Wow, how authentic can you get?
Well, for a fake, anyway…boy, did these kids do their research!
Earlier this summer, there was a small stirring of hype over a supposedly unearthed VHS recording from a local midwestern television network whose investigative special went horribly wrong back on Halloween 1987…
Despite my ears perking up immediately, having lived through the whole magnetic tape craze (and suffering through its eventual degradation over time), I chose to sit this one out until it actually ported over to a more durable format, namely the DVD (itself being gradually phased out, though I’m sure its shelf life will prove far superior to the fragile, vulnerable and quite intrinsically flawed tape medium it served to replace).
That time has finally arrived.
Starting off on a VHS fast forward (of which we get many throughout the program) and a number of realistically no-budget commercials, the unsuspecting viewer spends an amusingly groan inducing half hour through the cheesiness of local news of the era being striven for: the day glo yet strangely uber-conservative middle 1980s.
With surprisingly accurate advertisements and local color of the era providing a hilariously tongue in cheek yet quite nostalgic return to the zeitgeist of the times, WNUF comes replete with cheap electronic effects, VIC-20 by way of Wang computer use, Casio keyboard soundtracks, bad yuppie haircuts and shoulder padding galore.
There’s plenty of subtle (and not so subtle) digs at the AIDS paranoia and heavy handed anti-drug propaganda of the day, the wackiness of the religious right (and their all too real “war on Halloween”) and a flair for the absurd “safe” humor of the times, marked by an endless string of bad puns and generally good natured ribbing. This whole thing is so dead on, it takes a reasonably savvy viewer…or one who was there through the days it hearkens back to, to pick up on its complete artificiality.
Oh, there’s plenty of hints that all may not be as legit as it often seems. Some folks really camp it up (the head of HARVEST, some of the bystanders at the Webber house, the crank caller who curses out White Lion in favor of Iron Maiden, as metalheads of the day were wont to do). There is never a single recognizable show or product being advertised. And while they do know their 80’s syndicate TV well enough to repeat at least one or two ads during the course of the proceedings, there’s just too many unique commercials to be the real deal – cable and the syndicates were notorious for overairing their few sponsors ad nauseaum. But this is close enough to potentially fool even those who’ve been there…
Clearly influenced heavily by the goofy Geraldo Rivera fiascos and Christian scare specials of the day, directors Chris LaMartina and Shawn Jones substitute jailside visits with Manson, the unearthing of prohibition era gangster vaults and imaginary satanic ritual abuse scares at daycare centers for a more Amityville Horror motif.
One of these sort of ratings-driven ‘investigations’ unique to the era is run by network staffer Frank Stewart and his onsite producer Veronica Stanze, who bring a small news crew down to the local house with a reputation, where a young man, supposedly influenced by his obsessive use of the Ouija board, murders his family Ronald DeFeo style, claiming “the demons told him to do it”. Nearly 20 years later, the house remains unoccupied…at least until the WNUF news team pays a visit…
As we leave the comparatively “safe” confines of the newsroom and the actual onsite programming begins, the viewer is treated to their fair share of deliberately ramped up tension and ineffective minor jump scares to begin setting the scene. Frank is joined by a husband and wife team of “paranormal investigators” Lewis and Claire Burger and their cat Shadow as well as obese local parish priest Fr. Joseph Matheson, who bears a surprising secret.
Catch that one? Yes, there are numerous homages to horror-related personalities peppered throughout – “Officer (J.R.?) Bookwalter”, who lectures parents on trick or treat paranoia, “Mary Ellen (Dave?) DeCoteau,” “Gladys (Mark & John) Polonia” and the (Richard?) Mathesons being only a few among many. The whole thing is surface level enough for the uninitiated to enjoy, but savvy enough for insiders to get an extra level of entertainment out of.
While much of this is all build with little end result (or the infamous ballyhoo of selling the sizzle without delivering the steak), it’s quite a build, with the faux-authentic feel of an actual local broadcast of the era bolstering and enhancing the enjoyment of the ride, rather than providing the more standard annoying delay before the eventual payoff. Frankly, with such attention and care paid to providing a surprisingly “authentic” feel to the low rent goings on and getting that nostalgic touch just right, I’d have been perfectly happy if the denouement were as pathetic as Geraldo’s own infamous Capone vault expedition proved to be. Seriously, some of this shit is priceless.
While the ending does prove somewhat disappointing (I could have done without the inserted minute or two of torture porn, a dead giveaway of the screwed up era in which this was actually made that would never have come out of the one it claims to be from), that’s a relatively small bit of business marring what is otherwise a very enjoyable and quite nostalgic return to a more naive day and age.
Much as with Big Finish’s similarly amazing Dark Shadows audio offering Beyond the Grave, this is “found footage” and “long lost and suppressed live verite broadcasting” at its very best. In fact, it’s notable how similar the two are, and the interested reader is wholeheartedly encouraged to seek out both and compare and contrast the more pronouncedly early 70’s style of Beyond the Grave’s handling of the idea with the very 80’s take on more or less the same material here.
With the hazy, semi-pixelated visuals and somewhat distorted audio familiar to viewers of the VHS medium and era and a rather camp aesthetic that both pokes a knowing fun at and displays a deep and abiding affection towards the time and subject matter being tapped into, the WNUF Halloween Special is a true gem, and one of the best things to grace my television screen in many a day.
Need I spell out (ahem) that one unnecessary insert sequence aside, this one comes highly recommended?