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V/H/S' schlockbuster success

Indie horror continues to coagulate in and around Atlanta with the release of the latest local thriller

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In the chill of last January, a terrifying incident in David Bruckner's career as a film director also provided a crowning achievement for special effects artist Blake Myers.

Bruckner directs one of six segments in V/H/S, a horror anthology film with five tales and a framing story that each draw on the "found footage" narrative style. Each terrifying tale unfolds from the point of view of a different video camera, a technique popularized by The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and countless others since the turn of the new century. Bruckner and his Atlanta-based collaborators crafted the movie's first full segment, "Amateur Night," in which three young jerks go trolling for women, not realizing that their would-be conquest has an unearthly agenda.

"In every horror film in the 1980s someone falls, and we thought it would be fun to do that from the POV perspective," Bruckner says. At one point, the main character (Drew Sawyer), wearing eyeglasses with a hidden video camera, flees from a motel room turned charnel house and falls ass-over-teakettle down a flight of stairs, snapping one of his arms. As the special effects supervisor, Myers designed the segment's gore effects, including the prosthetic arm break that used silicone make-up and a pair of broken drumsticks for the snapped bones. Although originally filmed with Sawyer, Bruckner says that the angle of the break didn't look right in post-production. Since the director and Sawyer have similar body types, Myers and Bruckner reshot the grisly close-up using the director's own arm.

The prestigious Sundance Film Festival tapped V/H/S for its 2012 event in Park City, Utah, last January. During "Amateur Night," the stair fall and arm break literally sickened some audience members. "A guy felt nauseous and dizzy," Bruckner recalls. "He wandered to the edge of the theater and fainted, and his girlfriend threw up shortly after. It was really scary. We had to call an ambulance."

As an expert in blood spatters and gore effects, Myers couldn't have been more flattered: "Making people throw up at Sundance was one of my best credits ever."

Bruckner hastens to point out that the Sundance screenings provide an atypical movie-going experience. "It's a high-altitude location, and they'd been drinking. It is a shaky-cam experience, though. Part of disorienting the viewer is to create a visceral reaction. For some people, it's too much; they can't watch it. Others love it."

A fainting spectator delivers the kind of free publicity that horror movie producers crave, harking back to the 1950s and 1960s, when B-movie thriller maven William Castle would offer audiences insurance policies in case they died of fright. Not that V/H/S needed hype after its Sundance premiere. Magnolia Pictures picked up the film for distribution, and the film has garnered praise from the likes of Rolling Stone and the Atlantic, which put it on its list of "20 Movies to See This Oscar Season." While V/H/S pays homage to the lo-fi pleasures of videotape, the anthology was digitally released Aug. 31 On Demand via cable TV and the Internet. On Oct. 12, the provocative, low-budget scarefest opens a theatrical run at Atlanta's Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Macabre movie fans should expect occult output from a city Atlanta magazine and the New York Times have deemed "the zombie capital of the world." Georgia continues to enjoy its increasing success as a film production mecca, jolted to life by a tax incentive for film production passed by the state in 2008. In the 2012 fiscal year, the state earned $880 million — up from $690 million the year before — from 333 films, television shows, commercials, and music videos. If Atlanta and the rest of the state have realized a dream of showbiz achievement, the horror production scene simmers like the darker corners of the subconscious.

"It's almost hard to make a film here that's not horror-related," says Atlanta-based director Bret Wood as he prepares to commence production on the lesbian vampire tale Carmilla, an adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's 19th-century novel. Our homegrown horror fare includes the satirical Blood Car, the ambitious, apocalyptic The Signal, and the grindhouse throwback Dear God, No!, suggesting that the Atlanta area provides a regional hub for grisly film fantasies. The release of V/H/S captures the genre's bloody, unnerving present while pointing to a fresh direction for things to come.

In 1998, a handful of filmmakers entered the Maryland woods and emerged the following week with a movie phenomenon. On its face, The Blair Witch Project provides a modest but effectively creepy campfire story as a trio of would-be documentarians fall prey to occult forces that defy rational explanation. The concept behind the film, that we're watching footage recovered after the fact, holds an unexpectedly enduring power, particularly as the quasi-documentary style makes the supernatural terrors seem all the more real.

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