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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014

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The Milwaukee Film Festival hosted "V/H/S" Friday night.
The Milwaukee Film Festival hosted "V/H/S" Friday night.

Cheap-looking "V/H/S" provides equally cheap thrills

I remember the ancient days of the VHS tape. Before we received the glorious creation of the DVD – as well as his malformed older cousin, the Laserdisc – I remember popping in my "The Empire Strikes Back" tape, sitting back and trying to see the movie through the unbearable lines of static that never seemed to disappear.

Now comes "V/H/S," a found footage horror movie at its most authentically ugly, which is commendable to a certain extent. It's shot to bring back grainy memories of the VCR, but unfortunately, with low-quality video comes just another low-quality horror flick.

The film presents a collection of five short horror movies, directed by some of the genre's most up-and-coming directors. They're held together by a frame story about a bunch of obnoxious bros who, in between sexually assaulting random women on the street and ransacking people's homes, are looking in an old man's house for a certain tape. The segment doesn't provide many thrills until the very end, and until then, you have to put up with a lot of unpleasant behavior and static-filled shaky cam. So, essentially the worst parts of any found footage movie.

David Bruckner directs the first short, entitled "Amateur Night," about three equally distasteful bros going for a night on the town that goes horribly wrong when they bring a succubus back home with them (a reoccurring theme in the film is women are not to be trusted). It's one of the more successful parts of "V/H/S," building as much creature-related tension as it can with its limited running time.

"Second Honeymoon" comes next via director Ti West, who's built himself a nice cult following with "The House of the Devil" and "The Innkeepers." This short, however, won't win his cult many new members. The twist at the end is nice, but for the most part, it's just watching a couple's rather uninteresting trip out west.

The third short, directed by Glenn McQuaid, follows a band of college students into the woods, and – get this – bad things start happening. It has some good elements, including a pixilated killer, the requisite gore and a nifty mid-movie twist, but once again, it's hindered by the time it's allowed. Its relatively dense story needed a bit more time to get developed and fleshed out.

"The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," directed by mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, is just as clumsy as its title. Though it has some ghoulish scares, the story doesn't make much sense (it needs more time, as usual), and the dialogue is pretty awkward. Plus, it's filmed via Skype, so it doesn't even fit the theme – unless the theme was looking bad, which in that case, the computer glitches fit in perfectly with the other segments' grainy static.

The anthology smartly ends with its best segment, "10/31/98," directed by the quartet known as Radio Silence. It's a standard setup – bros looking for a party end up in a haunted house – with dumb characters, but the short builds solid tension in its limited time and delivers with a hectic barrage of creepiness. Out of all of the film's shorts, it's the only one to provide fun jolts throughout instead of just waiting until the end.

With Halloween coming up around the bend, there are admittedly worse horror movies one could choose. However, considering the number of talented writers and directors behind "V/H/S," it's disappointing to discover more turned out to be less. It's just one more stake in the heart of the seemingly undying menace known as found footage.

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