A Mixtape Monster Mash: An Interview With ‘WNUF Halloween Special’ Director Chris Lamartina
The WNUF Halloween Special is one of the bigger cult horror films to come along in the past decade. For many, it’s an annual Halloween tradition. So when Chris Lamartina released its sequel, The Out There Halloween Mega Tape, the bar was already set pretty high. But while Out There is definitely a sequel, it also stands completely on its own, this time taking on talk shows, aliens, and religious death cults. The good ol’ lo-fi VHS aesthetic is still there, and for those of us who were youths in the mid-90s, we’ll recognize a lot of familiar TV tropes filtered through Lamartina’s hilarious satirical aesthetic.
Lamartina is currently speeding around the country, smoking cigars and screaming at the moon as he takes his film to various film festivals around the United States. Or at least that’s the impression I got when his mysterious emails landed in my inbox at 7 AM for several days. But I could be wrong.
Dread Central: WNUF is an annual Halloween tradition for a lot of people, and Shudder seems to stream it every year. It’s safe to say the flick is a cult classic. Were you at all nervous about going into a sequel to a film that’s so beloved?
Chris Lamartina: I’ve been very fortunate with the success of the original WNUF. How many horror filmmakers can say they’ve made a movie that thousands of folks watch every Halloween?
With success like that, there are going to be fans who hold the source material so sacred that they may not be ready for a new chapter because they are so married to the past.
I thought this was the perfect opportunity to wax poetic about nostalgia, media, and the passing of the guard, culturally speaking.
I knew there would be a lot of folks who wouldn’t want a sequel set in the 90s because it wouldn’t speak to them the same way, but that’s what excited me. It also made me nervous… but that was the point.
When I made the original WNUF, I was convinced no one would like it, but I was so passionate about the idea, I didn’t give a shit.
That’s the exciting thing about making micro-budget movies and not being beholden to investors or a larger company. I got to do what I wanted. There was plenty of self-doubt about what audiences were expecting, but there was never doubt about what I wanted to deliver for the next installment.
There are clearly fans that wanted local TV Halloween 1987 part two. But nah, man, that’s not how time works.
It moves on and it leaves people behind. The danse macabre, if you will – and that’s where the idea of Out There Halloween Mega Tape (aka WNUF 2) started.
DC: When did you first think about making a sequel?
CL: Weeks after finishing editing WNUF, I kept wanting to make more commercials. It was sincerely such a blast making them that I never wanted to stop.
As we finished Call Girl of Cthulhu, my heart kept creeping back to the idea of making a movie out of faux archival content. A year or so afterward, I started making more phony ads at first to test if I could replicate the 1990s like we’d done the 80s.
When I considered the cultural evolution of local 80s UHF stations being bought up by big corporate media companies in the 1990s, the story began to take shape.
While I didn’t write it til 2018 or so, I’d say the seeds were planted as far back as 2015. I know I’d cut the first commercial for it back then.
I took a break for a while before I shot/edited any others though because that’s while we were making our clickbait horror satire, What Happens Next Will Scare You.
DC: Did Covid kick the project off in earnest since you could work on the commercials with a single actor and minimal crew? Or were you planning on shooting in 2020 – 2021 anyway?
CL: Covid fucked us up! Our big talk show scenes were supposed to be Easter weekend 2020, so clearly, that didn’t work out. If I had known a global pandemic was coming, I wouldn’t have produced 80% of the commercial FIRST. But that’s what happened.
Honestly though, it was a blessing and a curse. It was awful for production. I was the sole crew person for the VAST majority of shoots and that sucked. During the initial lockdown, my wife/co-producer Melissa and I racked our brains to figure out what we could shoot and how we could shoot it. A decent amount of things changed, but some were fortunate — “Mega Martian Fight Force” would have never been a cartoon if it wasn’t for the pandemic and I love starting the movie with that bit.
On the post side, the Covid situation allowed me to truly take my time to spruce up graphics, editing, and plant even more nods and jokes throughout the project.
DC: Did you find the 90s setting easier or harder than the 80s? Which era would you say makes you more nostalgic?
CL: The 90s was light years more difficult to execute because it was more advanced. I would joke to friends while making the sequel that my technical proficiency had finally evolved the levels of filmmaking from 25 years prior.
Seriously, though. I was born in 1985, so while I loved the taped specials I inherited as the youngest of three kids (the accident, my mom has told me!) I really grew up with the media of the 90s. So I have a deeper connection to that era. I love ‘em both, but the 90s were much more personal.
DC: Having a DVD out at the same time as you do film festivals is a pretty atypical way of doing things. What made you decide to do it this way? And how was your experience with the crowdfunding side of things? Do you see this as something you might do more of in the future?
CL: I’ve been making features for about 20 years now. It’s not a full-time gig, but I’ve learned a lot about how the market is constantly changing. Two big things influenced the release model. One was social media’s desire for urgency and the second was piracy.
First off, with the urgency angle, folks want shit immediately, especially horror fans. They see an IG post and want that “link in my profile”. Creating buzz is great for the big guys, but most casual observers will probably only see my content once or twice with these dumb algorithms.
Playing festivals is part of the same underlying strategy. Someone can leave a screening at a fest or regional premiere and instantly buy a DVD if they like it.
On the piracy side, it’s ironic to talk about bootlegging as a negative thing when it helped create buzz around the first film immensely and the whole conceit of the Trader Tony character is all about selling movies illegally.
The fact is a lot of viewers think art should be totally free. While I wish it could be, movies (more than any other art I’ve created personally), cost money to make. Many don’t care and they just want to download and share with their buds.
It’s shitty, but I cannot stop them.
However, I can wait for a loooOoOooOng time before I license to a distributor or a streaming service. Meaning the only fucking way you’re getting this movie, for the time being, is to get it directly from the filmmakers. Seriously, if you wanna watch it this Halloween, come to a screening or buy a copy over at WNUF.bigcartel.com
DC: With WNUF, a bunch of other directors contributed commercials. I didn’t see any similar credits on the IMDB page for Mega Tape, so I’m assuming you directed them all yourself this time? You did all the writing this time, too. What was the impulse behind doing more of the work yourself?
CL: I just really wanted to do it. Everything felt so alive to me and at many times, very very personal. I knew exactly what I wanted to bring to the screen and the extended production model allowed me to take my time to do so.
DC: Even the most absurd commercials feel like they could actually exist in some weird kind of dimension, or at least on some local Baltimore-area TV channel. How do you maintain this verisimilitude while keeping the material funny as hell? Is there a kind of balance that you’re going for?
CL: It’s a line between being too stupid to be believable and too stupid to be funny. I’m not sure I always walk that line perfectly, especially in the WNUF sequel, but it was important to me to never go full-on self-aware.
My favorite moments during the writing process were when I would think like, “Ok. I need a name for a Baywatch rip-off/cash-in show. What could it be?” And before landing on Coast Patrol, I did a quick Google search and realized there was already a TV show named what I’d written in the first pass of the script.
Same for our made-for-tv kaiju movie, Gargasaur. I had four fucking titles that I need to throw out the window because they were already real movies that I hadn’t heard of.
Those were the moments that made me pause and think “yeah, I’m right in that sweet spot of making something awfully authentic and authentically awful.”
DC: If you had asked me before I saw Mega Tape, I would have said that shows like Springer and Ricki Lake, two of the more obvious influences on the film’s talk show segment, were beyond parody. And yet, somehow, you pull it off. Did you watch a lot of these shows as a kid? I feel like they were almost impossible to avoid at one point.
CL: I watched tabloid talk shows every day after school and they were quite the education on how terrible some human beings could be to each other – sort of like the original “comments section.”
Most of those trashy shows came on literally right after kids’ shows wrapped up. I still can’t believe I’d go from watching Power Rangers to seeing scorned lovers throw chairs at each other or elderly strippers cuss out a live studio audience.
DC: The alien abduction angle of Mega Tape brought to mind stuff like the abduction episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and that wonderfully silly early 90’s alien abduction show Sightings. How much were shows like these an influence on the second half of the movie? As cheesy as these shows look today, they scared the shit out of me as a kid, and I wonder if you had a similar reaction.
CL: Probably the most terrified I have ever been by an episode of television was an episode of Sightings that was all about the world ending in 2012. I remember nearly choking on my potato chips and trying to figure out how much life I could cram in before I died in my twenties. It haunted me for a long time.
I loved Sightings but even the more gonzo bizarre paranormal shows like Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion. I’d wake up early on Saturdays just to watch that on the Sci-Fi channel.
What I loved about those shows was how the poor production value made them feel even creepier and sleazier—just like my old mail-order movie catalogs. This was not something I should have been allowed to see.
The creative choices of the lower-budgeted paranormal shows were filled with such fun and unusual aesthetic choices – those absolutely informed some of the stylistic approaches we took to the dramatic re-creations in Out There Halloween Mega Tape.
DC: The Bergers [the weirdo “psychics” from WNUF] make an appearance in What Happens Next Will Scare You in addition to their being mentioned in Mega Tape. So are we headed for a WNUF Cinematic Universe?
CL: I love world-building. I love expanding the mythology of a project in weird and wonderful ways. I’ve always felt the Bergers could have had their own series, and I’ve daydreamed about writing a book about their journeys in the 70s/80s. But that’s talk for another time.
If folks do want to hear more of them, however, they (as well as Frank Stewart) pop in a spoken word Halloween record that Terror Vision released back in 2015. It’s over at terror-vision.com.
DC: Even though the Bergers are kind of loveable, perhaps even well-meaning kooks, they’re kooks nonetheless. A new huckster, this time peddling books on alien abduction, makes their appearance in Mega Tape. Do you think the real people who these characters are based on (I’m thinking the Warrens and maybe someone like Whitley Strieber) are more or less harmless, or are their ideas doing real, lasting damage?
CL: It’s certainly not harmless.
This is a lonely planet we have and a lot of folks turn to self-professed psychics and “healers” because they feel alone, scared, and helpless. In the same capacity, lots of desperate folks turn to other dangerous things – addictions, religions/cults, extremist politics, media validation…
The common thread is exploitation and it exists in varying degrees throughout WNUF 2. From cult leader Ding exploiting his followers to the ACE network exploiting sensationalism for ratings, the biggest monster will always be man.
DC: Could you see yourself going back to this series again? I’m curious as to what a mid-2000s version would look like. VHS culture would be in its waning days, but it definitely still existed.
CL: I know what I would do for a third film. It would take place in 2004 and hit on the phoniness of “reality TV” set in a very polarized, post-9/11 America.
It would be called Celebrity Exorcism. But to be honest, I have a few other stories I want to tell before I venture back to that world. Some of those projects are the same VCR-chic aesthetic that I’ve embraced with the WNUF movies and some are very, very, different.
Either way, keep your eyes peeled and your tape heads clean.
If you’d like to snag a copy of The Out There Halloween Megatape, you can get one here.