Cover Story - V/H/S' schlockbuster success

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

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.

Filmed for less than $1 million, The Blair Witch Project earned more than $100 million after its 1999 release, making it one of the most profitable films ever. In 2007, the first Paranormal Activity provided a similarly huge return on investment. Hollywood can't resist such a potential payoff. Thanks to Blair Witch, we've seen more than a decade of found-footage films shot intentionally poorly, including outlandish variations like the coffin-cam of Buried, the astronaut capsule-cam of Apollo 18, and the about-to-be-stomped-by-a-monster-cam of Cloverfield.

Just when the found-footage concept seemed exhausted, Brad Miska, editor-in-chief of the horror news website Bloody-Disgusting.com, decided to shake up the genre with an anthology movie helmed by a diverse group of filmmakers. Nicholas Tecosky, Bruckner's writing partner, finds V/H/S to be an ideal vehicle for the approach. "I think found footage is a format that can get tired in a full-length feature," he says. "What's exciting is that it's very visceral, and what's exciting in an anthology is that you can experience that visceral quality multiple times."

Bruckner and Tecosky wanted to use their V/H/S segment to explore a particular outgrowth of contemporary communications technology. "We wanted to make a story about pornography," says Bruckner. "We simply took the assignment of 'found footage POV tape' and thought, 'No one has done a found footage movie about a sex tape.' But think of the pervasiveness of Internet pornography, especially for young men — it's a ripe area for anxiety. That's a very uncomfortable place, making it ideal for when things to start to get horrible and blood spurts onto the camera lens."

The pair seems to have superficially contrasting personalities, with Tecosky, 33, coming across as a scruffy, rambunctious literature fan and Bruckner, 34, a clean-cut, controlled movie buff. But they share a creative sensibility that hinges on the darkest humor imaginable. Tecosky says, "I remember writing the treatment for 'Amateur Night,' taking turns at the computer, and we got to the point we were laughing at the over-the-top things we wrote: 'We can't put this in, can we?' And we had the justification, 'Oh, nobody's going to see it.' The fact that the script passed muster kind of surprised us. Some of the most violent things in it started as jokes about what we couldn't get away with."

Shot at the Aloha Motel on Memorial Drive, as well as the Star Bar and Eastside Lounge, "Amateur Night" captures a boozy, boisterous night of Atlanta bar crawling, only one that ends with a bloodbath. Mike Donlan and Joe Sykes play the douche bag friends of reluctant Clint (Sawyer), who wears the video spyglasses and makes a connection with an intense, enigmatic beauty (Hannah Fierman), who accompanies them back to the motel. The guys' sexist intentions go horrifically wrong, as Fierman, who required four hours of makeup from Myers, reveals herself to be more than just an out-of-towner, and possibly not even human.

"Amateur Night" partly comes across as a 20-minute rejoinder to today's spate of tame PG-13 horror films squeamish about nudity and bloodshed. The filmmakers take pains to provide a commentary on exploitation without simply being exploitative. Just when the female nudity feels voyeuristic, the film turns the tables and makes one of the men a vulnerable victim, cowering naked in the bathroom with a fanged marauder at the door. Bruckner says, "I think if we hadn't done full-frontal male ..."

"... we would've been hoisted on our petards," finishes Tecosky, who credits the women on the crew for helping them find a non-sexist balance. "Our producer, Linda Burns, was a very strong female presence, and helped guide us through some of these aspects."

Bruckner jokes that the male nude scene has one drawback: "It may not have as much effect in Atlanta, because who hasn't seen Joe Sykes naked?" referring to the actor's Full Monty exhibitionism at local stage plays such as 2007's Skin at Dad's Garage Theatre.

V/H/S' filmmakers worked independently, but their segments nonetheless feature a great deal of thematic overlap. "I think that the topic of sex and the male gaze is in all of the chapters in V/H/S. We thought we were the ones making the sick and depraved one!" says Bruckner.

"Then we got in the same room with the others and realized, 'Oh, we're all screwed up in the same way,'" adds Tecosky.

As a whole, V/H/S hangs together effectively, like a Tales From the Crypt for the iPhone generation. Adam Wingard's framing story, "Tape 56," shows three petty criminals hired to find a videotape in a sinister house, and the disorienting camerawork and rapid editing captures the drugged-up antiheroes' addled perceptions and attention spans. "Amateur Night's" showcase of blood and skin effectively segues to the slow burn of Ti West's "Second Honeymoon," in which a young couple on a road trip discovers they're being stalked by a mysterious figure.

The weakest segment, "Tuesday the 17th," struggles as a riff on the Friday the 13th formula with flat dialogue and acting. To its credit, it features an ingenious, disturbing special effect, and may be the chapter that could best support expansion to feature length. Director Joe Swanberg, leader in the mumblecore movement of low-budget, doggedly realistic movies, helms a skin-crawling, technically brilliant segment, using a picture-in-picture Skype-type program, about a worried young woman telling her long-distance boyfriend about poltergeist-type activity. Halloween hauntings cut loose in the final segment, "10/31/98," but here a group of partying young bros makes a selfless, heroic choice. V/H/S ends holding out the thinnest sliver of hope for humanity amid a world of near-constant supernatural menace.

At nearly a full two hours, V/H/S feels one segment too long, but the short film format makes the recurring themes of compromised technology more overt than if the film only told one story. The anthology could provide the last word in found-footage movies, but Bruckner doesn't think the you-are-the-camera approach is going anywhere. "Found footage is going to be around for a while. People will view it as a stylistic choice and less as a gimmick. I'd like to see found footage put in other genres than horror," he says.

Five years to the month before Bruckner accompanied his fellow V/H/S filmmakers to Sundance, he debuted another horror film there, the entirely homegrown The Signal. Directed in three parts by Bruckner as well as Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry, The Signal explores a transmission that turns city dwellers into crazed berserkers, and alternates between different narrative techniques, from disgusting slapstick to contemplative, apocalyptic atmospherics.

A cult film since its 2007 release, The Signal announced Atlanta's emergence as a vibrant horror community. Three years later, AMC's "The Walking Dead" cemented the city's spooky reputation with episodes that featured hordes of zombies ravaging downtown Atlanta. Why does the Georgia capital provide such a believable backdrop for Armageddon? For anyone stuck in the city's rush hour, the idea of Atlantans turning feral and attacking each other in the streets is not a stretch.

Shows like the "The Walking Dead" and "The Vampire Diaries" provide steady paychecks for horror enthusiasts like Myers, who works a day job as a set dresser for the zombie show's set decorating department. "Our job is to make the apocalypse. Sometimes I have to build a pile of garbage that I can pick up and move as one piece, or a barricade that's on wheels, so we can move it out. Every once in a while I get to bring out my blood spatters." He finds it to be far more entertaining than decorating the sets of conventional films and TV shows. "Normally it's 'Stain these curtains. Clean this floor.' On 'The Walking Dead,' it's 'Smash that. Make that look like shit.' It's a lot of fun," he says.

That anarchic idea of fun suggests one of the reasons that a community of would-be horror mavens has coalesced around Atlanta. "Not only are the locations abundant, the talent top notch, and the pool of production companies growing, but the beer is cheaper than in L.A., which matters," remarks Deadhead Films' Eric Hollinshead, director of the upcoming horror-comedy Hell Hole. Hollinshead may be speaking tongue-in-cheek, but he conveys the esprit de gore of many first-time scary moviemakers and their vibe of "Let's make a movie in the backyard, only one NSFW."

Youth may even provide an advantage to filmmakers working in horror, compared to other genres. "If you're 25 years old trying to make a domestic drama, no one's going to pay attention to what you have to say about marriage. But I think people look to young voices specifically about horror," says Tecosky.

Overall, if Atlanta has a high quantity of film production, it stands to reason that a significant percentage would be a genre as popular as horror. "Horror has always been popular among indie filmmakers in every community, because it is the most upwardly mobile, narrative genre — the least dependent upon big budgets and major stars," says Wood.

"I would guess that Atlanta produces more than its share of low-budget horror films because the city has become such a major subcultural hub. A rising filmmaker can't help but be influenced by the energy surrounding 'The Walking Dead,' Zombieland, Scary Movie 5 — not to mention such wildly popular events as Dragon*Con, Netherworld, and the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse."

Horror may be hot, but the frightful film genres still face the same challenges as any cinematic venture. Local director Deronte Smith and his production company Solaris Filmwerks have shot the scary tale Prosper, about a 300-year-old witch who sustains eternal youth by preying on young people every few decades. While Smith and his crew have finished the film's principal photography, he's now struggling to raise money to complete post-production.

Smith points out that despite Atlanta's ample pool of strong actors, "There is a finite number of working professional crew with the expertise necessary to take a production to the next level. Indie filmmakers are left to the mercy of the schedules of people who are paid handsomely by studio projects coming into town. Often the quality of a production may suffer or it can simply come unraveled in post-production, which is the most difficult and tedious part of the entire moviemaking process." Smith has launched an Indiegogo account to raise $15,000 for visual effects, post-sound, and post-mixing to complete Prosper.

Prosper's example indicates that the influx of better-paying Hollywood productions can siphon resources from local filmmakers' projects. "When people get involved in the films of others, they don't have time to make their own," says Myers, who provides a showcase for local and national horror movies as director of the Buried Alive Film Festival, scheduled this year for Nov. 9-11.

Myers tries to use the festival to expand the Atlanta audience's genre expectations. "Every city has its own horror film festival, and we don't want to confine ourselves to horror. We want to show Atlanta the most demented, weird, and fucked-up cinema in the world," he says. Myers will book bizarro films from around the world, but last year's Buried Alive Film Festival included a program of "Georgia Fever Dreams," featuring such horrific shorts as Andrew Shearer's Freddy Krueger parody "A Wet Dream on Elm Street" and Chris Ethridge's "Survivor Type," an adaptation of a seemingly unfilmable Stephen King short story involving self-cannibalization.

As a designer of violent visions in his own right — Bruckner calls him "the dark prince himself" — Myers belongs to Atlanta's brotherhood of gore effects experts, including puppeteer Chris Brown, Silver Scream Spook Show host Shane Morton, and creature creator Toby Sells. Thanks to their ghastly labors of love, the city will never run short of homicidal clowns, charismatic ghouls, and other graveyard escapees.

Sometimes it seems as though you can't swing a dead cat in this town without hitting the undead in various states of decomposition. Charles Judson, head of programming for the Atlanta Film Festival, wishes local filmmakers would take more advantage of the Southeast's sinister storytelling traditions. "What better place to have a strong Gothic horror story, between the number of mansions, the number of abandoned farms, and all the other secret family legacies? If you hear 'There's been a curse on my family for 200 years ...' in the South, you believe it."

"I don't have a clear vision for where horror should go," Bruckner says. "While we were making The Signal and then V/H/S, we were never talking about the state of horror." Bruckner's interest in science-fiction horror, however, provides a means for the genre to keep pace with societal changes. Bruckner and Tecosky are currently working on a chiller involving social media.

V/H/S provides a signpost for another possible direction for scary fare through West's "Second Honeymoon." "Second Honeymoon" at first subtly conveys the emotional distance between its young couple, and then their tourist activities become increasingly colored by suspicion and dread. As a filmmaker, West leads the quietly compelling "alt-horror" subgenre, and his films such as the 1980s throwback House of the Devil minimize gross-outs and cheap jolts in favor of atmosphere and subtle characterizations.

At times, the overall Atlanta horror scene seems to put too much of a premium on gore, as if there's a constant competition to see who can engineer the most outlandish kill or stomach-churning zombie prosthetic. West sets an example that horror can establish multidimensional characters and believable situations, then open the floodgates of fake blood. You can have your believable, well-rounded characters and eat them, too. And in V/H/S, "Amateur Night" serves the dessert first.

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