Chris LaMartina needed a new home for his cult. It was April 2013, and the Baltimore filmmaker was shooting his latest feature, a comedy-horror flick with the priceless title Call Girl of Cthulhu, which debuts at the Maryland Film Festival this week. It was the largest production he and his filmmaking partner, Jimmy George, had ever undertaken, with 30 interior locations, more than 30 speaking roles, 60 costumes, 150 props, 185 practical effects, and roughly 100 extras. Its budget was more than twice that of their previous feature,Witch's Brew, which they made for $16,000. They both had used all their vacation time at their jobs to take a month off to shoot. Usually they make production bibles for cast and crew in 3-inch binders, but early in pre-production, George called LaMartina to confess: We're going to need bigger binders.
But they didn't have a location to use as the film's Church of Starry Wisdom, where a cult leader invokes a demon from another dimension to spawn with the woman who will give birth to the titular monster-god. The first location they rented was too small. The second, an actual church, kicked them out after one day because they accidentally left a prop sign outside that wound up getting the local police involved. A week before shooting the Starry Wisdom scenes, they had nothing.
"We were shooting in Frederick," LaMartina recalls. "So we're all an hour away [from Baltimore]. We had to find a place and figure out how to set-dress [it] for the following week. How the fuck are we going to do this?"
Cinematographer Nick Baldwin volunteered his parents' Harford County basement. It was full of exercise equipment and stuff from Baldwin's youth, but it would do. LaMartina says Baldwin called some "Harford county punks" and they gutted the place. The director finished shooting one day in Frederick, and then he and set decorator Veronika Volkov and production assistant Patrick Storck drove to Baldwin's parents' home and painted until midnight. He had to leave, but Volkov and Storck stayed and set-dressed it. Two days later, the crew shot there.
Such are the travails of the low-budget filmmaker: You make do with what you have. But it can grind you down because you understand what it means for your art. Your limited budget will show up onscreen. Very few people will see your film. It will consume your every waking moment not spent at the day job that enables you to make a movie. And you will not make any money from it.
And sometimes, all of that may make you question why you're doing it in the first place. "I remember getting fucked up on paint fumes and then driving home and falling asleep at a traffic light," LaMartina says. "I remember someone beeping and I woke up. I was stopped at the light at the Avenue and Falls [Road in Hampden]. And I remember thinking, I could have died—for a horror movie?"
"The thing that's really tough about low-budget movies is that people don't take it seriously a lot of the times," LaMartina says over a breakfast interview. "People don't take these movies seriously because they think they're inherently cheap and they don't aspire to anything greater."
With his longish hair but well-trimmed beard, LaMartina is a scruffily dapper 29-year-old. The insulin pump taped to his upper left arm is the initial reminder that he's diabetic. Before breakfast arrives, he pricks his finger to test his blood and, at one point during the meal, he takes out a syringe to give himself an injection. He does it all with the nonchalance of anybody who has grown up with Type 1 diabetes.
"My disease dictates a lot of the career decisions I make," he says, pointing out that he couldn't be an aspiring filmmaker who moves to New York or Los Angeles, full of dreams to live on nothing until he catches a break; he has to have health insurance, which he gets through his day job at 15Four, a digital-marketing agency. "As I get older, I worry about my health concerns," he continues. "Like, when I'm 60, I could lose my eyesight. That's really scary to me. So I sometimes think there's a ticking time clock where I've got to cram all these movies in, because I can't be 70 years old and blind and directing a movie and telling people what to do."
Though diabetes is part of the story of who he is, the rest of his story is practically straight out of Central Casting for a young film brat. Born in 1985, LaMartina grew up falling in love with that decade's horror films, amassing a fan's encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. He started toying around with a video camera when he was 12, made his first short, Amerikill, at 14 using in-camera edits. He made films in high school; studied film at Towson University; and since he met fellow 1980s horror-film fan George in 2005, LaMartina has made six feature films and co-written 12 screenplays with him.
They've all been low-budget horror-comedies, and LaMartina is self-aware enough to understand what that means. He's a filmmaker working in a cult genre, and as a fan of that genre, he knows about the lives of the filmmakers who made them. Does he want to be the Don Dohler or Herk Harvey of his generation?
Because what the genre and its fans want can be insulting. LaMartina admits that. With his and George's previous features President's Day and Witch's Brew, "we started adding nudity because distributors said, 'Add more gore, add more nudity.' I'm not offended by nudity, but I also think there's a way to do it that fits the story. I'm not going to make a movie that's exploitative without having a conscience, but at the end of the day, I know that it is still a horror-comedy. I just want to make sure anything that was serious wasn't played for humor. I'm not going to have a rape scene with the Benny Hill soundtrack."
Call Girl is his most thematically ambitious attempt yet to put a heady theme into a genre picture. It follows Carter (David Phillip Carollo), a shy, introverted freelance illustrator who watches porn alone in his room to drown out the sounds of his roommate, Erica Zahn (Nicolette le Faye), having sex. He's a virgin in many ways completely ashamed of his sexuality, an anxiety that really bubbles up when he finds himself falling for prostitute Riley (Melissa O'Brien, LaMartina's fiancée), whom he meets after she visits a john in his building. Unbeknownst to both of them, two other groups are looking for a woman with a tentacled creature-shaped birthmark, which Riley has: a cult leader (Dave Gamble) who wants her for a ritual, and Professor Edna (Helenmary Ball), who wants to stop him. Both draw Carter and Riley into their supernatural world of underground assassins and tentacle-masked cult members.
Throughout, the film dispenses Easter eggs for fans of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 20th-century American sci-fi/horror writer who wrote for pulp magazines but whose sense of terror permeates many aspects of contemporary horror. "I knew what it meant for something to be 'Lovecraftian' before I knew who H.P. Lovecraft was," LaMartina says. "The fear of the unknown. Monsters. Unspeakable, indescribable, gross things. The hopelessness of humanity—these are themes that around his time period weren't as widely explored. But if you look at horror films now, they're everywhere."
Both LaMartina and George started reading Lovecraft's works and researching him, with George doing the lion's share of investigating Lovecraft himself. "We wrote this film to satisfy both horror fans and the Lovecraft community," George writes in an email. "It was important to us that we infuse the script with as many Lovecraft mythos connections and literary references as possible. Every character, down to the call girl's clients, is named after a Lovecraft character. There are several plot points and story elements driven by specific outcomes of Lovecraft's weird tales. Every scene for the first half of the film contains a visual Lovecraft reference."
At the same time, they learned things about Lovecraft that aren't so endearing, including his blatant racism and xenophobia. They also started noticing things that weren't in his works. He rarely talks about money. He never talks about sex. And he wrote very few female characters. All of those are involved in prostitution.
"Lovecraft himself was a really scared, timid dude—this sheltered, white, heterosexual male," LaMartina says. "Now I don't know if you can quote this in any way that doesn't make me insult horror fans, but most horror fans are sheltered, white, middle-class heterosexual males—and I'm not going to excuse myself from that. My target audience is dudes my age or maybe 10 years younger."
The challenge he and George posed for themselves was to write a movie that acknowledged and even relished in what Lovecraft had given to the horror genre they love while also trying to address some of the inherent sexism that resulted from the sheltered, white, heterosexual-male anxieties the man couldn't help but inject into his art. They decided to make Carter a Lovecraft surrogate, a creator of art who lives in constant fear of what he wants most: the other sex.
"What the film is about is adolescent-male fears of female sexuality," LaMartina says. "I'm trying to follow the Roger Corman model. Give them sex and violence, but give them a sense of social consciousness. Because I feel the movies that live forever say something bigger than blood and boobs."
That's a lofty goal, and George and LaMartina realized that, as stereotypical horror fans, they might get themselves into trouble using prostitution to explore anything to do with male sexuality. Fortunately, they cast two actresses, Melissa O'Brien and Nicolette le Faye, who understood what they were going for and who took the roles seriously.
In rehearsals, "Nicolette and I talked about the whole woman-as-prize thing, not just in horror but in comedies," O'Brien says. "You always see a schlubby dude who cleans up his act a little and gets the pretty lady at the end. And I was worried about that for Carter [and Riley's relationship]. I think what makes it work for her is that it's the first time anybody is showing her kindness and the first time someone hasn't immediately asked her for something disgusting."
O'Brien makes her film debut in Call Girl, but she brings nearly a decade's worth of theater-acting to the role. What attracted her to Riley was how shut off she has to be to do her job. "I ended up watching a lot of documentaries on prostitution and sex work, and paying particular attention to the negative aspects of it," she says, noting that, during the first rehearsals, LaMartina kept letting her know she was being too warm as a character. "I really felt a switch in my approach after doing that research and understanding the kinds of people who she would be encountering. No one who she has connections with is kind or even a good person in any way." (Toward the end of filming, O'Brien and LaMartina started dating and they became engaged last Halloween.)
O'Brien makes Riley initially remote onscreen, so when she lightens up around Carter, she reveals a tender side to the character. This peek of vulnerability makes later scenes after she's abducted by the cult genuinely tense. "I don't have any illusions about what the audience for this movie is looking for, and it's not serious connections between the characters," O'Brien says about making Riley a more rounded character in the genre flick. "But that's not an excuse not to give the performance more attention."
Both LaMartina and George spotlight that level of dedication in all aspects of Call Girl's cast and crew. Almost nobody's getting paid (they hired an effects crew), but everybody who participated brought their A-game. "What we benefitted from on Call Girl is people aspiring to make the most out of our budget," LaMartina says. "The production value is insane. That's a testament to the fact that we're not an island. The cast, the crew—everyone busted their ass and took it seriously."
"I've been in a lot of horror movies, and usually I end up getting killed in the basement," la Faye says. "In this one I get to fight back. This is my fourth film with [George and LaMartina], and they just bring such energy and creativity to the projects that everybody on set is inspired."
The result is by far the best-looking and biggest-feeling movie George and LaMartina have ever made. It's certainly the project with the longest gestation period: They started writing in November 2011, and LaMartina finally posted aCall Girl trailer online in April. He's still tinkering with the making-of featurette for the eventual DVD release from Camp Motion Pictures—still TBD at the moment. It's been a mammoth undertaking following what brought them the most widespread attention and acclaim yet: a pet project they made super-fast and cheap.
WNUF Halloween Special is a found-footage flick they shot for around $1,500 in 2012 and released last fall. The movie is a faux-newscast where a local television crew visits the site of an infamous killing. It's a mash note to all things 1980s, done with an obsessive attention to the details of the era, and it struck a chord with many other horror fans with a soft spot for the time, earning online coverage from MTV, Vice, The New York Times, and NPR.
"If you would have told me five years ago that I was going to be on NPR national on Halloween day, I would have been, 'Yeah, cool, dude—I'll buy that property you have on the moon too,'" LaMartina says. "At the same time, as the capacity for success gets bigger and bigger, we wonder what the next step is."
Both George and LaMartina speculate about where this horror-film habit is taking them. WNUF put them in contact with a production company that is fielding a few of their ideas, but they're not sure what scale those projects might be. Big enough to draw a paycheck and pay people? Who knows?
"It's so different than it was when we started our creative partnership," George writes, pointing out that LaMartina was still in college, he had fewer responsibilities at his job, and they both lived with their parents. They would meet multiple times a week and turn out scripts quickly, self-producing films for a few thousand dollars. Now "[w]e still want to make films, but adult life gets in the way more than ever. The older you get, the harder it becomes to make the sacrifices necessary to complete a feature film. Now, when we commit to making a film, there's more at stake for us personally and financially than ever."
And yet, there's nothing else like it for them. "There are moments during the production where you're exhausted, or my hands are shaking from low blood sugar, and I'm worried about if this life is sustainable," LaMartina says. "But when you're done with that movie, and when you've exported that final cut, there's this sense of accomplishment that is unparalleled [by] anything else."
Those are the tradeoffs of being a cult filmmaker. Your limited budget will show up onscreen, but you will work with fabulously talented people who do everything they can with limited resources. Very few people will see your films, but the people who do will adore it sincerely. It will consume your every waking moment not spent at the day job—which enables you to make movies—but it will satisfy something inside you that no job ever will. You will not make any money, but you can't imagine being alive without it.
That may not amount to anything like an amazing career, but it does sound like it could make for an amazing life. "I still constantly wrestle with the idea, Can I do this?" LaMartina says. "Honestly, am I going to support a family and make low-budget horror comedies? Probably not. Part of me thinks if I stop doing this tomorrow, that's OK because I still have those movies that sit on a shelf somewhere. WNUF is really special and I don't think I've realized how special it is just yet. I get emails and Facebook messages from people all across the country that say, 'This is going to be in my Halloween movie rotation for the rest of my life.' And that's something that most people who make movies will never get to experience."