It goes without saying that I’ve watched a lot of horror films over the years. Even more so, I’ve watched a lot of microbudget horror films. One of the things that I’ve tried to do over that time is champion talented young filmmakers that are out there trying to create something that not only they love, but that we love. The best part of my job is to see one of those filmmakers really step up their game and deliver an exceptional film. Baltimore-based filmmaker Chris LaMartina is one of those guys.
I’ve know Chris for quite a few years now, since I was first introduced to him by a mutual friend. I covered his debut feature Dead Teenagers for Film Threat back in May 2006. Later Chris sent me his second film Book of Lore which was an expansion on the mythology he created in Dead Teenagers. Both of those films were good, but not great—featuring interesting characterizations, smart dialogue and quality camera set-ups, but suffering from the same problem most no-budget mavericks encounter—no money = poor quality. But you could see the spark there and LaMartina was only just out of his teens at the time so it was easy to be forgiving of his few faults. As the years have gone by his passion for making movies has never wavered. I even remember getting an e-mail from him on MySpace or Facebook notifying all his friends that he was selling off his entire VHS horror collection to fund his next film. That’s dedication people…and…although it shows a fierce desire to make movies, the feat would have been much more frivolous if it has been done by a less talented director. As it stands LaMartina has talent to spare. It’s the cash that keeps eluding him.
Flash forward to 2009 and LaMartina is back, this time, he’s taken a love of horror that begat that entire collection of 1980’s VHS tapes and transfixed it on homaging the genre. With his latest feature President’s Day, the Maryland native has finally transcended (for the most part) the foibles of being broke and making movies.
Everybody loves a good slasher film. Hell…most of us even like a bad slasher film. President’s Day continues a long tradition of holiday horror. This time the film is set around a high school election, where the candidates keep turning up dead—the result of an ax to the extremities courtesy of a rubber masked Abraham Lincoln maniac. The set up is simple and the payoff is satisfying, but it’s the scope of the production that really sets this film apart.
Where most no-budget filmmakers are hampered by nonexistent sets, or remote cabin in the woods locations with minimal cast and crew, LaMartina has brought a virtual studio-level production quality to his film. He’s got tons of principal actors—who can actually act—portraying students, police officers, teachers and administrators. Plus, he’s got an actual school campus populated by hundreds of student extras (not the usual hallway scene with 5 background players) to work with—and he shows much aplomb in utilizing the scope to the films advantage. But all that would mean very little if it wasn’t executed in service of a quality script. Fortunately scripting is where LaMartina really shines. His film is satirical without being overly self-aware. Its touches and tones of Election meets Psycho Beach Party wink and nudge but never push. It doesn’t necessarily play with conventions as much as it embraces them and allows them to act out their natural courses of progression. And finally, it has its red herrings on the line, but the final reveal is still something of a happy and gratifying surprise.
The only real problem the film suffers (and truly this is where the lack of budget shows) is in the special effects department. While the film is populated with the requisite amount of blood and boobs, it’s a shame that some of the FX work comes off as even less natural than a certain pair of breasts in the film. Chris does a fair job at cutting around a few of the lesser gags, but, with a film that takes place mostly in broad daylight it’s hard to disguise all the flaws in the lackluster gore gags—a problem that is actually exacerbated by the fact that the film is so well made. Still, considering what the filmmaker had to work with, shoddy FX work is the only hallmark that this was a film made for peanuts. That’s something I can forgive, even if I can’t exactly forget it.
LaMartina’s film premieres in Baltimore on February 15th (look up the date, if you don’t get it) and I expect that like Book of Lore and Dead Teenagers before it, it will only be a matter of time—and a distribution deal that hopefully will put more than a few pennies back into the directors pocket—before the film is available on DVD for the rest of you lucky gorehounds to check out.
The way I see it, President’s Day is a quantum leap forward for a fledgling filmmaker who has proven over the last 4-years that he’s more than capable making quality films for less. Now, if he could just get a little bit more money for his next feature, maybe he can solve the FX issues and, perhaps, even buy back some of those precious VHS tapes he sold off.