Lambertville will celebrate a home-brewed Halloween when the Acme Screening Room presents the locally produced documentary “Halloweenville” on Saturday and Sunday, October 27 and 28.
Hometown from top the bottom, the one hour and two minute documentary was crafted by resident filmmakers Gary P. Cohen, Paul Kaye, and Jann Kniskern.
As Cohen writes for its listing on the International Movie Data Base, “For 11 months out of each year, the town is a haven for artists, musicians, antique dealers, and its quiet residents. But come October, the hamlet transforms itself into what can only be described as a Mardi Gras-like celebration of the holiday Halloween.”
During that month, he adds, Lambertville residents invest weeks in preparing holiday activities that include parades for pets and humans, pumpkin-carving contests, house transformations, and festivities for the big day. It’s then that thousands of costumed celebrators descend on a few choice blocks where owners dish out a fortune’s worth of confection and calories.
“Both Paul and I live in Lambertville, and the celebration of Halloween is something we’ve experienced for years. It seemed logical to document it,” says Cohen about the endeavor.
Since there was no operating budget when production started and ended, financing came from the filmmakers’ pockets. The biggest expense was unexpected. “We only needed insurance when we filmed at the Acme Screening Room, ironically, because that is housed in a government building. It was $1,000 and change for the one day shoot,” says Cohen.
Using digital video tape, the filmmakers started collecting hours of footage at the end of September, 2010. Using a countdown approach to framing the film, they continued taping up to night of October 31.
In the end “there was about eight hours of tape to be edited, by me, down to one hour. It took about two months,” says Cohen who used Final Cut Pro program on Mac to digitally accomplish the job.
The crew consisted mainly of Cohen and Kaye, although sometimes a helper was enlisted. The third producer, Kniskern, “is Paul’s longtime companion, and she is an artist. She did the logos and graphics and lot of the still photography,” says Cohen.
Cohen’s professional experiences as producing director at Middlesex County’s Plays-in-the-Park and Kaye’s work providing voice-overs for video productions also helped the effort.
When asked how the community felt about the filming, Cohen says, “All the people were delighted with the project, and everyone was willing to be interviewed and have us come into their homes as they prepared.”
Cohen says that it was logical to premiere the film at the Acme Screening Room, a township-supported nonprofit venue in a former supermarket. A two night showing was set for last October but was cut by a freak snowstorm.
“Halloweenville” employs a variety of documentary approaches: interviews, neutral observations, and active engagement. It is also a mixture of an earnest desire to capture a specific era in the life of a town, a slanted look at life, and a tongue-in-check homage to horror and sci-fi movies.
The film unfolds like an episode of the famous television show “The Twilight Zone.” After being introduced to the benign facts of the city, viewers then learn that the there was a sea-change in the late 1980s, when, as Lambertville residents known only as Bambi and Kate admit, more and more people were starting “to get into Halloween.”
Sounding as if they were discussing the early stages of possession, the two confess that one choice led to another that brought them deeper into their Halloween obsession: a small mask leads the way to a full blown plastic head of a figure from the film “Mars Attacks,” which in turn leads to a full-force transformation of a neighborhood.
Kate says, “All these manifestations are actually a revealing of the alter egos and personalities of the people living along North Union Street.”
As if looking for a scapegoat, Kate and Bambi point their fingers to an art teacher neighbor as a major instigator. When faced with the camera, the culprit, identified only as Dolores, opens up about how her decision to put a life-sized 3-D skeleton figure into a bride’s gown had turned into a yard filled with sinister figures glowing in black light.
She admits that it is almost something beyond her control, “When I have an idea in my head, I have to make it, and it has to come out and be.” Looking over the gathering of grotesque figures — expertly sculpted from soft materials — she marvels that she has inadvertently become “the tender of the creatures.”
As if to create evidence, the film then documents Dolores decorating her house, seemingly designed by Charles Addams (the New Yorker cartoonist who created the Addams Family), and talking to marveling passersby. One, a man from Hatboro, PA, stops with his son and recalls stopping to trick-or-treat the year before.
Dolores declares that the man and boy need to return this October 31. When the man doesn’t readily agree, Dolores puts on the hard sell. “There isn’t a better place on the East Coast to get candy.” After stating that each homeowner on the street invests several hundred dollars on candy to be given to trick-or-treaters, she declares unequivocally, “This is the place.”
As frequently occurs in sci-fi films there is a moment when someone attempts to clarify the strange phenomenon on hand. And in this film, Lambertville Mayor David DelVecchio appears and reasons that there are three main ingredients that feed the Halloween craze in the one square mile community of 1,950 households and 183 commercial or industrial properties: the town’s walk-ability, high number of artists, and an active gay and lesbian community.
But the recurring ingredient that keeps being mentioned throughout the film is that the people who live in the heart of the city just want to have fun.
And the film goes on to record the annual pet masquerade where we learn of goats painted like Dalmatians and meet dogs dressed like devils or as Tootsie Rolls. The winner, by the way, is a Chia Pet, a hound covered in snug fitting greens.
Then there’s the Sunday before Halloween parade for families, where costumed marchers — divided in the category groups such as historic, comic, fictional characters, impersonators — strut for prizes that range from donuts to cash awards.
But the main event of the film is the main event of the month — Halloween night.
It’s then that several city blocks are closed to traffic and the historic town turns into a boardwalk-like milieu lined with fun houses created by homeowners happy to transform living rooms into horror film sets where scenarios are performed before visitors willing to suspend disbelief and critical sense.
It’s no wonder that the film credits “all the zany residents” who agreed to be in the film, which, by the way, is narrated by actress Deborah Reed (whose credits include the infamous 1990 horror film, “Troll 2,” considered by ABC’s “Nightline” as one of the worst films ever made).
The connection to Reed comes from Cohen and Kaye’s past ventures. “We have the dubious distinction of having done “Video Violence” together, a cult ’80s horror film. Paul also acted in a number of shows at Plays-in-the-Park — where I am artistic director,” says Cohen, who has written two books on theater and three children’s musicals.
Cohen and Kaye’s relationship extend beyond horror and Halloween. Both were born in the early ’50s and grew up in Roselle Park. “We met in middle school and stayed friends since. Paul had moved to Lambertville about 12 years ago, and when I was looking in Lambertville, I ironically found a townhouse across the street,” says Cohen whose father ran concessions for both traditional and drive-in movie theaters.
Looking back on the project, Cohen, who has created a film production company, says, “I like the structure and the gimmick of book-ending it with Paul and me at the graveyard. The weakest aspect is the technical side — we weren’t always able to compose the best shots and some of the soundtrack is difficult to understand.”
One thing that he was pleased with is that he and Kaye were able to capture a scene that is now history. That’s the section where two women in hooded masks perform strange scenes on their front lawn. They “stopped the year after we filmed them, so we were lucky to capture it,” says Cohen.
In a quest to capture more local history, the producers are working on a new project, “Magic on Music Mountain: The Story of the Lambertville Music Circus.” That film will focus on the St. John Terrell’s summer stock theater which started in the 1940s, closed in the early ’70s, and presented legends of stage, screen, and concert halls.
As for their current screening, the filmmakers are probably wishing for a no-snow Halloween. One that enables more people to see both the film and the real thing on the streets.
“Halloweenville,” Acme Screening Room, 25 Union Street, Lambertville. Saturday, October 27, 7 p.m., and Sunday, October 28, 5 p.m. $10 – $15. Screening and meet the filmmakers Gary Cohen, Paul Kaye, and Jann Kniskern. acmescreeningroom.org.