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The horror of it all

Chris LaMartina has loved a good horror story for as long as he can remember.

"My earliest memories are me demanding that my godmother sit down at the typewriter, and I'd say, 'All right, Lulu, sit down at the typewriter and I'm going to tell you a story,'" says LaMartina, who at 25 has four horror movies as a director on his resume, earning a reputation as one of Baltimore's favorite cinematic chillmeisters.

"She still has all these stories, all typed up. They're all non sequiturs, just creepy image after creepy image. And all of them start with, 'It was a dark and stormy night.'

"But it's weird," he adds with a laugh and a shake of his head. "This is, like, me as a 3- or 4-year-old, and I already know some of the horror conventions and some of the cliches."

But LaMartina has been putting them to good, hair-raising use. His first four films, "Dead Teenagers," "Book of Lore," "Grave Mistakes" and "President's Day," have made the rounds of horror-film conventions and, better yet, all have been picked up for distribution. He chuckles at the memory of watching scenes from a dubbed (in Russian!) version of "Teenagers," which he made between semesters of studying film at Towson University. He's putting the finishing touches on his latest (and biggest-budget) film, "Witch's Brew," with an eye toward a spring release. Once that movie's done, he's off to Los Angeles, confident that the big time is just a few breaks and a little more hard work away.

"I feel like I've hit a ceiling," LaMartina says between bites of a sandwich at Catonsville's Double-T Diner, which has long served as one of his favorite bases of operation. "I don't have people lining up to give me money. But I don't want to make another cheap movie, because I know I can do better stuff than this.

"I really love Baltimore," the Catonsville native quickly adds. "I'm moving out to L.A. mostly to network and get budgets and try to come back and shoot stuff here."

One of his film instructors at Towson, Greg Faller, believes LaMartina has what it will take to succeed. His former student understands the horror genre, Faller says, and seems in tune with what modern horror fans are looking for.

"He knows the conventions of the genre," says Faller, chairman of the university's department of electronic media and film, "and he puts his own spin on them, typically with a hint of self-awareness about them. It's not that he simply copies them. He puts his own stamp on them … his own little bit of humor."

There is, perhaps, no better example of that than LaMartina's most recent release, "President's Day." The 83-minute film chronicles a student council election that takes an unfortunately gruesome turn when a guy in an Abraham Lincoln mask starts beheading, disemboweling and otherwise dismembering the candidates. Though decidedly not for the squeamish or those easily offended, it's all grand, grisly fun — even if the political allusions thrown out by LaMartina and co-screenwriter Jimmy George get lost in all the tumult.

" 'President's Day' is obviously a slasher comedy," LaMartina says. "Somebody who knows nothing about politics could go in there and see it for just a slasher flick … that's fine. But I've put in other things that make it interesting for other people. Every character in 'President's Day' is based on a politician; there's tons of political jokes. For my films, I've just got to put a lot more depth into them."

He's certainly had a lot of practice, having started making short films while still in elementary school. "When I was a preteen, like 10 or 11, I found the family camcorder. I'd always loved horror films, so I started making those short films. And it got to the point where, when I was in middle school, I would get home from school and I'd produce a short film every day. I have tons of VHS tapes, just millions of different short films: cartoons, stop-motion, horror flicks, action movies, comedies.

"It's just like a bug," he adds. "And once you catch the filmmaking bug, you can't stop. It's an addiction."

The creative urge came naturally, LaMartina says. His mother, Mary, a retired elementary school principal, used to take her bored son out to a fabric or crafts store and urge him to start creating something. And his father, Ron, a retired staffer in the state comptroller's office, "was always watching old movies."

But the fascination with horror? That's something LaMartina came to all by himself.

"He's been interested in this his entire life," says his mother, who confirms the story about her sister-in-law taking dictation from a 4-year-old Chris. "Christopher would tell us scary stories all the time. There was always something really funny in it. But they were really scary."

"I can't put a direct experience or anything on it," LaMartina says. "When I was young, I would wake up early and I would watch Cinemax in the morning, and I would catch the tail end of some horror movie. I guess I started exploring. … Horror is a huge genre. You've got the slasher flicks, you've got your Gothic horror stuff, you've got your Troma movies. There's not a part of the genre that I really dislike."

That's an unquestioning love, LaMartina realizes, that not everyone shares. "To most people, horror is just one step above pornography," he readily acknowledges. And he understands that not all filmgoers appreciate the low-budget, often happily amateurish movies he both makes and treasures

His teachers at Towson's Carver Center for Arts and Technology, while encouraging his filmmaking skills, tried steering him toward more respectable genres, but LaMartina was having none of it.

"They weren't really big on me doing horror films," he says. "But my argument was, horror films are really artistic. If you look at German expressionism, for instance, that is pure filmmaking right there.

"Anyway," he adds, "cinema is always treated as the art form that isn't really an art form, because it's entertainment. And that's the line that horror films dance all the time. Is it art, or is it entertainment? That's something we'll always struggle with as filmmakers."

LaMartina knows which side of the question he comes down on. His films might not play to the cultural elite, but they have an audience that appreciates them. Audiences shriek and groan and cover their eyes and have their sensibilities assaulted all the time at his films. Which, as far as LaMartina is concerned, is a sure sign of success.

"I remember when I first showed 'Dead Teenagers,' it was at the Hollywood Theatre, Labor Day weekend 1999. I remember sitting in the theater, nervous as hell. There are probably 70 people there, which is a great turnout for a 14-year-old kid renting out a theater on a Monday.

"I was terrified. Then the lights dim, the movie starts, the grainy images go on the screen. Finally, the first joke hits, and the audience reacts — I hear laughter. The greatest feeling is being in the audience watching your movie and hearing them react. To this day, that's one of the greatest feelings."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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