A group of indie horror directors (and some relative newcomers) unite for the found-footage horror anthology, V/H/S. Comprised of five short films woven into an overarching main narrative, we are taken through found-footage versions of just about every kind of horror film – from the slasher flicks of the ’80s, to the occult and exorcism flicks of the ’70s, to the more modern “torture porn” and ghost house twist tales of ’00s.
The overarching story revolves around a group of petty delinquents with a camera fetish, who go around town assaulting women and destroying property. When one of the team pitches an offer for a simple break-and-enter theft job, the boys are all about it; the mission: grab a particular VHS videotape from some old man’s house. However, when the crew arrives at the house, there are tapes everywhere and a dead man is slumped in a chair before a stack of TV/VCR hookups. As the boys begin to watch each tape, they bear witness to strange and macabre events that seal their own fates.
As for the short segments: In “Amateur Night,” three rowdy young boys set out to film a drunken night of debauchery and sex, only to get much more than they bargained for. “Second Honeymoon” revolves around a young married couple trying to get back in the swing of things via a second honeymoon out west, but when a mysterious stranger knocks on their hotel room door, death soon follows. “Tuesday the 17th” sees four friends filming a trip up to a lake in the woods on the anniversary of a terrible crime, only to discover the killer is still lurking around. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” features a long-distance couple keeping connected via Webcam, and when paranormal events begin to plague the girl, Emily, she and her boyfriend James try to capture the phenomenon on tape. Finally, “10/31/98″ sees four friends venture to a Halloween party at a stranger’s house, only to discover that they’ve wandered into the middle of a cult ritual which unleashes violent demonic forces.
V/H/S is an interesting experiment, at the very least – one that tries to both bring back the horror movie anthologies of the ’70s and ’80s (like Tales from the Crypt, Creep Show and Twilight Zone: The Movie); give shine to some directors that have been crafting various styles of indie horror, such as Ty West (House of the Devil), David Bruckner (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next); lastly, V/H/S tries to bring something new to the quickly-depreciating found-footage sub-genre. In these collective endeavors, the movie is only partially successful.
The found-footage format proves, as usual, to be the biggest hurdle. Whereas other F-F horror flicks use paranormal phenomenon as the basis for which someone is chronicling events on video, the horrible acts in each segment of V/H/S (save the “Emily” one) and the overarching narrative are captured on tape as a matter of pure coincidence. This means that the “protagonists” in the stories are not exactly intellectual types with investigative natures – they’re mostly collections of goofy, often perverted, violent and/or juvenile stock character types (read: poorly acted) that are hard to identify with or like – so it’s equally hard to care when they’re in danger or dying.
Moreover, most audiences know that the opening acts of found-footage films (where we get all the expositional setup necessary to follow the characters and plot) can be boring and tedious – like watching someone’s mundane home movies. While the respective writers and directors of each V/H/S segment do an admirable job quickly and concisely introducing the main points of concern, while implying greater depth in regards to characters and relationships, the actual rhythm of the movie (slow found-footage starts building to big twists, scares, and then abrupt ends) can be a bit tiring by the third of fourth segment – let alone the fifth. Unfortunately, the overarching narrative is rather thin in terms of its relevance to the tape segments or its function as a standalone story, so there is no greater purpose or intrigue helping to drive viewers into each subsequent segment. Once it becomes aware that you’re in for a segment-to-segment craps shoot, completing the anthology can quickly become a task rather than a pleasure.
Some segments are definitely stronger than others – while other segments are downright questionable editions to the final cut of the film (i.e., it might have been shorter and stronger without them). For me, “Tuesday the 17th” was an undeniable weak link, while “Amateur Night” was a standout. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily…” will likely leave viewers scratching their heads rather than trembling in their seats – but the majority of the segments (3 out of 5) do illustrate some creative – at times genuinely creepy and frightening – filmmaking techniques, from some talented and creative filmmakers.
Overall, V/H/S is an admirable experiment that is only partially successful, crafted by admirable filmmakers – only some of whom are successful with their chosen approaches to found-footage horror. It’s a suitable film for home viewing – though the price (and audience experience) of a theatrical screening may not be as worthwhile.
V/H/S is now available On Demand through local cable providers; it will be in theaters (limited release) on October 5th. It is Rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, pervasive language and some drug use.