WNUF Halloween Special is a found footage horror-comedy directed by Chris La Marina and written by LaMartina, Jimmy George, Pat Storck, and Michael Joseph Moran. The film takes the form of a VHS recording of a Halloween night special broadcast on local TV station in 1987.
Director Chris LaMarina’s filmography reveals a taste for horror-comedy, anthology films, and nostalgia. He previously created the YouTube series Lost Trailer Park: Never Coming Attractions (2010), a collection of fake grindhouse-style trailers. The project was an early collaboration between many of the future cast and crew of WNUF Halloween Special. While LaMarina is credited as writer, director, and editor of the film, other directors and writers were responsible for many of the faux commercials.
In keeping with love for the 1980s, WNUF Halloween Special had a limited VHS release in October 2013, before its official DVD release.
The film opens with a news broadcast from WNUF TV28, covering topics such as the governor’s race, a dentist’s candy buy-back program, and a religious group protesting against Halloween. The anchors tease their fellow reporters’ upcoming investigation of a supposedly haunted house. In the main narrative of the film, reporter Frank Stewart leads a camera crew and pair of paranormal experts (along with their clairvoyant cat) into a house where a young man killed his parents, supposedly inspired by a Ouija board. The broadcast is punctuated by commercials for everything from sitcoms to anti-drug PSAs to pumpkin carving kits.
What will reporter Frank Stewart and his entourage of experts find in the now abandoned house? The group soon discovers that their broadcast is far from the fun Halloween special they originally planned on covering.
Found Footage Cinematography
WNUF Halloween Special is filmed in two principal locations, a news studio and an alleged haunted house. The news studio presumably uses fixed or tripod mounted broadcast quality cameras, while the film crew at the haunted house relies on handheld broadcast quality cameras. To the credit of the production crew, 1980s era video equipment is used at the haunted house. To call these video cameras “handheld,” however, is a misnomer given the absurdly large size of video equipment back in the day.
Visually, the news studio footage presents as a genuine local nightly news show with two anchors sitting behind a desk reciting their respective stories. Similarly, the on-location footage at the haunted house looks just as one would expect from a news reporter on location to cover a story. The local commercials also look deceivingly real, right down to the cheesy 1980s era computer graphics, bad music, and (intentionally) horrendous acting.
WNUF Halloween Speical employs a unique filming reason. During Halloween 1989, WNUF TV28 broadcast their local nightly news show. The film presents itself as a VHS recording a viewer made on their VCR of that nightly broadcast. The existence of such a tape is certainly plausible if a viewer interested in saving the Halloween broadcast set their VCR to record the show to watch later.
As for the actual news broadcast, for the majority of WNUF Halloween Special, the filming reason is strong. Quite obviously, the intent of a news show is to broadcast that show to its intended audience. There is never any reason why the videographers in the film, either in the studio or on location (outside of the haunted house), would feel compelled to stop filming mid-scene. For most of the investigation in the house itself, and even when the situation grows stranger and more frightening, the videographers are never in a situation where they would need to put the cameras down for their own safety.
However, like most found footage films, there is a point late in the story where the protagonists are in imminent danger. By the time WNUF Halloween Special reaches its climax, there isn’t enough character development—or any character development for that matter—of the crew behind the video cameras to justify why they would risk their own safety to continue filming. It must be said, though, that this is a very common problem (or perhaps trope) in found footage. It seems almost unfair to fault WNUF Halloween Special too heavily for this shortcoming.
Found Footage Purity
WNUF Halloween Special maintains strong found footage purity. The footage accurately portrays a 1980s local TV broadcast. The commercials also all make sense in the context of the story and era in which the film takes place.
Oddly, however, the film chooses to occasionally show segments of WNUF Halloween Speical being fast-forwarded—as though someone was pressing “Fast Forward” on their VCR to skip commercials or uninteresting material. While this is a stretch even for our own open-minded found footage sensibilities, it is technically possible for the “fast forwards” to be recorded to tape. If two VCRs were strung together with one VCR playing the original broadcast tape and the second VCR recording the playback, any fast forwarding during the playback would be recorded by the second VCR. While this justification is technically plausible, one must ask “why” anyone would go through such an exercise.
From a pacing perspective, fast forwarding enables the film to adhere to a full-length news broadcast and skip past unnecessary content, but this comes at the expense of realism—unless viewers buy into the explanation provided above.
Update: After publishing this review we received feedback from WNUF Halloween Special producer Jimmy George regarding the decision to insert fast forwarding into the film. He had this to say, “The WNUF broadcast footage was made to look as if it were taped from live TV, then recorded to another tape from VCR to VCR, duplicated and passed along the way viral VHS videos used to function before the days of YouTube. Often times you’d be watching something weird that had been duplicated to another tape more than ten times. A tape of a tape of a tape. For those of us in the 80’s who grew up without YouTube, this was how we discovered weird videos. Fast forwarding was a common element of these viral VHS tapes. Watching portions that were fast forwarded through by the original author of the tape. We didn’t anticipate that this effect would go over peoples’ heads.” Jimmy George also confirmed that the fast forwarding elements were included to facilitate the pacing of the film.
The performances in WNUF Halloween Special are solid overall. Leanna Chamish (Deborah Merritt), Richard Cutting (Gavin Gordon), and Sabrina Taylor-Smith (Donna Miles) nail the affected, stilted patter of local TV presenters. Some great comedic moments are achieved by the contrast between the artificiality of the performances and the sincere lines that sneak in. At one point during the broadcast, Gavin mentions spending time with his kids, to which Deborah, without dropping her painted-on smile, responds that she’ll stay in and play with her cats.
Paul Fahrenkopf (Frank Stewart) steals the show as the reporter investigating the haunted house. He plays Frank as cynical and bitter, barely hiding his resentment toward nearly everyone around him. Only concerned with getting the best footage he can, he blithely ignores everyone else’s concerns about safety or discomfort. The character is an unlikable jerk, but Fahrenkopf simultaneously manages to make his character fun to watch. The actors in the ads also deserve praise for their spot-on mimicry of 1980s era commercials.
WNUF Halloween Special’s primary selling point is the film’s realism. Visually, content-wise, and tonally, the film could easily pass as a genuine VHS tape of a 1980s local TV broadcast. Other than some subtle satire laced into some of the commercials and news stories, nothing on screen gives away that WNUF Halloween Special was filmed in 2013. Some of the “color” dispersed throughout the film, while not being too obvious, includes commercials for a computer class and a store proudly displaying its Betamax collection or a character referencing the “razor blades in candy” scare.
Makeup artists Leah Sarrah Bassett and Jasmen Davis and costume designer Marla Parker deserve a great deal of credit for so perfectly replicating 1980s fashion. There is no hint in the costumes, makeup, or hair that the actors come from the 2010s; something which in different hands could easily have tripped up the movie.
The special effects, both practical gore effects and the techniques used to age the footage, are excellent. The effects team Kaleigh Brown and Jason M. Koch, who have often collaborated in the past, have worked consistently since the early 2010s, including a segment in V/H/S/2. We asked WNUF Halloween Special producer Jimmy George how the footage was aged to look like a VHS tape. He said that the completed movie was transferred to an actual VHS tape and copied multiple times between VCRs until the desired look was achieved. This same technique was used in the recent found footage Ridley Scott production Phoenix Forgotten (2017).
WNUF Halloween Special’s fondness for nostalgia and determination to faithfully replicate the source material, unfortunately, crosses the line from charming to somewhat self-indulgent. The commercial breaks, for example, are impressive in their verisimilitude and are sources of some great laughs. Yet, as the main plot is kicking off, the commercials, which often repeat (many times) hurt the pacing of the film. In particular, as the film approaches its climax, the commercial breaks detract from the growing sense of danger in the house. Reducing the frequency of commercials would not only improve the pacing but also eliminate the need for the fast forwarding effect. Also impacting the pacing are the first twenty minutes or so of the film, which are consumed by news stories mostly unrelated to the main haunted house investigation.
Despite early pacing challenges, WNUF Halloween Special culminates with a great twist. The conclusion is unpredictable but cleverly draws on elements set up earlier in the film. The action inside the haunted house is the shortest part of the film but is also the most engaging.
WNUF Halloween Special is a novel found footage film with many unique elements. Most notable is the clever delivery as a VHS recording of a 1980s live news broadcast and faux television commercials. WNUF Halloween Special is the perfect film to lighten the mood on Halloween.