Written by: Simon Barrett, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Nicholas Tecosky, Chad Villella, and Ti West
Directed by: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Chad Villella, Ti West, and Adam Wingard
Starring: Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg, and Tyler Gillett
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
This collection is killer.
V/H/S marries a few things that are going pretty well in horror right now--indie directors, found footage, and fetishistic nostalgia--to an old genre standby: the anthology film. The omnibus format has seen a bit of a resurgence itself in recent years, and the mix is inspired even if V/H/S can't escape the pitfalls of both formats. Particularly hampered by the ambiguity that often surrounds found footage, V/H/S is narratively frustrating but also unsettling and creepy, an effect that renders it a sum that's greater than its parts.
“Unsettling” and “creepy” are probably the last words to describe the film’s rocky start, though. Its frame story involves a group of hooligans and thugs who spend their time assaulting women and filming it. One day, they’re mysteriously tapped for an odd job that finds them raiding an old house for a VHS tape; upon entering, they actually find several tapes--and one corpse. Not letting this weirdness deter them, they begin to scour the contents of the tapes, which act as the film’s five shorts. The frame--officially titled “Tape 56”--is constantly interwoven and advances its own arc between the tapes, or half-advances it, I suppose, as it’s vague and doesn’t add up to much outside of offering audiences the opportunity to see these unpleasant characters endure equally unpleasant things.
That’s sort of the M.O. of V/H/S in a nutshell, and the first segment, David Bruckner’s "Amateur Night," is an inauspicious first step. Like the frame story, it’s also populated by a bunch of insufferable guys; this time, it’s a bunch of bros who are headed out for a night on the town in search of girls, whom they intend to film after taking them to a seedy motel room. The photography is nauseating, the personalities grating--the whole thing feels like a bad frat-themed porn video, at least until it’s revealed that the guys have brought back the wrong girl (Hannah Fierman), who turns the tables in violent, gory fashion. Fierman is one of the film’s more noteworthy revelations; in her brief appearance, she sufficiently effuses an equal mix of shyness, peculiarity, and ferocity, and she rescues an otherwise nondescript segment that’s full of severed dicks, attempted date rape, and other assorted sleaze.
Ti West follows by slipping in the comparatively low key and unnerving “Second Honeymoon,” which finds a young couple vacationing out in the desert West, where they encounter the typical tourist traps. They hole up in a cheap motel (clearly, the first two segments have it out for the hotel industry) and are shaken after receiving a bizarre visit from a girl looking to hitch a ride. By now, you know the drill with West: “Second Honeymoon” is as slow a burn as you can get in an anthology, with its pulse rarely rising, even during its most intensely skin-crawling moment that finds an unseen prowler observing the couple as they sleep. The scenes awaken primal fears of voyeurism and vulnerability, so much so that the couple’s subsequent daylight hike is suddenly a harrowing proposition, and West’s segment ends up being the most accomplished in the film since it fills in the blanks more sufficiently than the others with a clever bit of foreshadowing. “Second Honeymoon” almost feels like a scruffy update of the old Amicus standards that mixed love and violence with an ominous sense of foreboding.
As you can glean from its title, “Tuesday the 17th” is Glenn McQuaid’s slasher riff that features a quartet of kids headed off to a wooded, lakeside retreat. While the title (and McQuaid’s past output) hints at a parody of the subgenre, it’s anything but. Despite a couple of narrative wrinkles, this one’s a straight-laced “dead teenager” slasher that might confirm that Friday the 13th and its splatter movie ilk need to stay far away from this format, at least for a full feature. McQuaid does find some inventive ways to capture the kills, but it’s hard to imagine that an entire slasher movie could operate under this sort of logic. Still, “Tuesday the 17th” makes the case that it works well enough in a short format, though it eventually runs into the same sort of wall as many of the V/H/S segments when McQuaid introduces a concept (the killer can’t be captured on tape and can seemingly teleport) without offering any explanation.
A mouthful of a title with an equally robust plot for a short film, Joe Swanberg’s “The Strange Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is arguably the most inventive and intriguing segment in V/H/S. Presented entirely via Skype conversations between Emily (Helen Rogers) and her long-distance boyfriend, the segment starts with a familiar kernel: she believes her apartment is haunted and wants him to capture the evidence during one of their conversations. However, she also has a curious bump on her arm that she can’t stop picking at, so when “The Strange Thing” does enter into Paranormal Activity territory with its mysterious noises, slamming doors, and creepy kids, rest assured that it also takes a hard right turn that almost begs this sucker to be turned into a feature. Something fascinating lies at the center of this segment that’s not done justice by the short format, something that (again) befalls a lot of these segments.
Capping the anthology is “10/31/98,” a cool haunted house tour-de-force that returns us to the same setup as the opening bits. Once again, we’re following a group of twenty-something guys, this time headed to what they believe to be a Halloween party. Instead, they find an abandoned house that they mistake for a haunted attraction. Something horrible does await up in the attic, and it’s akin to watching guys traipse through a funhouse only to run into a crime scene that becomes more terrifying as it unfolds. Billed as “Radio Silence,” the quartet of directors here expertly employ the found footage aesthetic to capture the weirdness of paranormal events caught in the raw. Their short effortlessly blends incredible effects work with a kinetic energy that makes up for the fact that (once again), it’s hard to say exactly just what in the hell is going on.
There’s a lot of that going around in V/H/S, obviously, so it's an endeavor that certainly values style over substance. With the exception of “Second Honeymoon,” the segments provide more questions than answers, with the frame itself also completely petering out (in fact, it ends before the final segment begins). Still, it’s hard to deny the intriguing grab bag of ideas and the way they fit together as a mostly satisfying pastiche; somehow, the rampant ambiguity just feels right, as if we’re meant to be turned away wondering exactly what in the hell we just saw. That’s sort of been the appeal of found footage The Blair Witch Project infamously featured a money shot of a guy standing in a corner. Not content to simply prey on the unknown and the unseen (which some segments do fantastically), V/H/S also taps into the pseudo-snuff quality of found footage that made Cannibal Holocaust so effective (it’s almost ironic that contemporary filmmakers have increasingly used it to capture the paranormal rather than strict realism), as it’s unflinchingly violent and nasty. Even though most of the segments don’t conform to the VHS aesthetic, it’s effectively raw in a way few found footage films are.
It goes without saying that V/H/S is a mixed bag; few anthologies are able to defy the unwritten rule that insists on at least one segment not pulling its weight. In this case, both the first proper segment and the frame are sort of duds at worst; at best, they’re reflective of V/H/S as a whole: a neat recipe that doesn’t get baked all the way through. Both frustratingly underdone and undeniably compelling at various points, it’s a true crazy quilt that finds cohesion in tone and its embracement of the found footage format’s stronger qualities, particularly its ability to shake audiences with staggering visuals that last just long enough to take hold but perhaps leaving you wanting just a little bit more. Collectively, V/H/S is a compilation of half-remembered nightmares that have been pasted together and housed in a dusty old tape. Only time will tell if it'll eventually be considered a moldy relic or a treasured artifact, but I'm inclined to think it'll always be a little bit of both. Buy it!
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