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If You Think Watching Chris LaMartina’s Low-Budget Horror Films Is Unnerving, Try Making One

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A, Created: 2010:10:02 07:48:48

Jefferson Jackson Steele


Witch’s Brew

Premieres Oct. 19 at the Charles Theatre at 7 p.m.

For more information, visit facebook.com/witchsbrewmovie

A party’s getting out of hand in a paneled basement as assorted twentysomethings guzzle beer, and down the hall a buzzed dude gets ready to get busy with a buxom babe. She takes her top off, and before you know it, he’s got her guts out and starts gnawing on them, under the influence of an evil curse. And as low-budget horror film Witch’s Brew unspools, even more comically grotesque visions unfold, all courtesy local writer/director Chris LaMartina—that’s him with the glasses in the background of the party scenes, whooping it up.

If it sounds a bit silly, it is. That’s part of the point. LaMartina, 26, grew up on ’80s horror and its mix of spurting gore, rigid formula, and tongue-in-cheek humor, and he pays loving homage to the era and its style in his own movies. But at the same time, LaMartina takes what he does seriously. Witch’s Brew, which premieres Oct. 19 at the Charles Theatre, is his fourth feature, each film shot in and around Baltimore on whatever money he and his best friend/collaborator Jimmy George could scrape together, each film requiring more work and displaying more ambition, each film earning more accolades from horror fans across the country and wider exposure. And yet, LaMartina says this could be his last film as a director. In fact, he almost didn’t make Witch’s Brew.

Sitting in a booth in a Hampden eatery, LaMartina rewinds to early 2010, right after the premiere of his previous feature, President’s Day, a classic ’80s-style slasher featuring a killer who dresses up like Abraham Lincoln. LaMartina and George, 31, had been working on movies together since 2005, learning how to make and finance projects as they went. The positive reception for President’s Day taught them a big lesson.

“Around that time we made this huge realization about [the importance of] making a film that’s high-concept, a film you can describe in a single sentence so that you can sell it really easy,” LaMartina says. “So we started coming up with titles that would lend themselves to a story.” Among those titles was Witch’s Brew, and once he began thinking about what a film called Witch’s Brew would be about, he says the answer was obvious: “Well, cursed beer. It started writing itself from there.”

Armed with a concept and LaMartina’s script about two slacker microbrewing enthusiasts who run afoul of a local coven, LaMartina and George started raising funds ($16,000, the majority of it collected via a Kickstarter online campaign), planning effects, and recruiting cast and crew. While preproduction for the film was going well, LaMartina says his life was not. He knew that his job with the Mayor’s Office of Cable and Communications (he videotaped mayoral press conferences, among other duties) was on the chopping block due to budget cutbacks; two weeks before shooting was set to begin, he was laid off. Out of work, his monthly health insurance costs shot up exponentially; he is diabetic, and so had no choice but to pay. His lack of income and higher expenses ate up his savings, scuttling plans to move to Los Angeles and forcing him to move back in with his parents. A hoped-for new job fell through.

LaMartina recalls that one morning, early in the shoot, “I was sitting with Jimmy at a Wendy’s getting breakfast, and I just said, ‘I don’t think I wanna make this movie anymore.’ It was literally one of the worst periods [of my life]. [Jimmy] said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want, but give it one more day.’”

The next day, LaMartina was filming a scene in which, as he describes it, “[a] guy shits his guts out in the bathroom. So the first effects shot, where the blood hits the back of the toilet, that was the moment where I was like, What am I worried about? For the first time in my life I’m full-time making a horror movie. All I want to do with my life is tell stories, so I was like, Fuck it, I need to live it up.” The rest of the 30-day shoot wasn’t always easy, but LaMartina powered through with the help of a supportive cast and crew. “Immediately after that day, it was like Delta Force assembled,” he says with a laugh.

The resulting film tells the story of two young guys (Chris Magorian and Gary-Kayi Fletcher) who run over a black cat who happens to be a member of a clutch of local witches in feline form. One of the witches casts a curse over their freshly bottled batch of Slacker Lager, which they go ahead and distribute. As the malign suds get consumed, the curse works on the imbibers in a long series of individualized and gruesome ways that make the most of vivid digital color.

Witch’s Brew doesn’t represent a stylistic leap over LaMartina’s previous work, but it is more ambitious. “It’s like President’s Day on steroids,” he specifies. “President’s Day has 20 speaking roles, 19 death scenes, two nude scenes. Witch’s Brew has over 40 death scenes or practical makeup effects, 40 speaking roles, three nude scenes. Those are the things that make it viable in the niche horror market.”

And concern over making a viable movie gets at why Witch’s Brew could be LaMartina’s last film as a director. It’s not as if he doesn’t want to make movies for their own sake or entertain the people who watch them, but as he says, “I learned really quickly that if I don’t think about the back end—marketing—then I’m making movies for myself.”

He’s lucky in his choice of enthusiasms: Horror is among the few genres of film with a devoted enough fan base that making an inexpensive film and making a profit on it is merely unlikely rather than all but impossible. Yet horror’s relative profitability has led to a glutted market—“Everybody and their brother is making a horror movie,” LaMartina says—and the recession and the continuing uncertainty about how theatrical distribution and the DVD market will weather the rise of streaming, not to mention bit-torrent downloads, make it harder and harder to earn a return on even a modest budget. Despite securing DVD distribution deals for all of his films (though the planned DVD of President’s Day has yet to be released), none of them have turned a profit.

“A movie I made two years ago, I found a fucking bootleg at an Exxon station,” LaMartina sputters. “It’s like, I’m not even making any money, dude! It makes me feel honored that someone felt like my stuff was worth bootlegging, but it just sucks.”

And despite his emphasis on making marketable films, the auteur in him scoffs at sheer mercenary filmmaking. “Every movie now at the studio level, even if it’s a big-budget movie, they produce it like a low-budget film—minimal characters, minimal locations,” LaMartina says. “I wanna put as much money as possible onscreen. I wanna do an ensemble piece, I wanna do multiple locations, I wanna do as many death scenes as possible.”

But even having done his most ambitious and expensive film to date, LaMartina knows that Witch’s Brew is still not ready to compete for multiplex business or Blu-ray rentals with what Hollywood considers “low-budget”—relatively slick productions made for sums literally a hundred times larger than the pot that funded Witch’s Brew.

LaMartina says the positive buzz over President’s Day led to Hollywood horror players such as the production company Ghost House (30 Days of Night, Drag Me to Hell) asking to see the film. “I wrote in the e-mail [back], like, ‘I’ll send you a screener, but this is not something you’re going to buy. We’d really like to write something for you guys, but we don’t have the resources to make movies at your budget level,’” LaMartina says. “And they checked out the movie and, sure enough, they’re like, ‘That was cool, send us your next thing.’ And my next thing will be just as cheap, or maybe a little bit more expensive, and the same thing is going to happen.”

LaMartina’s personal life eventually stabilized—he now works at a local production company—and although he says he will continue writing scripts with George no matter what, he acknowledges that he doesn’t know if it makes sense to make another no-budget feature. George says he’s “on the same page.”

“We’re older, and that has a lot to do with it,” George says by phone. “I have a house with a mortgage. I have a wife. I want kids. Chris wants to move forward with his life too. There’s a huge misperception that we somehow make money off this.” While he echoes LaMartina’s ongoing commitment to writing scripts, “I feel like making [another] small movie is not the way to go. I just don’t see the point in that. And I think he feels the same.”

“Maybe I should just shit or get off the pot and get real investors,” LaMartina says. “But I don’t know, man. That’s scary.”

He pauses for a beat, then laughs: “That’s scarier than the movies I’m making.”

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