WNUF Halloween Special is one of the best “found footage” films the horror genre has produced in years, which is kind of grim because it was released in 2013. It doesn’t really matter if the premise has had every drop of ingenuity and decent story-telling wrung out of it. If it worked once, why not keep doing it until not even the mafia will finance your film? Given my dim view of other films that mine this vein, the only reason I selected this film on Shudder is because I was doing mindless chores and wanted some background noise. Five minutes in, I understood this wasn’t just another V/H/S. So I stopped it so I could watch it later and pay attention, and forced Mr. OTC to watch it with me. Good times. (By the way, I could only find this on Shudder and couldn’t find it elsewhere to stream, sorry.)
The premise is fairly simple: The news station on WNUF, Channel 28, in some northern town some time in the 1980s is hosting the “first live on TV seance.” We are watching a VHS video someone recorded of the news program that aired right before the Halloween special, wherein we learn about this little town and all its problems. Periodically, the film fast forwards through repetitive or uninteresting sections, mimicking what we all used to do when we recorded network television back in the day, placing the audience in the role of an active viewer of the tape. Interspersed throughout the news and the later seance special, we see commercials that are so absolutely true to 1980s concerns, mores, cultural issues and consumer habits that it was hard not to cringe at how awful the 80s really were. The program for the seance begins after the news, and the audience learns that a son slaughtered his parents in the house, and a couple who are paranormal investigators, a hapless priest, an oily reporter and a cat find out that the dead should be the least of anyone’s concerns.
The only way to discuss this film is to recount both the plot and the running commentary Mr. OTC and I engaged in, as we were delighted and utterly appalled by how much this film got completely right, balancing perfectly between retro cringe and upbeat nostalgia, lampooning and lauding the 1980s. I’ll swap back and forth between the plot and the best of the commercials, but know that if I could explore every commercial without writing a novella-length discussion, I would.
The film begins with a fast forward through commercials, some of which are helpful PSAs (“Wait! Stop! Think! There’s nothing sexy about STDs!”) and then the news begins. We meet hosts Gavin Gordon, looking like a young Fred Willard in a vampire costume, and Deborah Merritt, with perfect mom makeup, wearing a witch hat and a saccharine smile.
First thing they tell us about is the upcoming special with reporter Frank, and make terrible Halloween jokes. “No, you didn’t tune into the Transylvania Public Access station,” Gavin says. Then they give a rundown of the evening’s news stories: a religious organization is praying for the end of Halloween because Satan is bad, the ads in the governor’s race are getting dirty, and they announce Frank Stewart is going to take us along as he traipses through a murder house.
Mr. OTC: Did you see that smile and little shrug she gave him. You know that wasn’t on the cue cards. He’s ad libbing and she hates him. I bet he even bounced the whole Transylvanian cable access joke off her beforehand and she told him she’d strangle him if he did it and he did it anyway to piss her off.
Me: Really? I got the impression those two are having an extramarital affair. That’s weird sexual tension, I think.
Mr. OTC: No reason it can’t be both.
A pumpkin patch is advertising pumpkins and cider, complete with banjo music. I now think this is a midwestern town, like maybe somewhere in Michigan or maybe the cleaner parts of Indiana. Jokes are made about being out of their gourds because their prices are so low.
Me: If you repeat any of these dumb dad jokes after this film, I swear to god…
Next commercial is an advert for a local reading club. These commercials all use footage from the 1980s. That gives it that extra oomph because when filmmakers try to recreate the 1980s it all just comes out like a neon-Madonna-Bon Jovi-Motley Crue groupie-preppie with big bangs mishmash because all they do is focus on 80s youth culture. Not this film. All the moms back then had poofy hair and enormous tortoise shell glasses, wore crepe blouses and pantyhose and this commercial nails the aspirational, suburban look of middle-class 1980s adults.
God, I am wracked with nostalgia and miss my mom.
Jesus, there is some savage commentary in these commercials. One commercial for orange juice is harking back to the links between Tang orange powdered beverage drink and astronauts, and the location of NASA in Florida, among all the orange groves. Moving back and forth between images of juicy oranges and orange drink poured into a glass and a space shuttle getting ready to lift off, a bottle of orange drink explodes like the doomed Challenger.
Later, an airline called Epsilon Airlines discusses how reliable they are, emphasizing their first class service and lavish meals, flashing to an image of the World Trade Center buildings, among several cosmopolitan destinations, proclaiming: We’re not going anywhere.
Back to the news. Officer Howard Bookwalter has some tips to keep your kids safe on Halloween! Among them: Don’t let a stranger or the guy that drives the ice cream truck take them trick or treating! Make sure you check the candy so your kid doesn’t eat some AIDS by accident. Mercifully the fast-forward begins and at the end of the safety instructions, Deborah says that Officer Bookwalter urges us to call the police if we see any suspicious activity. This is a town in the grips of the Satanic Panic, a fear that kids are mainlining battery acid and smoking crack behind the supermarket, and a sneaking suspicion that maybe pumping industrial waste in the water supply could be causing some problems. They can only solve two of these issues: can you guess which ones they focus on?
Me: Is this foreshadowing? Will the townsfolk be so consumed with fear that they call the police constantly and no one is there to save Frank when shit goes down at the seance?
Mr. OTC: Maybe the Christians upset at Halloween will come save him.
Me: That would be a heartwarming twist, wouldn’t it. The freewheeling journalist is saved by the conservative Christians and they realize we’re not so different, you and me.
“Deborah, what’s a vampire’s worst nightmare?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Gavin? Sunlight?”
“Uh uh, tooth decay.”
“Oh…” Both chuckle and Deborah gives that little shrug and adds a small head shake and a little piece of her dies. Segue into a segment where the local dentist offers to buy back candy and offers tips to keep kids from losing their teeth. “No kid needs to eat five pounds of chocolate,” the dentist says as the voice over makes puns over fighting cavities tooth and nail.
Me: Okay, you’re right, she fucking hates him. That head shake when he delivers the punchline is pure loathing.
Mr. OTC: I can always tell when a woman wants a man to shut the fuck up.
The news continues. They look back on Halloween a year ago, remembering the horror when a local resident with PTSD from Vietnam shoots an Asian boy and is now on death row. The boy’s mother sobs and wishes she hadn’t let him dress as GI Joe. An unhinged Christian woman goes on at length about how devils and goblins are going to get us all because kids trick or treat and now we’re all going to open a vortex to hell with our sinful candy-acquisitions. A chubby black man dressed as a cowboy does the weather, mostly on fast forward. It reminded us both of this:
Gubernatorial candidates trash each other because one is evidently blocking environmental reform and the other is cheating on his wife.
As an aside, Mr. OTC and I both are feeling very weird because we did not watch this film to remember the terrible late night television programs, the rundown malls, the arcade, the weird sense of unease that permeated everything. It’s kind of like watching the first season of Stranger Things, before Bob broke our hearts in the second season and I will not watch the third because I was Team Steve and fuck Jonathan’s gross hair.
Sorry, but yeah, I yelled all that at Mr. OTC at one point.
Okay, I’m getting bogged down and need to skip the rest of the news and commercials until we get to the haunted house seance thing.
Mr. OTC: Which one was Steve?
Okay, so during the news, we get an introduction to the program. “Twenty years ago, the Webber house in Riverhill Township was the site of ghastly depravity.” Frank Stewart wants to take us on a tour of this “supposedly haunted estate” alongside the crack team of paranormal experts he has on the case. Camera pans to a late-middle age or maybe early-elderly couple and it’s here that my heart sings because they are clearly a parody of Ed and Lorraine Warren. I say this every time they come up: they were frauds but they were excellent frauds and I have read every book they wrote and am very sad they are gone because they had game.
And it’s cool that the Warrens are being harked back to because this house is clearly referencing the DeFeo house. Ronald DeFeo killed his whole family, Ronald Webber killed his parents, Ed and Lorraine helped the Lutz family after they bought the DeFeo house and it became the Amityville Horror, and now this frumpy couple is going to help run to ground the spirits or demons in this house.
And Mr. OTC nailed it – Deborah really does hate Gavin. So do we.
Mr. OTC: Did you see the look she just gave him. This is a subplot within a larger plot because I bet the evil spirits climb inside her and make her kill him the next time he makes a bad pun.
Me: This is proving to be surprisingly complex speculation for a cheesy found footage movie that fast forwards through the carpet store commercials.
Mr. OTC: Not all of them…
So let’s just get to the beginning of the seance program. Silly stuff happens as Frank Stewart’s producer Veronica makes him engage in crowd work, asking questions of the people who have gathered in anticipation of being on scene when demons or goblins or whatever the hell are summoned or driven out or whatever is about to happen. Veronica, clad in an electric blue silk jumpsuit, leaps from the station van and pretends to be a maniac with a real chainsaw. A religious nut races at Frank and screams at him about blasphemy or some such.
Me: Frank hates the assembled crowd almost as much as Deborah hates Gavin.
Mr. OTC: Oh man, up until now everyone’s line delivery has been close to perfect. And now Veronica is ruining it all.
Me: Yeah, she sounds pretty stilted.
Mr. OTC: She reminds of one of the dark-haired girlfriends in Clerks. Just stilted enough to be off but not so bad you feel vindicated in wanting to see her die, too.
Me: I wonder if this is set in New Jersey. Maybe this is a weird homage to Kevin Smith because wasn’t one of the girlfriends in Clerks named Veronica?
At one point I realize that some of these commercials remind me of the commercials in the Intergalactic Cable episodes of Rick and Morty. The carpet store sounds almost identical in cadence and tone to the Real Fake Doors commercial, which is itself a parody of the ads that inspired the film’s carpet commercial.
FINALLY we get the injury lawyer commercials, and again they nail it because such commercials were very serious and earnest in the 80s. It wasn’t until the 90s and the explosion of exploitative daytime talk shows that the ads became super corny. There’s also some Computer Tech Institute-type ads, but the best in this bunch is the tax prep commercial wherein a man using what may be a Commodore 64 determines the hapless couple before him owes over $21,000 in taxes.
Then the best commercial of the night: the zoo video: Windup Wildlife
Me: Jesus, what is wrong with that elephant?
Mr. OTC: That is the fattest fucking llama I’ve ever seen.
Me: It’s… it’s so fat it’s bowlegged.
Mr. OTC: Why is there a panda rolling around in a midwestern front yard?
Me: Wait, the video is a compilation of these sad animals so parents don’t have to deal with going to the zoo on a rainy day? Or worry about their shitty kids pitching a fit because the lion is asleep and won’t roar for them?
Mr. OTC: (silently watches as clearly miserable sheep and penguins and inexplicably a giraffe roll across the screen)
Me: I keep telling myself, this is only a film, this is only a film…
So Frank, whose career can surely sink no lower, begins the live walk-through. He explains that Donald Webber found a “spirit board” in the attic of the house and he claimed spirits from the board made him kill his parents with an axe. The house has been empty for 20 years and the police are certain the house is infested by the spirits of the dead. He introduces Louis and Claire Berger, the Great Value Ed and Lorraine.
But wait, it gets better! Louis, who demands to be called Dr. Berger, is clutching an adorable gray cat named Shadow. Shadow is not their pet – he’s a fully vested partner in their paranormal business and Claire kind of needs him to help her talk to the dead because cats are super reliable in tense situations involving possible demons.
Mr. OTC: That cat is gonna spring out of the doctor’s arms and wreck Frank.
Me: I think that may have almost happened. Louis literally has the cat in a choke-hold.
Mr. OTC: If Shadow dies, we riot.
1-900 lines. Jesus Christ I forgot about them. Thank god we’re free from that sort of time-wasting telephonic tyranny these days, am I right?
Frank and the Bergers and Shadow enter the house and Shadow is not happy. His tail is thrashing, his eyes are nothing but pupil and I really hope he does, in fact, leap onto Frank, mainly because Frank is salty and so far the best thing in this film aside from Deborah’s smiling rage and that shockingly obese llama. Claire declares the house is evil, she feels horrible things, and then it happens! Shadow leaps out of Dr. Berger’s arms and races up the stairs and I swear this was probably not scripted, like it happened for real, and everyone goes racing up the stairs after the cat.
Then we meet the priest Joseph Matheson, whom Frank will bully into exorcising the house. Father Matheson is very uneasy and I am not spoiling anything when I tell you he wets his pants near the end.
Now we have a PSA commercial about the dangers of spin the bottle as a gateway activity that will, of course, lead to injecting heroin straight into your neck.
The Great Value Warrens get an EVP telling them all to get out of the house. They hear creepy unexplained noises. They descend downstairs to go to the basement, where evidently the murders occurred, and hopefully they will find Shadow. Except they get down to the first floor and find all their equipment has been damaged and the elderly couple are beyond annoyed. Frank bullies Father Matheson some more and the more exorcisms are mentioned, the more nervous Father Matheson becomes. Commercial break, then Veronica comes on and assures us the damaged equipment was unscripted and even though everyone is scared the show must go on. The seance begins but they let people call in live and it’s predictably horrible as the callers are either making fun of the show or insisting that everyone there is going to hell. Without Shadow to help her, Claire has trouble getting clear messages. All she knows is that evil is there and it wants justice, which really makes sense if you think about it.
I was wrong. The best commercial is the FEEL THE STEEL heavy metal compilation on cassette, issued by Borden Wax. Featuring the songs:
JAXXON – Ours Is the Night to Take
DUST DEVILS – Two Kinds of Love (Turn Around)
PYROFYRE – Couple Skate
KARBORATEUR – Pumping the Brakes on You
D.E.F.K.O.N. – Beasts of Passion
NORTHERN AGGRESSION – Confederate Dollars
EPISTLE WHIP – Love Is a Bloody Axe (Megan)
KANNABYL – Tuxedo Shark
WANTED – Heaven Is Afraid
R.O.T.O.R. – Poisoned Blood
and many more…
Okay, so they go to the basement and they find Shadow. He’s mostly liquid.
Mr. OTC: Goddamn it.
Me: Poor Shadow.
Mr. OTC: He didn’t even get a chance to crap on the stairs or tear that mustache right off Frank’s face.
The camera crew “accidentally” shows the liquefied cat, necessitating Veronica to apologize, emphasizing that the film crew didn’t kill the cat, much like they didn’t wreck the Berger’s equipment. While Frank restores calm, Veronica is forced to break and play the earlier news segment about the candy buy-back.
Mr. OTC: Wait, is that dentist missing teeth?
Thankfully the fast forward begins and we don’t have to look that closely.
We’re back and Frank reiterates that no one meant to show the dead cat, no one on his team killed the cat, and he bullies the priest to exorcise the house. Father Matheson is shocked to the core, almost mute with terror. He hems and haws and the show breaks to a program Veronica did about Satanism plaguing this town with all their animal sacrifices and graffiti, and we return to Frank still bullying the priest, who finally agrees to exorcise the house.
The Shining Trapeze is a strip bar that has a “Legs and Eggs” morning special. The local video store has an adult section. And there’s a popcorn ad that is weirdly sexual. PSA: Suicide is not the answer.
So we’re in the basement with Father Matheson and Frank, the last men standing because the Bergers understandably have had enough. Father Matheson is terrified and Frank bullies him some more and he begins the exorcism, but stops when they hear a sound upstairs, and try to leave the basement only to find they are locked in. Contact with Veronica is shaky, Frank loses it and begins to scream for help. Veronica sends in a hapless intern to open the door but Connor, who has serious post-nasal drip, meets a terrible end.
What happens to Frank and Father Matheson? What makes the priest wet himself? Who locked the door? Was it really locked or was Frank really incompetent? Is Deborah’s carefully veiled hatred for Gavin going to boil over? Did Shadow decide to end it all and use telekinesis to blow himself up? I’m going to stop here because I don’t think I’ve spoiled it yet so you should go watch it and answer these questions for yourself.
Me: We forgot to riot.
Mr. OTC: I firmly believe Shadow chose his own end. We have to honor that.