Strange Cinema - WNUF Halloween Special
The WNUF Halloween Special is a truly unique and obscure horror movie that was released in 2013. It is technically a found footage film, but is presented as though it was recorded directly from a live television broadcast on Halloween night in 1987. Things get spooky when Frank Stewart, a local newsman looking for a ratings bump in the night, hosts a live Halloween Special from a local supposedly haunted house. The location is the infamous Webber house where gruesome murders took place in 1967. What makes this somewhat uninspired premise work is the absolute attention to detail in building this 1987 world. We don't jump directly into the Halloween Special instead, the recording begins with a news broadcast that helps to add substance to the proceedings. Throughout the recording are commercials, station identification bumpers, public service announcements, as well as promos for fictional local television shows and movies. All these components combine to become an encapsulated moment in time that, although false, feels absolutely familiar. Those who grew up in the Eighties, exposed to the charm yet cheapness of local television, will be especially transported. It's somewhat hard to call this a horror movie. Although it does "go there" it is not really until the very end that blood is spilt. What you get in the meantime is is an immersive, atmospheric trip through time. A retro love letter to the past, local television, and to Halloween night itself.
Ideally the best way to watch this movie would be to go into it knowing absolutely nothing about it. That, however, doesn't make for much of a blog article and hardly convinces one to seek out this hard to find film. Initially this film was released only on VHS for a limited run of 300. And while promoting the film, some copies were left randomly for people to find. Picture a generic looking video cassette with "WNUF Halloween Special" hastily written on it in Sharpie. I can only imagine what it would have been like to watch the film under those strange circumstances. Stunts like this whisper campaign as well promotional literature that present the film as a "real live" broadcast gave the film quite a mystique.
As the movie begins there are no credits, no title card, no music. The first thing you hear is the mechanical buzzes and whirrs of a VCR accepting your videocassette. The first thing you see is the long forgotten yet familiar blue screen, then static, then a wipe of fuzzy video tracking dissolves into a commercial. The commercials end and WNUF TV28 Evening News begins.
Our newscasters Gavin Gordon and Deborah Merrit deliver the nights' news in family-friendly costumes and the television studio is garishly decorated for Halloween. The news broadcast features stories about a contentious political rivalry, a young boy who was tragically shot last year while trick or treating, a local dentist buying back candy from children, Halloween safety tips, and a religious group that is adamantly opposed to Halloween. It is unclear which of these stories, if any, are integral to the story that ultimately unfolds.
The film features a good mix of "year-round" commercials mingled with Halloween themed ones. Most of the commercials were fairly realistic. Not only did they look and sound like low budget commercials from 1987 but they were actually well written. Some of the commercials even repeat. I have heard these described as commercial parodies, to me, that is not accurate, there is no joke here. These play out more like recreations or homages. I loved how a large number of the business were located in the same Chestertown Mall. This added to the small town feel.
In addition to the authentic looking commercials, the recording is peppered with station identification breaks and promotions for fictional television shows and movies.
WNUF's very own Frank Stewart (Paul Farenkopf) will be joined by a paranormal investigating couple Louis and Claire Berger, as well as Father Joseph Matheson. It is here in the initial moments of the actual "Halloween Special" that humor creeps in. The way Frank Stewart interviews bystanders in the crowd and even the manner in which he talks to the paranormal researchers has a dry, condescending feel to it. The paranormal research couple seems to be inspired by the famous Ed and Lorraine Warren while the story of the Webber houses' murderous past sounds an awful lot like the Amityville Horror. I can forgive all these derivative elements because they are being delivered in a charming package I haven't seen before.
Little touches like the newscasters in Halloween costumes, the news story about Trick or Treating safety, and this station break wishing us a Happy Halloween helped to deliver the mood of a Halloween Night recording of live television in anytown U.S.A.
The film featured a promo for the "Late Night Movie", a fictional mummy horror film called "Sarcophagus". I felt myself wanting to stay up late to watch it.
Father Joseph Matheson is not happy to be in this haunted house on Halloween night. Frank asks him early and often to conduct an an exorcism, a rite he is reluctant (and feels he is unauthorized) to do.
This woman (who bears a striking resemblance to Lilith Crane) is the show's producer she keeps sentinel in a news van parked just outside the home. There is realistic moment where there is a problem in the house and in the chaos she replays a segment they aired earlier about a local dentist buying back Halloween candy. This was a clever detail.
I will not give away the climax of the film except to say that the night, as you might expect, goes horribly wrong. With so many people understandably tired of the "found footage" concept this movie proves that the genre still has new routes to trailblaze. This is a truly special horror film and notably a film about Halloween. With the exception of BBC's Ghostwatch (1992) which was also presented as a live paranormal investigation, this is something we haven't really seen before. But as stated previously, what makes this film worth watching is the meticulous construction of it's retro feel. If you grew up in the era, you will be reminded of your local television station, if not, you will get a chance to see what it was like before cable, Netflix, and Youtube created an international community. A world of spectators all seeing the same thing. The WNUF Halloween Special deserves to be a perennial favorite and cult classic. This film is available online from Alternative Cinema. If you can, get it in time for Halloween Night! Till then, I'll see you at the Chestertown Mall.
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Elvira's 1986 MTV Halloween Special
Submitted for your approval we have a tricky treat known as the 1986 MTV Halloween Special hosted by Elvira, mistress of the dark. You may notice these photos are unfortunately pretty bad, that is because this comes from a YouTube video transferred from a VHS tape that an utter genius had the foresight to record from it's original live broadcast on Halloween night in 1986. At the beginning of the YouTube video the gentleman who uploaded it explained that he popped in the VHS tape, pressed record, then went out to have a Halloween night of fun with his friends. The Elvira Halloween Special was a four hour production that consisted of music videos and random skits spread throughout all featuring the talents of Elvira. These skits are split between Elvira doing some ad-lib shtick and some scripted skits. Because this was taped from television the original commercials are here and they are just as much (in retrospect) part of the show. The music videos are unfortunately removed to eliminate copyright entanglements, but the beginning and the end of each video is there so you can research and seek out the songs if you like. The music represented here for the most part is an odd but refreshingly progressive collection of moody almost goth-rock that was probably chosen to fit in with a Halloween theme. At the end of the four hour show Elvira herself gets into the groove with her oddly ambiguous "countdown" of songs, we will get into that later.
Strange Cinema - Brian DePalma's The Phantom of the Paradise
In this first installment of Strange Cinema we will take a look at a movie that is certainly strange. It is a hard-to-categorize satirical and literary rock opera written and directed by Brian De Palma. His movies include Carrie (one of my favorite horror movies ever), Scarface, Sisters, The Fury, The Untouchables, and Carlito's Way to name a few. I discovered this movie's existence after experiencing Dario Argento's brilliant horror masterpiece Suspiria and was taken with the lovely Jessica Harper. She played the main protagonist in that colorful and violent acid trip of a horror film about a young dancer who finds herself menaced by witchcraft at a secluded dance school. After seeing her in that movie I wondered what else she might have done. It was then that I discovered "The Evictors" (1979), a film about a young couple that had just acquired a house, ignorant of it's violent past. And finally, I discovered she was in a movie called "Phantom of the Paradise". I was intrigued because Jessica Harper was singing in this film. Learning also that it was written and directed by Brian DePalma (whom I respected) and featured music by Paul Williams (whom I saw constantly on television growing up but never really knew what he was famous for) solidified my resolve to seek out this elusive motion picture.