Sunday, January 13, 2013

V/H/S (2012) Movie Review

A rowdy group of thugs, high on videotaping their small town exploits land themselves a shady, but simple enough gig: Break and enter into an abandoned house in hopes of retrieving a single VHS cassette. What it contains, what the value is, none of them know, all that matters is the payoff. So when the house in question doesn't seem to be abandoned, and the guys have clearly wandered into something profoundly horrific, we are there to witness not only their fates, but those of others captured forever in their recorded hubris. Having pretty much seen the most convincing examples of the "found footage" approach to horror film, perhaps it was more than time to catapult the genre into pure spectacle mode. After the approach has already graced other realms of the fantastic in recent years (Chronicle, Cloverfield), so perhaps it was a mere matter of time before the fantastical infiltrated the horror world. No longer content with implications of terror outside, or around the frame of vision, this at-times ballsy anthology featuring directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, & Radio Silence dares to go ahead by merging both technical limitation and popcorn silly, and what results is a mixed, yet impression-making bag.

As mentioned, V/H/S's anthology format is wrapped together by the main frame narrative called Tape 56, where the search for a valuable VHS cassette in a darkened home bears not only the collection of eerie tapes featured throughout, but possibly someone watching the watchers. Wingard's entry is both daring in its premise of having such unlikeable guys be the focal point of the action. Early on, we are witness to their depravity as they cause immense property damage, and even assault women in public in hopes of creating sellable "reality porn". Immediately, we are introduced to what will become a major theme of the entire film; the alpha male is a scourge, and is conversely self-destructive. The frame narrative of the piece comes into play when the supposedly empty house seems to be host to a dead man in a living room that doesn't seem comfy staying dead. And all the while, one of the guys is tasked with seeking out the prized tape. And since most are not particularly well-labeled, the thief opts to play through each tape in the living room, thereby showing us the ensuing shorts that make up the film's running time. Much of it is classic dark rooms, threatening corners, and everything else one might expect from such a premise. And as we come to the end of each short, we return back to the living room, often with the tension quietly mounting upon the guys as it becomes very clear that they aren't alone. What it brings to the fray, little in the way of new, save for some seriously unsavory leads. There is enough psychological play to make it interesting, but in all Tape 56 works as little more than an easy to digest framing device.

The first found tape on the pile is "Amateur Night", directed by David Bruckner, a short that takes the previously established themes of alpha-male jerkassery, and captured results of their boundary-violating by way of three city pals, out for a night on the town in hopes of making a sex video via the weaker friend wearing webcam-fitted glasses. Right away we are exposed to a trio that is easily the worst the American collegiate system could offer, stopping by a noisy bar in hopes of picking up a few random women to take to a hotel room for the night. It isn't long until something resembling success comes in the form of two women. One if which is classically drunk, and almost to the point of passing out. And then there's Lily, a quiet, sober, and VERY strange young lady. And as the short takes us out of the overall noise of the bar, and into the streets, heading to "home base", is becomes incredibly clear that something simply isn't completely right about the girl who seemingly has her eyes singularly on the cam-glasses-wearing Clint. This all comes to a head once the group arrive at the hotel room, and the friends attempt to close escrow--then things go horrendously wrong. Now right away, the theme established in the previous footage is amplified by way of these main characters here, and while there are some truly memorable images here, this is perhaps where I state that a large part of what made verite horror work for me in the past was in how it didn't tip its hand to far by showing us the fantastical in full frame. And throughout Amateur Night's build up, there seemed to be some hope that we'd witness something a little more grounded, but what we get by the end is so giddily preposterous, that it changes the timbre of where these films had been going, but just throws caution to the wind, and just goes for it. While it does take a certain amount of guts to do so, it's an aim that won't work with all tastes. For what it's worth, Bruckner's goals are made pretty clear. If only there was more to offer..

Next comes Ti West (House Of The Devil), and his entry, Second Honeymoon, which follows a handcam carrying couple traveling the deserts of the american southwest, only to discover that they might be in the process of being followed. Now this almost wholly stylistic about-face from the previous two is worth considering as West is no stranger from applying a slow-burn structure to his tales. It's so seemingly ordinary in it's milieu and in the performances, that it feels culled together for a completely different film. The closeness, and unique characteristics of Stephanie (Sophia Takal) and Sam (mumblecore favorite, Joe Swanberg)  take center stage as the whole piece feels authentic enough to detail even their more unflattering sides as things develop. The trip feels relatively fine, and even the horror element plays at it slowly and methodically. And yet, upon closer inspection, the themes resurface in a most unexpected manner.  One thing West is adept at, is finding the scariest things in the most mundane of circumstances. It's bad enough that the couple seem to be going through some mildly simmering difficulties, but when there's a stranger outside your door, West and his tiny cast figure out ways to milk what has yet to be done with the horror verite style, apply the horror of the everyday. The end result is both shocking, and mildly frustrating. But a might more interesting when all is said and done.

And then comes the much talked-about Glen McQuaid entry, Tuesday The 17th..Havoc strikes a quartet of college kids on a trip to the woods, led by secretive friend, Wendy (Norma C. Quinones). And again, the kids are largely an obnoxious bunch, but with the obnoxious pumped to almost irritating levels as they are led deeper into the woods, with half-breathed words such as "you're all going to die out here" via Wendy, who has mentioned having been out here before and survived a tragedy years prior. Obviously here with an agenda, her and her new friends are then stalked by a savage killer entity, unseen by the human eye..but strangely visible via a camera's viewfinder! Easily, the short's creative masterstroke, what is easily the weakest written and acted entry of the series, is also host to one of the most unique horror concepts in recent memory. A villain that can only visually be manifested by way of video distortion is an incredibly unique and effectively creepy one. It's all too bad that the schlock level is so high in its tribute to 1980s stalk n slash that it never lives beyond the novelty. Film school level silliness ensues, buoyed by one really cool idea. And once again, the themes established ring loud and clear here.

And just  when it felt like V/H/S had relegated itself into an uneven collection filled with forced themes, and mostly missed opportunities, in flies Joe Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger. This incredible short make using the video chat software, Skype details the chatting sessions between Emily(Helen Rogers) and her new doctor boyfriend, James(Daniel Kaufman) while he is out of state. He has come into Emily's life as she has been suffering what seem to be increasingly terrifying hauntings within and around her city apartment. In hopes of proving this to James, she continues to call him to be present whenever the disturbances return, to often mixed findings. With the hauntings becoming more severe, and her behavior becoming increasingly destructive, matters reach a head that is on multiple levels gut twisting and deeply eerie. The largest revelation is that of Rogers' performance that painfully encapsulates one's descent into the mind's most troubled recesses, and all of it completely out of her reach to control it. Unsatisfied with what has been previously done with the style, Emily is a brilliant exercise in misdirection, character development, and truly dark notions. Completely well-executed, acted, and directed within an inch of micro genius, this is the shining surprise of V/H/S's collection.

Lastly, we have director collective, Radio Silence's 10/31/98, which details the hidden cam experience of four LA friends out in costume, headed for a Halloween party in a seemingly abandoned house which is host to all manner of freakish occurences. Easily one of the more straight-forward entries, this final piece lightens up on the "bros are horrible" a little, and delivers a simple, yet spooky little funhouse. And while it doesn't offer up much of anything in regards to character, let alone story, it does have a great deal of fun in coming up with ways to allow the foggy VHS color degradation to become a unique way to see some of the house's spectral beings in bizarre and visceral imagery. Strangely, this feels more like a fantastical, more FX-laden rendition of the spanish outbreak horror, REC, with just a little more humor injected. After the grim inscrutability of Emily, this seems like an appropo choice to round out the series, yet it all feels familiar. And while there is a lot of successful dating achieved in making this indeed look like a video made in the late 1990s, the angry spirits haunting the place fit well in line with years of hokey CG-laden horror films of the last decade. Fun, albeit tame.

So when the finale comes around, and all of these guys have been rightly punshed for their transgressions, does it feel like V/H/S comes together as a cohesive whole? Not particularly. While there are some great ideas and two good to great installments, the rest is more a success in how modern horror fans are capable of making good in a new film landscape. Having been produced by some of the guys behind the horror fansite, Bloody Disgusting, this is a fun, but uneven first outing with some real gems stuck amongst an interesting rabble. With the Paranormal Activity movies leading the charge as the de-facto series to top in the verite horror sweepstakes, V/H/S is more like an experiment in the future of an accidental genre. And if the goal is going full bore toward jumping the found footage shark, it's at least 70% there.

Curious to know more? The film is currently available on Netflix, here.


  1. I just saw this. A few gems in there, not perfect. I think the last short might be my fave...but maybe I just want to see 1408 again.

  2. I think I might have enjoyed 10/31/98 more if it hadn't become a showcase reel. For me that defeats the purpose of the subgenre, and turns it into something more atypical. A big reason REC worked for me was how little it gave us. But this segment wants to rub our faces in what it intends to do, which for me lessens the impact. Was nice to see Washington Station though. Heh. 1408 is still a title I need to catch. Thanks for the reminder!