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Red Tape

Local horror filmmakers Chris LaMartina and Jimmy George bring their celebration of VHS’s idiosyncratic qualities to Artscape

Photo: Rarah, License: N/A

Rarah

Chris LaMartina, left, and Jimmy George created VHS/VIP as part of Artscape’s roadside attractions


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Local filmmaker Chris LaMartina, 27, sits on the front porch of his Hampden home with Jimmy George, 31, his filmmaking partner since 2007’s Book of Lore. They’ve made four features since—“The only reason we didn’t make five is because I got married,” George admits—but they haven’t shot anything since they wrapped Witch’s Brew in 2010. They trade jokes with the firecracker bursts of collaborating writers, and they’re itching for a new project, but like filmmakers working with a core ensemble, their lives have matured with their craft. They have a screenplay and a tentative fundraising plan for their next horror comedy, which has the 1,000-karat title Call Girl of Cthulu, but they’re eyeing their biggest budget yet: $50,000.

“Everybody has grown up with us, doing their part on our films, and now they’re at a point where they’re doing it professionally,” George says. “They need to be paid. They’re older now.”

With age comes personal reassessment, and both George and LaMartina confess that Brew was rough: Was the payoff for their biggest feature to date about 300 people seeing it at the Charles on a weekday night? They wondered if it was going to be their last movie, if everyday life realities were going to squash creative desires—until LaMartina starting revisiting his childhood. For the upcoming Artscape program VHS/VIP, an exploration of VHS movies that includes local filmmakers Kristen Anchor, the 48 Hour Film Project’s Rob Hatch, and others, LaMartina made a video mixtape of his favorite scenes from videos.

“It reminded me why I fell in love with making movies in the first place,” he says. “This whole idea of deck-to-deck editing, there’s something so primal about it. Video seems more real because you’re used to seeing home movies. It’s more visceral.”

The Artscape program coincided with George and LaMartina’s consideration of making a found-footage movie—The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, etc.—even though neither is a fan of the genre. They folded the idea into a re-investigation of 1980s mass culture. As children of the 1980s, they’ve always paid homage to the era’s horror auteurs; now they’re revisiting the time period’s blatant TV localism. Independent local stations still existed in the 1980s, and while their staffs opted for poor quality content to fill it, it was idiosyncratic.

“What things became convention and motif because they were being overused?” LaMartina asks. “Those are the things that enter into our cultural mythology. The local TV horror host, the Saturday morning cartoon show host, those people are really important in the grand scheme of where our culture went at those times. There’s not as much commonality now.”

Important in the sense of foreign and domestic policy? No. Important in the sense of people’s relationship to the media they consume? Yes. LaMartina says he went to a VHS convention in Pennsylvania recently, and that horror fans covet the big-box movies of the 1980s that digital playback and delivery has sidelined. “It’s like vinyl,” LaMartina says, comparing videos to LPs. “Kids were nerding out, dropping $80 on a tape of [1988 grade-Z horror flick] 555. Why are you talking about how mint this tape is?”

Such fetishization feels inevitable. Though digital filmmaking was pioneered by DIY auteurs, the past decade has witnessed its ascent to industry standard, from production through distribution. There are solid economic reasons for that, but it’s no longer the underdog’s tool alone. Re-exploring a “dead” format is part of any art’s ongoing revolution. It’s why small music labels around the country are putting out cassettes these days: When The Man zigs, zag.

George and LaMartina do just that with WNUF Halloween Special, the working title of their found-footage project. The premise: it’s an old VHS tape somebody made of an East Coast TV station’s 1987 Halloween news coverage that follows a local TV news journalist taking cameras and some paranormal experts into a house that’s been closed since a murder occurred there 15 years ago. Obviously, the proverbial/literal hell breaks loose once that happens, and the broadcast is broken up throughout by era-appropriate commercials, currently being made by LaMartina and George’s filmmaking friends around the country. It’s a collaborative project in ways that films rarely are. They plan to shoot it in two days. They’re shooting their own commercials and repurposing 1980s B-roll footage given to them into spots. (Note: If you’re a commercial filmmaker from the 1980s with unused footage, let them know.) And they’re aiming to pull it off for $1,000 or less.

It’s a project that weds the passion for the craft with what ignited the impulse to try in the first place, and both George and LaMartina have worked long enough to need this push outside their comfort zones. “You look at the horror films of the 1980s—George Romero, John Carpenter—their influences are based around the 1950s, the Comic Book Code [of 1954], EC Comics,” LaMartina says. “For people making horror films now, their influences are being children of the video store. We were renting all the weird splatter tapes and all the horror comedies and stuff like that. So this idea of video being that dirty secret is what’s making [WNUF Halloween Special]. Why this is a 1987 period piece is because you romanticize the past, obviously, but I think so much of horror is based around the psychological principle of the return of the repressed. [The 1980s are] an era of our childhood. It’s hazy. It’s way more mysterious.”

Want to satisfy your VHS craving now? Can’t wait for the release of WNUF Halloween Special? You can see LaMartina’s video mixtape at VHS/VIP, which is part of Artscape’s Roadside Attractions.

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