercial breaks, especially, may start to annoy some. But I purposely left this point last because what I really want to stress is this: whatever level of success the WNUF Halloween Special attains as a film, it is a flawless and impressive recreation of 90 television minutes from 1987. The VHS tape on which this special was recorded is appropriately degraded and fuzzy, as if it were a copy of a copy of a copy something shared amongst the curious like so many bootleg films from another era without proper distribution. And from the corny news broadcast to the commercials to the live broadcast, it captures late-'80s television in its essence and during a time in which people were hopeful about the future, and who only had a haunted house in their neighborhood to worry about. In that regard, the WNUF Halloween Special is perfect.

WNUF Halloween Special is now available for purchase on extremely limited edition VHS. I cannot encourage you enough to grab yourself a copy.


2 comments:

  1. You talked only a little about the acting. Did you find anyone in particular to be a really strong presence? Did you find anyone to be really bad? As an actor that appeared in this - I would be interested in your thoughts on the performances.

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  2. Well, being that this was a low budget effort, I'd hate to condemn or even single out the weaker performances. I can say that the actors playing the newscast, especially Frank Stewart, were superb.

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