Collins’ Crypt: Thoughts On The WNUF Halloween Special

Some William Castle type trickery on this one.

A while back I wrote about how I was "done" with found footage movies, having long since grown tired of how little care was being put into the bulk of the ones I saw - invisible extra cameras, people filming for no reason... some of them even have full blown musical scores added! But I added that I'd be open to ones that I already had an interest in (such as Ti West's The Sacrament, which I quite enjoyed), or ones that I heard enough good things about - or at least had a good enough hook - to entice a temporary lift on the "ban". Well, WNUF Halloween Special had both - even if I hadn't heard from a few trusted colleagues that it got it right, I was in love with the concept: the film was the complete (taped) airing of a live local news broadcast from 1987 that went horribly wrong.

To be fair, this isn't a completely unique concept - the BBC did it in 1992 with Ghostwatch, which used the network's real host for added authenticity. Both of them are a mix of "live" and pre-taped segments, as a real news report would be, but the difference is the BBC actually managed to fool people when it aired (as a news broadcast), whereas there is no TV station WNUF that I could find, and thus their "Halloween Special" never "aired". Instead, filmmakers Chris LaMartina and Jimmy George actually made VHS tapes with homemade labels and left them lying around conventions and the like (and even tossed a few out of car windows in the hopes of being found), hoping to fool someone that way. It's the same spirit of Blair Witch Project, letting its legend grow through word of mouth and William Castle-esque trickery, with the team knowing that even if a couple people were fooled into thinking it was real, they would instantly leapfrog over the anonymous "Ghost hunters investigate an abandoned asylum" nonsense that clutters the found footage section of the Netflix "video store".

Key to that element is the astonishingly on-point aesthetic of the film, which is almost impossible to spot as a fake*. The team used actual cameras and tape from the era, and had the results duped over three times onto VHS to give it that cruddy, lo-res look that anyone who ever taped a movie off of HBO (in SLP mode!) will instantly recognize. The news broadcast is also spot-on, everything from the chyrons, to the exaggerated tone of voice during public interest pieces, to the shitty newsdesk set will give you flashbacks to the 80s, long before the advent of HD cameras and graphics that remove all charm from our local news. It's even got that horizontal line of noise at the bottom of the screen for the entire movie - THAT'S dedication to an aesthetic. One of my issues with "period" found footage movies is how they often don't even try to match the era's technology (Paranormal Activity 3 comes to mind - it's the only good sequel but it looks even higher def than the original despite being set nearly 20 years earlier), but the crew here went above and beyond to pass it off as an actual 1987 broadcast, from start to finish.

Adding to the fun, at least at first, are fake commercials that also nail the cheesy tone of local advertisements. Pizza places, arcades, the channel's other programming... all of this stuff is lovingly recreated; if there are some actual ads mixed in with theirs, no one would be able to spot the difference. Again, it's all in the details - the way such ads tend to give their address in relation to another business ("Just past the bowling alley!") or how there would be one ad that got way more play than the others during a broadcast (a rug store, in this case). I just wish they didn't go overboard with the gimmick; it's funny and impressive at first, but towards the end, when things are finally starting to happen, it just deflates the tension again and again, and ultimately annoys more than impresses. I figured as the movie went on they'd drop it and focus on the narrative, but if anything they INCREASE the amount of times they cut away to 2-3 more made-up promotions - twice in the film's final 10 minutes, in fact! Thankfully, some are fast-forwarded (the only thing that ever breaks up the reality, though if you were watching on one of the unlabeled VHS tapes you could assume that whoever made the copy was scanning past a few parts at random), but still, it's hard to shake the feeling that they made a bunch of fake commercials for some reason (there are even more on the DVD as a bonus feature) and decided to make the movie later.

Luckily, the movie itself is fun. After a good chunk of a local nightly news broadcast (on October 31st, of course), the news anchors tell you to stay tuned for their investigative reporter Frank Stewart's special live report from the infamous Webber House, where a man killed his parents years before, allegedly as part of a satanic ritual. Stewart spends some time outside talking to assorted locals and his fellow reporter, cutting to pre-taped segments about satanism and the actual crime, before ultimately heading inside for the centerpiece of his broadcast - a live seance with a priest and a couple of elderly paranormal investigators (presumably modeled after Ed and Lorraine Warren). Of course, things start going wrong - they hear sounds, a piece of equipment is destroyed, etc. In other words, it's the same sort of stuff you'd see in a modern, "typical" found footage movie, but with the 1987 setting so painstakingly recreated, it's easy to get caught up in the fun and go along for the ride, even if it's not doing anything new on the script level.

It's also got some great, pitch-black humor, something that's often missing from ALL modern horror films, not just ones of this sort. At one point a cat is killed, and the cameraman keeps showing it despite protests from the host (remember, it's "live"), and earlier there's a great bit where he refers to it as a "pretty pussy" without any sense of irony. I also loved the wonderfully mean-spirited bit during the regular news segment, where they catch up with a mother whose child was killed the previous Halloween while dressed up as a soldier (he went trick or treating at a house owned by a crazed vet who took the Vietnamese child as an enemy troop). Again, these things are completely straight-laced, no winking or anything that would take us out of the moment. And more importantly, nothing that could give the secret away if you were to make a copy of the DVD and pass it off to a friend like the characters in The Ring - "Holy shit, you ever hear about this? I got a copy of the broadcast!" you say, hoping that they haven't already heard about the movie online (the movie lacks any sort of end credits or copyright as well, so they stick to their guns to the very end).

I regret not hearing about it sooner and doing my part to spread the word; while you can do express shipping, it's doubtful anyone reading this will get their copy in time for this year's Halloween. That would be the best time to trick people (especially if you order the VHS version and have a still working VCR); anyone throwing a party would be wise to throw it on just before guests arrived and play dumb, telling anyone who asked that it was something that they found in the laundry room or whatever. They did such a great job of recreating the period, it'd be a shame if everyone who saw it knew it was made in 2013, but I'm not a good enough writer to play along with the ruse and write an article as if it wasn't fictional. You can find the DVD or VHS version at Alternative Cinema (I'm sure it'll be on Amazon and the like fairly soon), and the former comes packed with bonus features (including a commentary and some before/after shots of the degrading process) to sweeten the deal. And even if it wasn't so perfectly executed, just the IDEA of the thing is exactly what Halloween is all about - mischief and terror in equal doses, with the added bonus of invoking some heavy nostalgia for folks of my generation. Well done, gents.

P.S. Did anyone actually find one of the VHS tapes? LaMartina says he left some laying around at a VHS convention in Pennsylvania and threw them out the window in Baltimore - any readers in that area ever find a weird tape?

*The closest thing to a giveaway, besides a couple of not-great actors, would be an arcade game called Blorgon in one of the fake commercials - that's a made up word from the (also made up) "Inspector Spacetime" gag on Community. But it's possible that they just wanted to make up a nonsense word and coincidentally came up with something that existed.