This low-budget 2012 horror film seeks to squeeze a few more pixels out of the “found footage” style by combining it with the anthology format. The result is consistently intense but inconsistently satisfying: the film-making is impressive, even innovative in its attempt to pack relentlessly downbeat horror into 20-minute packages, but the consequence is a narrative monotony that is only exacerbated by a couple of non- sensical twist endings. One or two episodes emerge as genuine blood-stained gems in a film unapologetically filled graphic violence and sleazy sexism.
In short, V/H/S/ is essential viewing for hardcore horror fans, but its reach exceeds its grasp – or, more appropriately, its vision exceeds its focal length.
TAPE 56 – Written by Simon Barrett, Directed by Adam Wingard
V/H/S begins with this wrap-around segment, in which a gang of hoodlums take time off from their usual pursuits (vandalism, attempted rape) to do a job for an unseen employer, who wants them to break into a house and steal a videotape. Told only that they will know the tape when they see it, the gang members wind up inside a house with a stack of cassettes and a corpse sitting in front of a row of monitors. Searching for their target, they watch the different tapes, each offering a bizarre, horrible story. Although the shaky camera work makes it hard to keep track, it seems as if the gang is losing members as each story unfolds; a shadowy presence is glimpsed in the basement, and finally, the gang leader finds himself alone, the chair that held the dead man now empty…
The hooligans are an unpleasant lot, and we spend more time with them than necessary to set up the story, but “Tape 56” effectively sets the tone for what follows.
AMATEUR NIGHT – Written by David Bruckner & Nicholas Tecosky, Directed by David Bruckner
A group of young men equip one of their number with spyglasses – apparently ordinary eyeglasses that record everything he sees – and set out to videotape themselves having sex with a couple women they pick up in a bar. Unfortunately, the pick the wrong woman, in the form of the ethereally creepy Lily (Hannah Fierman), who extracts karmic comeback from these sexists pigs.
The first complete episode of V/H/S is also its best, setting a standard that none of the others can match. “Amateur Night” builds to an insane climax, but does so in such a step-by-step fashion that the conclusion seems completely logical and believable. The episode is gruesome as hell but strangely satisfying; in a crude way, everyone gets what he deserves, at the hands of a psycho-bitch from Hell (and we may mean that literally).
Note: David Bruckner previous co-directed THE SIGNAL (2007), also a remarkable achievement.
SECOND HONEYMOON – Written and directed by Ti West
A couple videotape their second honeymoon, but their joy is mitigated by a strange woman (described but not seen) lurking outside their hotel room. Later, their video camera records footage while they are asleep – presumably handled by the strange woman – but the couple never notice the additional footage. A later intrusion turns deadly, but the outcome offers an unexpected twist regarding the survivors.
Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) knows how to do a slow build as well as anyone, but the twist ending borders on being silly. (SPOILER: the strange woman kills the husband; then she and the wife run off together. Was this planned all along, or did did the wife and the strange woman meet somewher on vacation? Why videotape the incriminating murder? The closest thing we get to an explanation is a card the wife received from a mechanical fortune teller, stating that she would reunite with a loved one. It’s not enough to make sense of the conclusion, even on a second viewing. END SPOILER)
Whatever the narrative faults, the scenes of the camera prowling the hotel room while the husband and wife sleep are nerve-wracking.
TUESDAY THE 17TH – Written and directed by Glenn McQuad
The archetypal group of friends (two guys, two gals) head out to the archetypal cabin in the woods, where (you guessed it) the archetypal serial killer lurks, awaiting new victims. The twist here is that one of the victims, Wendy (Norma C. Quinones) is actually the survivor of a previous trip; she has brought her friends to use them as bait in her effort to slay the killer in the woods.
The twist defies credibility. Even if we believe Wendy is ruthless enough to sacrifice innocent lives in her quest for vengeance, why does she risk putting her friends on guard by announcing up front that they are all going to die?
Regardless of this narrative slip-up, “Tuesday the 17th” works very well, toying with the cliches of the slasher genre (Wendy laments that the police didn’t believe her story about an indestructible killer who was everywhere at once – a common trope in the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, wherein Jason seemed to be able to teleport from one are to another in search of victims).
The presentation of the killer is also remarkable. Apparently, the character (identified as “The Glitch” in the credits) cannot be photographed on tape; his appearances are blurred by tracking errors, suggesting that Wendy is hopelessly outmatched against an opponent who is no normal human.
THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER – Written by Simon Barret and directed by Joe Swanberg
Emily (Helen Rogers) chats on Skype with her boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman), who is away at medical school. (How these conversations recorded with contemporary Skype technology ended up on outdated VHS tape is a mystery that is never considered.) Unfortunately, Emily’s new apartment seems to be haunted; she also has some kind of lump on her arm that she would like to dig out with a knife. James tries to reassure her, but she wakes him up at night to transmit video images of the spectres darting in the shadows of her rooms. One night, their shocking appearance ends up with Emily unconscious, giving birth to a mutant baby; later, when she is somewhat recovered, she vaguely references a similar incident in her childhood.
This is another creeptacular episode marred by a goofy twist. (SPOILER: The ghosts are apparently aliens, and James is in league with them, quickly popping over to deliver Emily’s baby after she falls unconscious. Are we really supposed to believe that Emily never notices her “boyfriend” is not only in the same city but literally right next door? Or that the emergency room doctors would not notice that a C-section had been performed on Emily, just because James broke a few bones to make her condition look like an accident? Why is James in league with aliens, and why do they even need a med student to deliver the baby they presumably implanted into Emily? Don’t ask – the film has no intention of telling you.)
There is a poingnant sadness to this episode – a sense of a frail, helpless creature caught in a terrible web that afflicts her body and her mind, the real reasons for her suffering clouded behind a loss of memory, leaving only vague paranoid fears. Deeply disturbing but unfairly manipulative, which negates the impact, somewhat.
10/31/98 – Written and directed by “Radio Silence” (Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin)
Four costumed friends head out to a Halloween party, without quiet knowing their destination. One of them is conveniently dressed as a teddy bear with a hidden “Nanny Cam,” recording everything that happens. Searching for the party in an unfamiliar neighborhood, they wander into an old, empty house. At first they think the guests must be outback, but as briefly glimpsed bits of paranormal activity begin to manifest, they suspect they are inside some kind of haunted attraction. Moving upstairs, they find a ceremony going on, with strange incantations read by men surrounding a tied-up woman. Helping her escape, they flee the house but not before more obvious signs of the supernatural emerge, including disembodied arms protruding from the walls. They drive away with the woman in their car, which stalls on some train tracks. After a flash of darkness, the woman is outside the car; a train is coming, and the men realize they cannot unlock the doors…
The initial scenes of “10/31/98” are a bit slack as we wait for the friends (played by the writing-directing quartet who go by the name Radio Silence) to find the party. Things pick up a bit when they start to believe they may be victims of a Halloween prank – while we in the audience have already begun to suspect that the house they are in is truly haunted. The ceremony in the attic and the sudden intrusion of more blatant supernatural phenomena escalate the scares to another level, leading to a frantic conclusion.
This is another episode that leaves questions unanswered (Who is the woman? Were the men in the attic invoking evil or trying to purge it?), but these questions do not raise any logical objections to the way the story plays out, and the mystery enhances the supernatural aspects, suggesting what it might feel like when mere mortals encounter forces beyond their comprehension.
THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
On a simple narrative level, V/H/S suffers from the problem that affects all films of this type. It is the modern equivalent of the question that plagued readers of old first-person horror stories in which the narrator met a grizzly fate: Why didn’t the fool drop the pencil and run like hell – or in this case, drop the camera? “Amateur Night” and “10/31/98” deal with this fairly well; in both cases, one character is “wearing” the camera, not holding it in his hands. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” (great title) also handles the problem fairly well. “Second Honeymoon” avoids the problem by having the killer wield the camera, which raises other questions: Why film the murder, and why not erase the incriminating evidence? This leads to another question: how did the recordings of “Amateur Night” and “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” both of which had to have been recorded on digital media, end up on old-fashioned analog VHS tape?
These questions do not destroy the effectiveness of V/H/S, but they do undermine the attempt to present a series of vicious vignettes as if they actually happened. It’s as if a horror story had been presented as a message found in a bottle, only to reveal that the message had not been written in ink on paper but carved into granite with a chisel.
As effectively disturbing as its individual episodes are, V/H/S as a whole is not equal to the sum of its parts – which despite a wide range of topics (slashers, demons, aliens, etc) suffer from an underlying similarity: it becomes clear very quickly that nothing good will happen in any of these stories; the characters are doomed from the outset, and viewers are encouraged by the predictability to sit back and enjoy the carnage for its own sake.
Fortunately, the anthology format obviates the need for sustained narratives, allowing the filmmakers to focus on horror rather than plot. All of that shaky camera work and deliberately bad lighting sustain a remarkable sense of dread from start to finish, and the film is technically impressive in its ability to present gruesome shocks and supernatural scares in the context of what appears to be a single-take amateur effort.
V/H/S is marred by an exploitative approach to sex and nudity that borders on sexism. More than once, you get the sense that the filmmakers are playing with their cameras like a bunch of boys playing with their new toys. Give a young man a video recording device, the film says, and inevitably he will try to coerce his girlfriend, his wife, or even a total stranger to reveal her breasts on camera. One could argue that the fault lies with the characters, not the filmmakers, but the people behind the camera do little to distance themselves from the sleaze; you get the feeling they identify a little bit too closely with their on-screen counterparts.
On the other hand: Having said all that, one must acknowledge that the interesting thematic element underpinning V/H/S is that the female characters as likely to be victimizers as victims. The body count of the men far outnumbers that of the women. “Amateur Night” and “Second Honeymoon” feature female killers; one could argue that “Tuesday the 17th” and “10/31/98” do so as well, although the victim-victimizer roles are less clear.
Whether deliberately or not, V/H/S seems to present a sort of female rebellion against the sexist exploitation doled out by the male characters, who in at least one segment are literally emasculated. Male domination of women gives way to male fear of women, who turn the tables in some particularly repulsive ways. Even if the film does not come to grips with its own misogyny, the presentation is ambiguous enough to be interesting: are the filmmakers expressing their own desires and fears, or is all this stuff bubbling up from the unconscious, awaiting psychoanalytic evaluation by critics and viewers?
Either way, V/H/S taps into a dark vein of troubled thoughts and imagery that have more to offer than just gratuitous shocks. Inconsistent as it may be, V/H/S emerges as a kind of statement, worth evaluating. As good horror often does, the film shines a light on aspects of ourselves that normally remain in the shadows. We can hardly expect these demons to emerge with fully formed clarity; it is enough that we get to look at them and decide for ourselves.
Whatever its flaws, the people behind V/H/S know their craft, and they use it in ways you will not see in mainstream cinema. These filmmakers (and those like them who have worked on V/H/S 2 and THE ABCS OF DEATH) are probably the future of horror – a prime example of the “Vulgar Auteurism” discussed in this New Yorker article) . Now if they could just mature a little bit and trade in some of the vulgarity for variety.
On the CFQ Review scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation.
V/H/S (Magnet Releasing, 2012). Concept by Brad Miska. Screenplays by Radio Silence,Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid. Directed by Radio Silence, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Adam Wingard. 116 minutes. Rated R. Cast: Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Adam Wingard, Hann Fierman, Mike Donlan, Joe Sykes, Drew Sawyer, Jas Sams, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Helen Rogers, Daniel Kaufman, Norma C. Quinones, Drew Moerlein, Jeannine Elizabeth Yoder, Jason Yachanin, Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Paul Natonek, Nicole Erb.