Good anthology horror films are few and far between, so it’s automatically exciting to see something like V/H/S surface. This gory, gritty horror ditty aims at the nostalgia of 80’s red-blooded fright flicks and gives a handful of the genre’s up-and-comers access to the found footage aesthetic. The result is sort of a mixed bag artistically speaking, but the overall effect of the shorts is a pretty invigorating midnight movie that delivers that whacked-out 80’s madness most modern horror lacks.
Consider me in the ‘thumbs up’ category on V/H/S but giving the whole film a specific rating would be difficult because each sequence stands or falls on its own merits. The only advantage that the segments have being placed together is the cumulative energy they manage to muster. Otherwise, their proximity is mostly useful because of the carnival vibe it lends the experiment. Where else can you see the slow burn of Ti West next to the demented relationship freak-out of Joe Swanberg and the balls-to-the-wall insanity of Radio Silence’s haunted house? If you often get nostalgic for the days of big, clunky vhs tapes, their tracking riddled fuzzy images, and the off kilter creepy surprises they held then V/H/S will likely give you an evening of entertainment. A few of the shorts may even stick with you after.
Here’s the quality breakdown for everyone not yet sold.
Every anthology has a wrap-around story and V/H/S is no different. A group of hooligans and vandals spend far too many minutes of the film’s opening terrorizing women in a parking garage, busting private property to pieces and generally behaving like uncivilized turds. Eventually this delinquent group gets instructions from a shady employer to break into a house and steal a particular video tape. They are told they will know what they are looking for when they see it. When they get there, they discover a deceased man in the lazy-boy and a treasure trove of old vhs tapes in the entertainment center. The idea here is that the stuff they find when they start scanning the tapes make up the other stories. The problems with this segment are numerous.
For starters, the other tales employ so many different visual techniques that it’s not even likely they are the images our no-gooders see when they pop the tapes into the vcr. There’s a skype session, images recorded via glasses, and two video deals that look too fresh for a format that had its death knell in the very early ‘aughts. The other issue is that none of these characters are likable and the strange trouble they encounter in the house doesn’t amount to anything. It certainly doesn’t help that the proverbial first act gun of the prize video tape never surfaces. Aside from a troublesome moving corpse, this is a completely empty waste of precious minutes. Director Adam Wingard flunks out with this segment, and bloats the film just a bit with that irritating prologue.
David Bruckner‘s segment carries on with Wingard’s technological preoccupations concerning the amoral headspace of Youtube thrill-seekers. In layman’s terms, here’s more douchebags with cutting-edge tech finding naughty ways to use it. Three complete jackholes who puke out low-rent fratboy filth as if it were ill-sitting pizza go out for a night on the town, equipping their nerdiest member with glasses that contain a camera so they can capture the female conquests they have planned. Those spy glasses, which explain why no one sits down the camera when bad stuff starts happening, are the most original conceit in this played-out Tales from the Crypt wannabe.
Once the trio head back to their hotel room with a couple of girls, including a very deranged looking Hannah Fierman, the crap starts hitting the fan in increasingly disturbing and provocative ways. Although this segment provides most of the violence, make-up effects and bared flesh that horror fans associate with these efforts, it’s one of the weaker ones. The disdain we have for the characters prevents us from fearing for their safety. As such, the story isn’t scary so much as it’s gleefully mean, providing a certain vengeful thrill in watching Fierman’s disquieting eyes and predicting the carnage to come. The practical effects are quite nice and the last shot is a clever little gag, but there’s not enough here to justify the misogyny on display in the early bits.
What initially drew my interest to V/H/S was the involvement of Ti West, whose low-key throwback horror flicks House of the Devil and The Innkeeepers are two of my favorite recent horror films. Second Honeymoon isn’t the kind of installment I expected from West, but neither is it a bad one, and ultimately it continues the director’s penchant for making mood pieces that trump narrative through a tight adherence to style and atmosphere. As a young couple record their Southwest road trip, we watch a mysterious third party stalk them when they least expect it.
It is West, perhaps more than anyone else working on this project, that really grasps the relationship between the omnipresent camera and the audience. He uses that relationship and the playful, sometimes strained, relationship of his on-screen couple to ratchet up the tension and break the illusory calm of safety. One of the most haunting and effective shots in V/H/S comes halfway through Second Honeymoon, when it is not what the camera is recording that disturbs, but the audience’s sudden uncomfortable awareness of where it’s placed. The downside is the short running time doesn’t give West the room he needs to stretch the tension and build the characters. The end comes well before we feel all the screws have turned, but it’s an admirable and enjoyable little film that resets expectations for the remaining pieces.
Tuesday the 17th
Glenn McQuaid‘s Tuesday the 17th can’t live up to those raised expectations and the amateurish acting and camerawork should have never followed West. It’s a simple play on the survivor girl/slasher mythos, with a group of young people heading into the woods for the usual indulgences and running afoul of an unstoppable murderer. The kills and the nervy vibe don’t really add any excitement, although gore-hounds will get a few nice jolts.
The unusual and novel aspect of McQuaid’s film is its decisions regarding the supernatural; the camera itself manifests their presence, and we see what a video-recorder would see if it were clairvoyant. The monster shows up as a garbled chunk of digital feedback and that too gives the episode a certain charm. The last little twist comes too late, and proves that McQuaid had a better concept than he had ideas for its execution.
The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger
Joe Swanberg introduced V/H/S when I saw it at the Maryland Film Festival, and he talked about the fact he hadn’t really done horror before this. That doesn’t much hamper The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, which is undoubtedly the scariest and most original segment of the entire event. Staged as a long-distance Skype session between Emily and her boyfriend, Swanberg’s status as an indie rom-com guy helps instead of hinders the ambitions of ‘When She Was Younger’. The dialogue and banter start out cute and flirty, and even as Emily starts revealing the presence of ghosts in her room, the playful mood remains intact.
When the first gooey little apparition runs across the screen, we understand this isn’t a film that plans to play it safe or remain within the confines of the plausible. There’s a twisted and engaging story behind this one, and it manages to successfully maneuver about four different tonal shifts with relative ease. There’s gross-out humor in Emily’s injuries, and shock value in the ghosts, and some sublime daffiness in the final scene, which escalates the absurdity to another genre entirely. Swanberg never abandons the personal dynamic and the camera tricks with the Skype are expertly handled. Combine this segment with the finale and you have a good enough reason for the admission price right there.
Always leave them wanting more. Despite some of the road-bumps V/H/S has as a result of being an anthology, it survives and flourishes because of the brilliant decision to put Radio Silence’s 10/31/98 at the very close of the picture. Even Wingard’s connective story has finished before this one is unleashed, and that’s a good thing. Once the madness begins here, it doesn’t stop and it re-imagines the rules of the handheld format so completely that none of the more traditional ‘found footage’ segments could compete. Give Radio Silence credit here; they avoid the excessive violence, nudity and language that many fans scream for with these endeavors and prove they don’t need them to electrify or thrill an audience.
The plot is simple and ingenious at the same time. Four guys—far friendlier and likable than the gangs featured elsewhere in V/H/S—head out for a Halloween party and arrive at the wrong house. As they wander about documenting what they believe to be the best manufactured haunted house they have ever seen, we the audience are slowly learning they have stumbled into the real thing. There’s even a nefarious event about to go down in the attic, and the guys have to muster their courage and fight the fear in order to do the right thing. When the supernatural hits here, it really hits, and 10/31/98 starts to feel like the Jurassic Park of the found footage genre in the way it allows all of the phantasmal activity to take place directly onscreen without the usual cutaway or obscured detail. If 10/31/98 were a stand-alone film that started with this opener and kept up the crazy for feature length, we could stop the search for the year’s best horror film right now. I expect big things from Radio Silence.
To wrap this up—it’s already gone on too long—V/H/S is a worthy addition to both the found footage and anthology subgenres. It isn’t perfect, but as a creepy experiment it succeeds and reinvigorates the short format. I’d certainly be up for seeing all of these guys take another stab at storytelling, perhaps with a different aesthetic element replacing the found footage.