As of this writing, WNUF Halloween Special has just over 300 ratings on IMDB, with only eight users having bothered to leave a review. It’s about time this situation be rectified. WNUF is a magnificent and underlooked horror treat that is unquestionably worthy of joining your October viewing schedule right alongside Trick ‘r Treat and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. It’s concise, spooky, festive, nostalgic, and deserves to become a new cult classic.
Originally released in 2013, WNUF is presented as if we are watching a VHS recording of an old news broadcast from the 1980s. In this case, it’s the Halloween special of a local station called WNUF, and as part of their special, not-so-fearless reporter Frank Stewart will pay a visit to a haunted house and hold a live seance. From there, as you can imagine, antics ensue that call to mind the British mockumentary Ghostwatch.
Director Chris LaMartina is firmly committed to ensuring that WNUF never breaks from the format or clues you into the fact that modern filmmakers are behind the production. This will be frustrating to some viewers because here’s the catch: since we’re theoretically watching a TV show, the entire movie is filled with commercials. Lots and lots and lots of commercials; the ad breaks in between segments last for about as long as they genuinely would if this were the news.
They aren’t real ads, but one could easily be fooled. LaMartina and his crew produced dozens of convincing faux ‘80 commercials and, with one or two exceptions, never is there a wink to the audience. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tried something similar with Grindhouse, peppering their double feature with fake trailers. But as fun as those were, each was so over the top as to be more of a goofy tribute than a faithful recreation. WNUF avoids playing up the ridiculousness of local advertising for the sake of comedy. Instead, the goal is to imitate it as accurately as possible.
This obsession with realism extends to the picture quality as well. Movies like Paranormal Activity 3 and V/H/S are supposedly being shown on old tapes, but they’re still filmed in high definition so that the audience doesn’t have to suffer through grainy footage for 90 minutes. LaMartina takes the opposite approach, going out of his way to have the movie look as terrible as possible. The entirety of WNUF is presented in 4:3 and in VHS quality, and the filmmakers actually re-recorded the movie on VHS several times in order to capture the aesthetic of an extremely degraded tape.
The realism isn’t just a gimmick; it’s the whole reason the movie works. Even if you know that WNUF is fictional, just try not getting sucked in and forgetting that fact by the half-hour mark. It’s as if the grainy old footage and the cheesy furniture commercials somehow hypnotize us, with LaMartina quietly whispering, “You’re watching an ‘80s show. You’re watching an ‘80s show…” When the action starts, as tame as it might be, it’s shocking because LaMartina has successfully placed us into the mindset of casually watching the news rather than actively watching a horror film.
This is essentially the goal of most movies that are presented as genuine, whether they’re found footage or mockumentary style. But few manage to go very long without unintentionally shattering the sense of reality, whether it’s with awkward expository dialogue or unrealistic use of technology. WNUF is one of the only films of this kind that never takes shortcuts, even if the sacrifice is that the pacing is hardly ideal.
Indeed, the buildup to the exploration of the haunted house is incredibly drawn out, as is the case with real newscasts that aim to keep viewers tuned in by continuously teasing and delaying the main event. But there’s plenty in WNUF to keep us entertained until the house portion, and the movie does a nice job planting the seeds of the finale into the opening act. The fact that these filmmakers have crafted a news broadcast in three acts without making it feel like a movie at all is rather impressive.
Putting aside the plot for a moment, the atmosphere is at least half of the reason WNUF is worth your time. Not that many movies are actually centered around Halloween, which is exactly what we’re looking for towards the end of October. We don’t just want a good horror movie. We need a good Halloween movie, one populated by glowing Jack O’Lanterns, cobwebs, scary masks, candy, and all one associates with the most wonderful time of year for horror freaks. Only a handful of films fall into that category, including Trick ‘r Treat, Tales of Halloween, Night of the Demons, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and the unforgettable final segment of V/H/S.
WNUF Halloween Special is right at home among these classics. The news anchors, who deliver their evening broadcast in costume, are quite enthusiastic about the holiday, decorating the entire set in a way that would make Roseanne Barr proud. It’s all delightfully cheesy, with skulls taped all over the walls and a pumpkin with “WNUF” carved in it adorning the desk, and during the bumpers, lightning strikes outside a creepy house and blood drips down the screen. The Halloween-fueled joy is practically bursting out of the picture.
Even a lot of the commercials will get you into the spirit. There’s one for a local pumpkin patch, one for a Halloween makeup kit, and whatever else you’d expect to see over the airwaves towards the end of October. Heck, there are even a few political attack ads, as this was apparently broadcast during an election year. If nothing else, WNUF is the perfect movie to throw on in the background at a Halloween party in order to set the right mood. Though the picture quality is so horrible, WNUF still manages to be a visual treat.
But all of this effort would have gone to waste if the actors didn’t knock it out of the park. Just one awkwardly delivered line could ruin the experience and suddenly remind us we’re in 2016, as if we are being ripped out of a good dream far too early. It’s for that reason that it can’t be overstated how fantastic of a performance Paul Fahrenkopf delivers in WNUF Halloween Special.
Fahrenkopf plays the main anchor, Frank Stewart, who takes the camera crew with him into the haunted house, and he is perhaps the greatest fictional news anchor in the history of horror. This guy nails the transition from cheesy local journalist playing up a goofy story into a frantic and seriously concerned man trying to remain professional and hold it together. He’s our tour guide through all of this madness, and a great one at that; never do we doubt a single word out of his mouth.
To delve much deeper into the plot would be to unnecessarily spoil a film that, it seems, remains unspoiled to the overwhelming majority of the public. But don’t take this passionate recommendation as a claim that the movie is without flaws. It has its issues, though they’re all relatively minor.
For one, at certain points the tape we’re watching begins to fast forward. At first we figure this will be LaMartina’s way of skipping over sections of the newscast that aren’t vital to the story. Yet later, when we’re at the height of the drama and any viewer would naturally skip the commercials, the fast-forwarding stops. Why? What happened? If someone was fast-forwarding before, why wouldn’t they be doing so now?
And it really can’t be stressed enough how bothersome the commercials will likely be to most people, especially in the second half. The action will start, only for the movie to cut to several minutes of commercials and leave us hanging. It’s comparable to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla continuously cutting away from the titular monster. Once or twice is okay, but the third, fourth and fifth time, it’s just annoying.
With WNUF, though, we soon begin to realize the brilliance of this, and however frustrating the commercials are, they function as an effective way of drawing out the tension of a scenario that is honestly not that exciting on paper. Our heart beats out of control for the duration of each commercial break as we wonder what terrors will await us when the newscast returns, kind of like how Paranormal Activity 3 places the camera on a fan and pans away from the action during key moments. Most of the commercials are technically superfluous in terms of plot, yet at the same time, they are utterly essential.
WNUF Halloween Special is definitely a movie that must be watched under the right circumstances. This is not one to bring to a Halloween horror movie marathon, playing it for a bunch of friends after popping some popcorn. Inevitably, the group will begin to get restless, waiting for a punchline that takes an extraordinarily long time to come. WNUF is not about the minute-to-minute thrills that make for a crowd-pleasing horror film. It’s about gradually, painstakingly crafting a tone, requiring your undivided attention and willingness to play along with the bit.
The movie should instead be watched alone, late at night in complete darkness. If you don’t already do so when watching a horror film, turn off all of your electronics, creating a one-on-one connection between you and the television for the entire hour-and-a-half. No cheating by checking on Twitter during the commercial breaks. WNUF is, in a sense, playing a character, and so you need to play along with it.
Imagine yourself as a kid again, home on Halloween night after returning from trick-or-treating. You’re sifting through a bucket of candy, picking out favorites and leaving chocolate-covered wrappers all over the couch. The spooky Halloween atmosphere is still in the air; you can hear neighbors scuttling by and children laughing, yet your own plans for the evening have come to an end. You switch on the TV just for some background noise, leaving on the evening news because you’re too lazy to find the remote. Now, let the movie do its thing, and if the cinematic magic trick works right, you might just come out the other end feeling like you’re stepping out of a terrifying time warp.
Isn’t that, in a sense, what we’re all searching for this time of year? It’s hard to recapture as adults that childlike excitement that comes with exploring the town on October 31st, dressed fully in costume and sensing a subtle bit of danger around you. As a child still barely starting to wrap your brain around how the world works, it’s not inconceivable that ghosts, witches and demons could be lurking around any corner.
But as we grow up, that nervous fear is gradually replaced by an ironic detachment from it all, as “2 spooky 4 me” gifs of dancing skeletons are reblogged and as we go to Halloween parties that are pretty much just regular parties with some orange lights and pumpkins throw in. But film allows us to once again experience how Halloween used to feel, placing us into a universe as terrifying and unrealistic as the one we imagined could exist when we were young.
WNUF is barely even a movie in the traditional sense, but as a way of brightening up your October and reminding you what the holiday was once like, it works absolute wonders. It’s like injecting a dose of pure Halloween. Just as you might go into storage and break out the colored lights and spooky decorations each October, this year, break out WNUF Halloween Special.