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.