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Review: “V/H/S,” an old-school horror flick with plenty of cover-your-eyes moments

Calvin Reeder in “Tape 56” from "V/H/S."
Calvin Reeder in “Tape 56” from "V/H/S."
Calvin Reeder in “Tape 56” from "V/H/S."

Yeah, I know the title refers to that archaic thing known as videotape. But halfway through the anthology horror film “V/H/S,” I couldn’t help thinking that the letters might stand for “Vagina Horror Show.” Most of these six mini-films, written and directed by a cadre of eight men, unwittingly seem to share an attraction-repulsion response to female sexuality. In other words, for all their jittery, assaultive, postmodern edge, these shock vignettes are very much in the tradition of old-school horror.

A just-serviceable wraparound plot follows some penny-ante hoodlums as they break into a house in search of a valuable, if underdescribed, videotape for a shadowy, rich client. “You’ll know it when you see it,” he says. Digging through a mountain of tapes in the TV room (where a dead guy sits moldering in his La-Z-Boy), the thugs watch the five short films that make up the bulk of the movie.

Mean-and-nasty horror flicks aren’t the sort of thing we usually write about on this site. There’s a local connection here, though. The first of the stand-alones — called “Amateur Night,” but you won’t know that unless you watch the end credits — is written and directed by David Bruckner. He’s one of the three filmmakers who made the underappreciated, Atlanta-set zombie fantasia “The Signal” five years ago. And if you haven’t seen that already, shame on you.

Anyway, his sequence in “V/H/S” is a satisfying doozy, and the one that sets up the gynecological theme that permeates the others. A group of college-age d-bags head out for a night of carousing, and the dweebiest of them wears spectacles that are secretly a video camera. The idea? Bag some babes, bring them back to the hotel and shoot a clandestine, first-person porno film.

This doesn’t work out as planned. Waifish, moon-eyed, wasted-seeming Lily (Hannah Fierman) is one girl who gets lured back to their crash pad. But she may not actually be a girl. Or human. It’s a simple story, but done with wit. And it’s one of the sharper uses of the “found footage” approach.

The remaining four sequences provide some nice shocks. “Second Honeymoon,” from director Ti West (“House of the Devil”), is the only entry without a supernatural element. It’s a Western travelogue following a couple trying to strike a new spark in their relationship. A stalker in a mask provides an unexpected, bloody change in their itinerary.

In Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th,” college kids take a day trip to a lake known for a murder spree and get assaulted themselves by a monster viewable only through the camera’s lens. (The climactic chase owes as much to “Nightmare on Elm Street” as to “Friday the 13th.”)

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” by Joe Swanberg — who, as an actor, meets a bloody end in one of the other films — makes clever use of Skype. A young woman, who already seems a little on the edge, keeps up with her med-school fiancé via live computer chats. She also uses her computer to show him some supernatural stuff that she thinks is going on in her apartment. It’s “Paranormal Activity” meets “The “X-Files.” It doesn’t quite work but has its cover-your-eyes moments.

Finally, in “10/31/98,” by the filmmaking collective Radio Silence, some guys go to a supposed haunted house tricked up for Halloween. But it seems to be empty. Until they find some old guys trying to exorcise  a young woman up in the attic. Cue all hell breaking loose, depicted by special effects that are more enthusiastic than accomplished.

All these years after “The Blair Witch Project,” with better and worse descendants such as the “Paranormal Activity” and “[Rec]” movies, many filmgoers may (literally) no longer have the stomach to endure the shaky-cam effects of the “found footage” gimmick. At times, “V/H/S” is an extremely queasy-making example of the form. Be forewarned. But it pays off to anybody who wants some cheap and dirty, gory thrills. Art it ain’t. But from time to time, it’s a scream.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iv6S3RGMGw8&noredirect=1

“V/H/S.” An anthology horror film written and directed by a whole bunch of guys. 116 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday, October 12, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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