Slasher Abe: Local duo come up with new twist in time for the holiday

February 12, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com | Sun Movie Critic

The catchy, under-capitalized ad-line to "President's Day" reads "Hail to the Chief or he'll Hack You to Pieces." This made-in-Baltimore high-school slasher comedy has its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Charles Theatre. Some might think that at $5,000, the movie was under-capitalized, too. But that sum proved enough for director/editor/co-writer/co-producer Chris LaMartina and co-writer/co-producer Jimmy George to hire a professional crew for the first time in their careers. And with the esprit de gore that only a no-budget horror farce can muster, they corralled an unpaid cast of dozens. They all wanted to be in a movie whose premise - " Abraham Lincoln killing people" - sent them into violent convulsions, mostly of laughter.

After all, pop culture hasn't remembered our greatest president as the Indian fighter that he was, or even as the rugged " Illinois rail-splitter." Today's high school kids know him mostly as Honest Abe. Seeing a Lizzie Borden-style ax in the hands of this craggy, top-hatted icon is sure to produce an irreverent chuckle in sophomores of all ages. And moralists, don't worry - the irreverence doesn't go overboard, at least by the blood-and-breasts standards of teen-scream movies. The killer in "President's Day" isn't Lincoln or even Lincoln's ghost, despite the filmmakers' canny use of the Skeptics' "The Ghost of Abraham Lincoln" as their closing title song. ("He taught himself how to read and write, but he never taught himself how to die.") He's a mysterious maniac who for some reason is killing off all the candidates running for student council president at fictional Lincoln High.

"President's Day" contains no commemoration of Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays. The Charles on Monday, unlike your TV screen, will provide no holiday sales commercials showing the Great Emancipator partnering with the Father of Our Country in some popping dance moves. The filmmakers have set the movie near the start of a school year, rather than the midpoint. After all, they call it "President's Day," not Presidents Day.

And that title made the feature what it is today: an affable, blessedly brief mixture of yuckiness and yuks. (Veteran John Waters actor George Stover looks right at home here.) Abe's ax makes a few clean cuts. But Abe offs several teachers and students with the tools or mementos of their trades - to take the obvious examples, a jock's trophy and a cheerleader's hair straightener. "With a title and a premise like that," says George, "there was no way you could take this too seriously."

LaMartina and George, longtime friends who had collaborated on two previous films, were dreaming up a horror-holiday exploitation triple feature in the manner of Quentin Tarantino's "Grindhouse." When LaMartina arrived at the very low high concept of Lincoln hacking away at people instead of logs, and called it "President's Day," George says, "It was too good to waste as one part of a three-part film." A potential cult perennial was born.

Ask LaMartina to rattle off some previous horror holiday films and, "just looking around my room," he raps out, without a pause, " 'Black Christmas,' ' April Fool's Day,' ' Halloween' (OK, that's obvious), 'Friday the 13th' (a stretch, but it is a special day on the calendar); then there's 'New Year's Evil,' 'My Bloody Valentine,' 'Leprechauns' ( St. Patrick's Day)." He also notes that "a lot of movies have used presidents as horror fodder." A maniac in a Reagan mask menaces latter-day hippies in David Arquette's 2006 film "The Tripper." "Horror House on Highway Five" (1985) features a psycho killer in a Richard Nixon mask, played by an actor credited as " Ronald Reagan."

But "President's Day" is rooted more deeply, if that's not too pretentious a word, in the co-creators' buddyhood. When they met, LaMartina was a 14-year-old Catonsville cinema whiz kid and George, also from Catonsville, was a 19-year-old Towson University student with his eye on Hollywood. During their initial movie swap, George handed LaMartina the summa of high-school politics comedies, "Election," (1999), and LaMartina handed him "Popcorn" (1991), the gleeful-grisly story of a Leatherface clone who, wearing literal face masks, goes on a gruesome killing spree during a student-sponsored horror-movie marathon.

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