Showing posts with label vhs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vhs. Show all posts

Jul 30, 2020


In a sort of sequel to my previous write-up for Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight, in which I launched back to my childhood to better explain my affinity for that particular title, I discovered Re-Animator on that same exact mid-’90s summer evening (when my unassuming extended family discovered the hard way that I was a weirdo into horror and gore and everything in between).

Once the closing credits on Demon Knight were rolling and my horrified family were filing out of the room, all while I rubbed my hands together and wondered when I might ever see such genius dummy heads again, my uncle flashed me a mischievous grin and asked, “So you like all that gory stuff, huh?”

“Yup!” I said, the only time in my life I’ve ever said “yup” because doing so makes you a douche bag.

He walked over to a shelf filled with VHS tapes and procured one. He slid it into the VCR, gave me a wink, and said, “Enjoy!”

Re-Animator then happened in front of me, and I've never been the same.

1985’s Re-Animator is silly chaos, but such an unmitigated joy to watch. An ’80s splatter-movie take on Frankenstein, it features two doctors, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) experimenting with a serum that has the power to resurrect the dead. Along for the ride are Meg ('80s B scream queen Barbara Crampton), her father, Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson), and Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), the human villain of the flick who intensely hates Dr. West for his arrogance and who also intensely desires Meg in the most basest of ways. Because the concept of creating an elixir to resurrect the dead has never gone wrong for anyone in the horror genre, Re-Animator does not feature people getting their heads ripped off, their bodies torn in half, or every other kind of crimson-spattered gore piece you can think of. Just kidding! One by one, our cast become unfortunately entrapped in the madcap adventures of West and Cain, each of them falling victim to the duo's dripping experiments...and some of them finding their way back to the land of the "living."

Let me tell you: when an eleven-year-old sees Re-Animator for the first time, it feels like magic. Dangerous, filthy magic. It feels like a snuff film or the kinds of films that linger behind the curtain in the local video store below the sign that reads ADULTS ONLY. It feels like you are watching something that you should not be watching. This is how it felt for me. Between all the wonderful violence and gore, which at that time had topped anything I’d ever seen, and the fact that I didn’t recognize a single actor in the film, giving it an additionally “underground” feeling, I basically felt that by watching Re-Animator I was breaking the law, and any minute the Mom Police would kick down the door and beat me with 37 wooden spoons. This unrelenting gore and cadre of unrecognizable actors re-enforced, in my eleven-year-old brain, one very scary notion: everything in Re-Animator had happened for real, and now everyone was dead. For real.

Being that Re-Animator was a trashy take on the Frankenstein story, it was only appropriate that the sequel follow one of the most famous sequels in film history: Bride of Frankenstein.

Following the bloody, brainy, bony, and heady events of “the Miskatonic Massacre,” Drs. Herbert West and Dan Cain are somehow free and clear of any wrongdoing and continuing both their practice as fledgling necromancers as well as their very odd friendship. Meanwhile, at Miskatonic Hospital, an evidence room is stuffed with the dismembered parts of all the resurrected dead who tore shit up during the massacre, and for reasons unexplained, will not decompose. (This is eight years later, by the way, which makes this extra weird.) There’s also a room containing a fair number of these resurrected dead whom the hospital don’t know what to do with, so they kind of wander around like free-range chickens. As you might suspect, those wacky doctors and their serums of life-givers create another series of conflicts that begin with drooling dead and crawling arms and end with a lot of blood on the walls.

The spirit of Re-Animator resides fully within Bride of Re-Animator, despite the script being very obviously rushed into production. Years before this sequel came to fruition, the original Re-Animator team tried to raise money for another very different kind of sequel. Called House of Re-Animator, this sequel would see Dr. West being called to the White House during the Reagan Administration to, assumedly, resurrect the deceased commander-in-chief, and would've also involved the resurrected Meg. (This script was rewritten in 2006, with the targeted undead "president" being updated to Vice President Dick Cheney, who by then, was obviously the one running the country.) Instead, the script was rewritten from the ground up, and the concept for Bride of Re-Animator was born.

Bride of Re-Animator hits a lot of the same beats as its predecessor, all while throwing in quite a handful of homages to series inspiration H.P. Lovecraft. (“It’s just rats in the walls,” Dr. West says at one point, along with the sewing of bat wings onto a decapitated head, which then flew around the room.) People and limbs still come to life. Female nudity is still firmly on display. But derivativeness aside, Bride of Re-Animator actually nails one aspect and gets a lot of mileage out of it, and it all comes from the title. It’s also the very last thing you’d expect from any Re-Animator film: love.

Every one of our characters are connected to each other because of this, but also happens to cause the most fucked up love triangle polygon of all time. Dr. Cain lets Dr. West talk him into their next challenge — the creation of life rather than just the resurrection of the dead — by convincing him to place his departed love Meg’s heart in the corpse of Cain's recently dead patient (Kathleen Kinmont, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers). The detective hot on the doctor duo’s trail (played by Claude Earl Jones, Dark Night of the Scarecrow) is on a personal crusade to avenge his departed wife, who ended up as one of Dr. West’s experiments and currently inhabits the free-range chicken room. Meanwhile, there’s Francesca (the gorgeous Fabiana Udenio, who would go on to play Alotta Fagina in Austin Powers), a new love interest for Dr. Cain, and a source of consternation for Dr. West, who seems to want Dan all to himself. And then there’s the undead bride, who loves Dan because she’s got Meg’s heart, but yet West is in love with her because he created her.

See? Love!

Being a sequel, Bride of Re-Animator doesn't live up to the original, but weak script aside, I’ll be damned if it’s not trying at every turn. Directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, Bride of Re-Animator feels every bit like a sequel, thematically and stylistically. The returning faces certainly help in that regard (and Bruce Abbott brings along a lot more hair), but the spirit of unrestrained, maniacal gore and mayhem are what make Bride of Re-Animator one of the better horror sequels birthed from an ’80s classic. I was a little hesitant in checking this one out after having seen it (and being disappointed by it) so many years ago, but after an iffy beginning, it easily found its groove. Every bit as gory, goofy, and ridiculous as Stuart Gordon’s beloved original, Bride of Re-Animator is a worthy entry in the Re-Animator series.

Beyond Re-Animator was shot in 2003 under the watchful eye of a returning Yuzna. Though there’s much to criticize about this final sequel, its biggest problem is when it was made: Beyond-Animator is a 2000s sequel to an '80s franchise, trying to exist in the same era as “smart” ironic slashers and PG-13 J-horror remakes. To me, lots of horror franchises birthed during the ‘80s belong to the ‘80s, and attempts to modernize some of them haven’t gone particularly well. (Tsk-tsking right at you, Friday the 13th 2009.) Of course, Beyond Re-Animator should be lauded for trying to launch a franchise comeback and offering some counter programming, but not only does it stick out for this reason, it also sticks out because it can’t afford what it clearly wants to be: unprecedented bodily madness.

Largely funded by Spanish film company Fantastic Factory/Filmax, Beyond Re-Animator was shot in Barcelona and Valencia, Spain, with roughly half a cast of Spanish actors, and right off the bat it makes things feel too different. Normally you might think, “Well, the whole movie takes place in a prison, so it’s not unbelievable that many of the prisoners are Spanish,” but that just makes you a racist. Still, this idea does make Beyond Re-Animator stick out and could have been remedied by acknowledging the obvious Spanish flavor and tweaking the script so that the infamous Herbert West had been hidden away overseas in an effort to continue hushing up his awful experiments at Miskatonic University.

Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, the re-animator, doesn’t miss a single beat and easily steps back into the ghoul doctor’s shoes — it’s everyone else who don’t seem fully confident in their roles. And as previously mentioned, Beyond Re-Animator, given its more modern 2000s production, is the first entry to try its hand at visual effects. Nearly all of them are a failure, especially when it comes to the evil warden’s decapitated and re-animated…er…member. (Yes, this happens. If you ever wanted to see a dick puppet fight a rat puppet, you’ve reached your final destination.)

Beyond Re-Animator was clearly made in the same spirit of the original, and by film’s end, when chaos has totally overtaken the prison, it’s larger in scope than anything the previous films attempted, and that’s absolutely commendable. But unlike its predecessors, the comedy seems cheap--manufactured only to one-up the series’ previous shock moments, whereas the horror aspect this time around just feels corny. In Re-Animator, a headless corpse lowers its own decapitated head into the nether regions of a naked hapless female. That’s shocking, yes, but it’s also a unique gotcha moment that works as intended because it hadn’t been done before. In Beyond Re-Animator, someone’s dick gets ripped off and then later comes to life. Voilà: a killer wang. Sure, this, too, hasn't been done, but only because it's low hanging fruit of a joke, and that’s pretty much the example of Beyond Re-Animator trying too hard to be shocking: falling back on lazy dick jokes.

Personally, for me, the Re-Animator train stops here. There is a "remake" floating around out there in the world, but one which features zero personnel from the original trilogy, and which seems to have been made either because the writings of H.P. Lovecraft are now in the public domain, or because, like Creepshow 3 and Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (not a word), its rights-holders were cleaning out their filing cabinets and said, “Oh, shit, we own this?”

As for the future, it seems like a perfect climate to resurrect the long mooted House of Re-Animator for a third time. We already have a racist, misogynistic moron in the White House and roughly 30% of the country are okay with this. Imagine the fun that could be had with a resurrected Donald Trump bleeding from his mouth and eating brains on national television and his base finding ways to talk about how he’s still the greatest president in the history of the country. That script, alarmingly and sadly, writes itself.

If that doesn't materialize, I'll take this as a solid back-up. Look at that cast!


Jun 15, 2019


It started off innocently enough.

“Maybe I’ll just upgrade JAWS. I hear the picture on the new DVD is excellent. And it’ll be nice to get rid of this bulky two-tape version.”

My intentions were good. Even pure. Why not obtain my absolute favorite film at its technical best? Why couldn’t that be the lone exception to my otherwise “VHS only” mindset? It’s not like buying one DVD would open the door to ditching all my VHS tapes.

No way that would happen. No. Way.

…But it did.

The transition was slow. Barely noticeable. At first my reasoning dictated that the titles I chose to upgrade had to benefit from the dynamism that only DVD could offer.

Die Hard.

The Perfect Storm.

Even Speed!

And then there were the less showy films I absolutely loved and wanted at their best.

Session 9.

To Live and Die in L.A.

Ace Fuckin’ Ventura.

It just got way out of control way too fast. Before I knew it, I was trading in tapes hand-over-fist, or selling them online for substantial cash. I was delighted to accumulate shelf space; to regain “the whole film experience” (a widescreen aspect ratio); to look at my VHS collection with a more critical eye and determine if I really, truly needed to own Mountaintop Motel Massacre. (Spoiler: I did. But I would realize it far too late.)

My first VHS purchase was a Blockbuster exclusive release of John Carpenter’s Halloween. It was 1995, I was in fifth grade, and I had ridden my bike six miles to obtain it. For ten years following, I would be an avid collector, amassing well over a thousand tapes (including seven different VHS iterations of Halloween). Stacks of tapes were brought home nearly every weekend, and from multiple choice spots--from the shiniest Hollywood Videos to the scummiest farmer's markets. Special excursions, reserved only for every so often, found us in nearby cities in video stores bigger than libraries, and it was there that you could actually purchase titles off the rental shelf. Personal points of pride during this rich period were Return of the Living Dead, Phantasm III, and Eraserhead, in their original, uncut cases. I planned it so that my one thousandth tape purchase was Freddy vs. Jason, a film I not only unabashedly loved, but which also represented the culmination of the franchises that cemented my love for the genre at a young age. My last tape purchase would be Tod Browning’s macabre masterpiece Freaks, two years following the release of the final VHS tape by a major studio (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence).

During this recent VHS resurgence, commemorated by the loving retrospective documentaries Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking, I’ve found myself looking on in sad awe at the featured collections not unlike the one I used to have, recalling my own oddball titles, and whispering to the impassioned collectors on screen, “I used to be one of you.”

VHS was magic. A time capsule. A revolution. The next step in loving film. No longer was the flickering picture on the silver theater screen confined only to your memory, nor was the one-time chance to catch its rare airing on broadcast television your only redemption. You could wait, patiently, for West Coast Video or your local mom-n-pop store to begin selling off their excess rental copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, or you could snap it up on release day, brand new, for a paltry $99. Either way, those pizza-loving heroes in a half-shelf had to be yours—and they would be, at any cost.

VHS encouraged casual film fans to become collectors, and organically, these collectors became cineastes, swapping tapes with gleeful conspirators, clamoring to see the newest, greatest discovery. Little-seen films spread from person to person like a beautiful virus. Small films that made small splashes in theaters were appropriated by legions of fans and eventually became favorites. It no longer mattered that The Monster Squad failed to ignite at the theatrical box office; on video, it would, instead, ignite the imaginations of horror-loving children (as it did mine)—over and over again.

Like most things, VHS wasn’t fully appreciated until after it had passed away. DVD had taken off like a rocket, so the purging of this magnetic tape technology was a sad inevitability. But the change didn’t really hit home until video stores went through their own transformation. No longer on their shelves were there handfuls of warm, inviting cardboard covers stuffed with styrofoam blocks proudly showing off a reworked iteration of the film’s theatrical poster; in their places were cold plastic cases in capitalistic amounts, labeled in sterile company fonts, automaton-like in their uniformity.

In the beginning of the DVD transition, everyone had questions.

“What does that mean for the ocean of VHS tapes already in the world? What about someone like me who refuses to upgrade to DVD? What if I accidentally break or lose my copy of Batman or Clerks? Will studios still be making new ones? And what if my VCR takes a shit? Will stores still carry them? How much longer will VCRs be produced if companies are no longer putting newer films on VHS?”

“What’s going to happen to my collection?”

Overnight, VHS went from a premier technology to a clunky pile of hard plastic stacked in every corner of every living room, where certain titles would be cherry-picked before the leftovers hit the goodwill box or garbage can. This thing that had literally changed the way people discovered and loved films had instantly been looked upon like a bad dream: quivery picture, the “pan and scan” frame, and except for the very rare release, no special features to speak of.

We even had to rewind them! What cavemen we were!

VHS to DVD was a massive quality upgrade—we know this—but there’s no denying that it left much of collecting’s magic behind. Sure, films had become available in their directors’ original aspect ratios, with their preferred color timings permanently locked into that digital sea of ones and zeroes, never to fade as their magnetic tape counterparts began to dissolve. Mind-blowing releases like Anchor Bay’s four-disc Dawn of the Dead provided fans with every alternate cut of their favorite film to enjoy, and massive supplements to pore over—all which provided fabulous new heights of appreciation for a horror staple. Admittedly, it was an exciting time to be a film collector—especially horror. But for each title resurrected in a brand new digital release, a little mystique was taken from it in the process. Because certain films wear their age and budget like a badge of honor. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is one—a low-budget, late-‘70s, semi-sequel to his bonafide classic Night of the Living Dead. If you’re like me—born after the theatrical bows of many 1970s-'80s classics and therefore were only able to experience them in your friends’ basements—you discovered Dawn of the Dead like I did: with a forbidden VHS tape, smuggled into the house behind your back, to be played only after double- and triple-checking that your mother had gone to bed for the night.

Films like Dawn of the Dead felt forbidden; relics from another time; created and then instantly forgotten. Same for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The Hills Have Eyes (films that actually play better the shittier they look). Without previous knowledge of that baggage “classic” label, they felt dangerous and not meant for human eyes, and this feeling of obscurity became married to the entire VHS format. There was an excitement in going to record-and-tape traders, pawnshops, yard sales, and flea markets, never knowing what you would find. Forget Dawn of the Dead—stumbling upon those really aloof titles like Crazy Fat Ethel 2, or Dead Meat, or this fever dream I once had called Gore-Met: Zombie Chef from Hell, felt tantamount to discovering pornography at thirteen. It was exciting to explore this uncharted territory, always with the sensation that you should not be doing this. Because…anyone could make a film and put it on VHS. And knowing that, what madness awaited you? Sliding a mysterious tape into your VCR became Russian Roulette: you had no idea if you were going to have the best night of your life or the worst. Films of this questionable pedigree felt even more forbidden post-DVD when knowing these particular titles hadn’t been salvaged and transported into the new format. And maybe they never would be. Maybe VHS copies and the occasional one-sheet sold on eBay would be the final sign, long after their original casts and crews have died off, that these films actually existed. For every schlock title like The Pit or Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror that was resurrected for DVD, a little magic was lost. Films that felt like your little secret suddenly had Amazon description pages and appeared in DVD review columns of print and online publications. People hadn’t forgotten these films existed after all, and it ruined the fun—just a little.

If that weren't bad enough, there was, and is, another issue plaguing collectors—the physical tapes themselves.

Within the recognition that nothing lasts forever, the very components of VHS technology are especially temporary. With each viewing of your film of choice, the magnetic tape within degrades—just a little. Incrementally. Over time, your repeated viewings begin to manifest in the form of scrolling lines, fuzzy scenes, or a white flash-bang explosion as your VCR struggles through two inches of splicing tape. Whether you watch that VHS religiously, or once every few years, the clock is ticking on its integrity, and there is nothing you can do about it. Store it in the most ideal environment, sans humidity, temperature-moderated, sealed in plastic—that tape is going to rot. While this is the worst aspect of the technology, it’s also a philosophy that should extend to every aspect of your life. Your relationships, your passions, your life’s work—it’s all as temporary as your copies of Split Second or Pumpkinhead 2. Nothing lasts. Everything is fleeting.

Cherish what you have while you have it.

One sole VHS tape remains in my semi-possession—via joint ownership with a chap named Brian, my good friend of many years. The final holdout to have survived my magnetic tape purge—my love for it, and what it represents—is a constant reminder of what I gave away. Yes, that used copy of Commando I’d purchased for three dollars all those years ago is still going strong. (It’s outlived two VCRs and is currently dominating a third.) It doesn’t play nearly as well now as it did thirteen years and three hundred viewings ago, but it’s still willing to tell us the same thrilling story of rescue and revenge and absurd masculinity, now sporting an array of scrolling distress lines over the scenes we rewind over and over. (They usually involve Sully.) Effort is made to watch it at least once a month when we get together—even just a few minutes. We easily pick up where we left off, whether it’s John Matrix leaping from an airplane’s landing gear or arch villain Bennett waxing philosophically about the worth of men. Like a good friend, the film stops when the night ends and loyally waits for us to pick it back up at our next session. That tape might as well be a photograph, or a journal entry. It has played over and over during bad breakups, first houses, new jobs, the passing of family and friends. It’s captured life, in snippets, and it represents me: what I love, who I love, and the simple things that bring me pleasure. (And as John Matrix always says, “Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure.”)

One of the most conflicting movements in recent years has been that of the VHS revival. Like vinyl, which had momentarily regressed into an easy punchline to signify someone’s out-of-touchness with the times, the VHS resurrection is romantic and inspiring...but also a little sad. It’s romantic because this very people-led rebirth, far from the money-driven clutches of film studios or distributors, is refusing to let the format die. These collectors of the past are traversing the world to find the most random title, the most obscure release, to rescue it from the tote or shelf or cardboard box where it’s spent most of its post-digital life—all to give it a permanent home.

That’s a beautiful thing, and they are beautiful for doing it.

But the VHS rebirth is, like I said, also a little sad.

Because, well…

I used to be one of them.

[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 14, 2014


My first ever VHS was the Blockbuster exclusive release of John Carpenter's Halloween. I was in sixth grade, and I had ridden my bike the equivalent of 25 city blocks to my nearest Blockbuster to buy it. It was a defining moment. On that day, I became a collector. And that mindset continued for years.

One of my biggest regrets in life was giving into the changing tide and, box by box, relinquishing my VHS collection, which I had spent over ten years collecting. I had well over a thousand before the VHS era came to a sad, unceremonious end. I held out for as long as I could. I held out until they stopped putting new releases on VHS and switched to DVD (and if I remember correctly, I believe the very unmemorable Mike Figgis film Cold Creek Manor was the very last new release to utilize the VHS format). 

In a way, what could I do? I was a movie collector, and I had a choice: refuse to buy that new release I so desired because it was on a format against which I was silently rebelling, or give in. So I gave in, and since I was going to give in, I might as well begin to upgrade my current collection, tape by tape. 

No one would argue that VHS offers better picture or sound quality over DVD, nor would they argue they enjoy a complete lack of special features over the sometimes-up-to-three extra discs of content. But as far as nostalgia goes? Oh yeah, VHS wins. Hands down. When the last DVD is pressed, the format will never be mentioned again. No one will ever look fondly back on it, because when that happens, everyone will have fully moved onto either blu-ray or digital downloads, which, as far as quality goes, is closer to DVD than DVD was to VHS.

And that's what Adjust Your Tracking, a documentary that presents a collection of sit-down interviews with low-budget film directors and independent video label owners discussing their love of the format and their own VHS collections, is all about: Nostalgia. If you ever were, or are, a collector of the format, nothing they say will surprise you, and everything they say will strike home.

Written and directed by Dan M. Kinem and Levi Peretic, Adjust Your Tracking is essentially sitting around with like-minded collectors and listening to everyone share their memories of visiting mom-and-pop video stories to hunt down the newest titles for their collection. And you can't help but get caught up in the memories of visiting your own mom-and-pop stores and remembering which particular VHS covers captured your attention (definitely I Spit on Your Grave and Deadmate for me).

In Adjust Your Tracking, you won't learn about the inventor of the VCR and the VHS format. You won't learn about its mechanics, and how it was created, and other such typical information. But that's okay, because honestly, I don't care. That's not why I'm here. I'm here to live vicariously through our talking heads as they discuss their undying love for VHS and proudly show off their immense collections. And once the one particular fellow who talks of his 22,000 tape collection ends up in the doc, suddenly my own once-collection seems like small time by comparison. Though I no longer own not a single VHS tape, I can still recall the fondness I had for them. I can still recall how (to sound lame) magical it felt to uncover that one particular VHS at that flea market or thrift store, gaze at its cover art, and get that unmistakable feeling that the movie in your hands has become completely forgotten - a strange relic lost in time. For that reason, VHS felt more special than DVD ever did, and ever could. 

Adjust Your Tracking, lovingly shot on VHS (natch) but available on a 2-disc DVD stacked with special features, is a testament to that.

Aug 29, 2013



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.