The Golden Abe of Horror
Local filmmaker Chris LaMartina delivers a mash note to 1980s horror flicks with President's Day
The face of horror in 2010 is comprised largely of elaborate methods and situations for killing people in increasingly convoluted, increasingly painful ways. Plot? A waste of time. Character? Ditto. Humor, self-reference? Modern movie viewers can't handle violence and comedy together, right? That's the message major studios and their late 2000s output of "torture porn" offers, anyhow--a bleak, heartless, and cynical mask of movies such as the Saw and Hostel series, or The Last House on the Left remake.
And it's a face that strikes a nerve with Chris LaMartina, a young Baltimore filmmaker responsible for a steady stream of throwback '80s slasher movies. "I'm not a fan of the resurgence of the realistic horror stuff that's come out, the torture porn," he says over coffee recently at a Mount Vernon café. "I don't go to the movies to be depressed--I go to the movies to be entertained. You don't care about the characters at all. Even though the kills are sometimes inventive, I don't think films like that are fun. I just don't see the point in it."
LaMartina's latest movie, President's Day, is a fun, wickedly entertaining slasher romp that makes his argument better than words. It reduces nicely to a sentence--a killer in an Abraham Lincoln mask is offing candidates in a high school election, and everyone is a suspect--and that's exactly the point, according to LaMartina. "I've always made these films that are atmospheric and rich in mythology," he says. "But you can't describe it in a sentence, and that is detrimental as a film maker. People have no attention span anymore. Myself included. Guilty as charged. I don't want to sit through a three-hour movie."
It's not stated in any official sense, but President's Day plays out as a deep and very retro homage to not just '80s slasher flicks, but teen-ensemble movies. These are characters you know, and aren't necessarily done with. Chunky comic-relief Dennis (think Stand By Me's Vern); brooding goth Michelle (The Breakfast Club's Allison); tight-lipped precocious Chelsea (Election's grating Tracy Flick). And in the middle is Barry, the likeable, level-headed, and sort of offbeat answer to Paul Rudd's Josh in Clueless.
And many meet their end with an ax, of course. "I love ensemble-cast films," LaMartina says. "I love leaving a movie and being able to ask, 'What was your favorite character?' I love a spectrum of different things--a potpourri of dismemberment, so to speak."
President's Day cost a relatively piddling $5,000 to make, most of that going to food for the crew, according to LaMartina. The movie is his and co-producer/co-writer Jimmy George's honed stab at making a marketable film. And that's not a stab at the big time as most filmmakers understand it--a widespread theatrical release or large-scale distribution deal--but, "I want it to get into the hands of people that aren't actively seeking it out," he says. "I want it to be on shelves so people can see that it's out there.
"We know it's marketable," he continues. "The chief concern was money. We really had no money to do anything. We wanted to do something more marketable in the sense that it would play well with a niche of horror fans. Similar to Grindhouse. I wanted to do, like, three 40-minute films [together]. I wanted to do each around a holiday, like President's Day, Valentine's Day, Groundhog Day, something silly like that. But Jimmy thought that the idea of President's Day was too good to just be a 40-minute film. [Lincoln's] so iconic. He's creepy looking."
Back to that 5K budget: The amount is laughably small. Clerks, held up so often as a pinnacle of ultra-low budget indie filmmaking, cost more than five times that, and was star- and special-effects free, had one setting, and a fraction of the cast. President's Day has 27 speaking parts, nearly 100 extras, and took over a Baltimore-area high school for two weeks last summer. (LaMartina hesitates to give up the name of the school, but its procurement was largely due to a "favor.") He calls the scheduling "a nightmare."
"Luckily, everyone was super-supportive," he says. "Jimmy really came through. He is an amazing producer.
"When we'd shoot in people's houses and we'd have to cover the walls in plastic wrap," LaMartina remembers, "even still, we'd get blood on the paint job. It's like Murphy's Law--you're always going to get blood on something."
As LaMartina reads through a list of his horror favorites--the Sleepaway Camp trilogy, Fright Night--he nearly beams with affection for horror. He notes, however, that last summer he won third place in the Baltimore Screenwriting Competition, for a romantic comedy. "We have these ideas for other movies," he says, "but, honestly, when was last time you saw a no-budget comedy with no stars? It's really hard to make a marketable film without any stars. It has to be a niche film.
"Your only star in a horror film is the gore, sometimes the sex, and the monster, whether that monster is Abe Lincoln or a dinosaur. Horror films will always be a force to be reckoned with because they are very cheap to make, and they tap into a part of the human psyche.
"If I died tomorrow, I'd be happy just knowing that some dorky kid could find my first film in a thrift store 30 years from now," LaMartina continues. "I love the idea of creating stuff for people to find later on. And that's what it comes down to. I want to leave as much stuff behind as possible. I love finding like films that no one ever talks about or no one ever heard of, just to have that place in your own heart. If I can do that for someone else, then I'd be happy with that."
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