by Steve Habrat
Over the past few years, the tanking horror genre has been desperately searching for a way to make itself scary again. For a while, it turned to “torture porn” and the Saw franchise in the hopes that people would tremble in fear, but Jigsaw and his merry band of copycats soon wore out audiences with their gore-drenched games (When the singer from Linkin Park is starring in your movie, you know you’ve hit rock bottom.). With interest diminishing in torture porn, Hollywood then turned to the “found footage” subgenre to instill fear in the hearts of every man, woman, and child. The result was the lackluster Paranormal Activity, a film that grew increasingly frustrating the more one thinks back to it. Naturally, Paranormal Activity was a huge success and three pointless sequels and more copy cats emerged in its wake. There is no doubt that the “found footage” well is running dry, but miraculously, a handful of up-and-coming horror directors (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence) found a way to put a relatively creative spin on the subgenre. Acting as more of a Tales from the Crypt anthology, V/H/S is a flawed but surprisingly devilish “found footage” flick that will certainly impress but not totally floor horror fans looking for a decent scare. These days, it really doesn’t take much to impress us, even if you deliver a film that is half good, it ends up being a winner. V/H/S is bound and determined to win us over, bringing everything from ghosts to aliens to slasher killers to vampires to the party.
V/H/S picks up with a group of small time thugs being asked by an unknown employer to break in to a secluded home and steal a mysterious videotape. The thugs are not told what is on the tape, only that the will know it when the see it. As the thugs explore the home, they stumble upon a room with a dead body propped up in front of several television screens and a VHS player. Curiosity gets the best of them and they begin watching the video insider the player. The thugs witness a bizarre string of videos that include three obnoxious guys trying to pick up girls at a local bar, a married couple on their honeymoon, four friends on a camping trip, a video chat between a disturbed young woman and her boyfriend, and a Halloween video of four friends exploring what they assume is a staged haunted house. All the videos seem to start harmless enough, but each segment soon erupts into unspeakable horror and carnage.
V/H/S is the type of film that gets by with the element of surprise. You can’t wait to see how each of the segments, which all last about twenty minutes, will play out and spiral out of control. Being an anthology, the segments end up being hit or miss, which ends up throwing the entire project off. The strongest installment is without question Ti West’s unsettling “Second Honeymoon,” which relies on eerie knocking on a hotel door and a staggeringly realistic murder to spook the audience. It was easily the strongest twenty minutes of the entire movie, unsurprising because West is certainly a talented guy (See The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers for further proof). Perhaps the lowest point of V/H/S was Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th,” a Friday the 13th style slasher with perhaps the goofiest killer ever conceived. This is where the quality really dips and the lull carries over into Joe Swanberg’s bizarre “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” This segment starts off creepy enough but manages to completely fall apart as it goes on, even though it unleashes an impressive twist in the final few minutes. The other two installments, David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” and Radio Silence’s “10/31/98,” are wicked fun, especially the Twilight Zone-esque “10/31/98.” The arching story, Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56,” which follows the thugs on their quest to find the tape, is also a real creep out even if it seems a bit anticlimactic (wait for the scene in the basement).
One of the biggest problems with the “found footage” subgenre is the unconvincing acting, which is meant to seem realistic but often comes off as strained or staged. These directors are forced to turn to relatively unknown actors and actresses due to the idea that a well-known face will instantly drain all the “realism” from the experience. V/H/S naturally turns to a cast of relatively unknowns and the results end up being a mixed bag. The best acting comes from Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal in West’s installment and the thugs in Wingard’s segment. I really disliked the thugs of “Tape 56,” who enjoy ambushing young women and lifting up their shirts for the camera. Just hearing the woman scream in terror as they charge her was enough to make this viewer very uncomfortable. The worst acting is definitely found in “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” especially from Daniel Kaufman’s James, a guy who seems to be completely unfazed as an apparition (or is it?) runs into Emily’s bedroom.
If you are someone who likes plenty of gore with their scares, V/H/S has you covered, never shying away from a grisly shot of entrails being ripped out of someone’s chest or a severed head rolling around on the ground (just to name a few). For a film made on a shoestring budget, the effects are absolutely incredible. “10/31/98” is an effects heavy offering and “Second Honeymoon” features a grisly murder that seems a bit too real (there is barely a cut to be found). “Amateur Night” features a nifty shape shifting character and even a brief glimpse of a monster gliding through the air. This proud beast is drenched in darkness to make it extra creepy, relying on the idea that the less is actually more. If you’re the type who favors plenty of gratuitous sex and nudity, you’re also in luck because there is plenty to go around. Boobs are flashed, people film themselves having sex, and the girls are even treated to a full frontal of one terrified male character. Overall, for all the hype surrounding the film, V/H/S actually lives up to all the positive word-of-mouth surrounding it. It certainly would be better if “Tuesday the 17th” and “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” were cut from the middle section of the film but we’re stuck with them. It would also have been nice if the filmmakers found a way to tie everything up in a more satisfying manner, but there is still plenty of creativity to keep this one lodged in your nightmares for quite some time.
V/H/S is available on Blu-ray and DVD.