V/H/S is possibly the first found-footage horror anthology, two styles of filmmaking that are loved as much as they are hated. Found footage films are, without a doubt, one of the biggest cultural trends of the last decade and as such, can go either very well or horribly awry. Anthologies are another risky venture for horror films as inevitably there will be one or two segments which don’t measure up to the rest, thus rendering the entire project grievously flawed. These issues do plague V/H/S to a certain extent, but as an experimental indie horror film, it’s still a success.
The wraparound story of V/H/S (“Tape 56,” written by Simon Barrett, directed by Adam Wingard) is certainly creepy, but still off putting in the way it posits the main characters as disgusting losers. Our introduction to them is footage of their restraining a woman in a parking garage and filming her naked breasts as they pull off her shirt and later, trashing the hell out of an abandoned house. They do this for money but we get the idea that they’d probably do it for free, too. We next learn they’ve been hired to break into a house and steal one VHS tape, having been told “you’ll know it when you see it.” This makes sense within the context of the wraparound segment, but it doesn’t endear us to them one bit. In fact, I found myself pretty repulsed by the intro and wondered if I could even make it through the rest of the film.
This feeling was intensified somewhat by the first segment, “Amateur Night” (written by David Bruckner and Nicolas Tecosky, directed by David Bruckner) in which some unrepentant douchebros on a Spring Break rager bender convince one friend to wear glasses with a hidden camera so they can pick up girls, bring them back to their hotel room, and make an amateur porno. Charming. Luckily, one of the girls is not what see seems and leaves a lot of blood in her wake, though oddly, not as a direct result of the douchebros’ gross behavior. She just happens to be a bloodthirsty creature. Sucks to be those guys. It’s a nice twist on the rape-revenge idea.
Next up was “Second Honeymoon,” (written and directed by Ti West), which successfully illustrates what I unashamedly love about found footage when it’s done well. Normal things take place with absolutely no hint of impending doom, something vaguely weird happens, then you start to question when the other shoe is going to drop and wonder how horrifying it will turn out. (It’s remarkable to see how a similar aesthetic arc is established in West’s non-found-footage The House of the Devil.) The slow build of suspense was excruciating, and the climax was more shocking and gory than I could have predicted. It’s the only segment that made me turn on the lights and keep them on all night, even when I was trying to go to sleep. (I watch a lot of horror movies and this hasn’t happened to me in a long time.)
What a disappointment to find that the next segment, “Tuesday the 17th” (written and directed by Glenn McQuaid) is so mind-numbingly bad. It starts out okay, although the characters are all young and pretty irritating. This would be acceptable but for the way that when strange things start to happen, the acting quality drops to almost nil and all credibility in the narrative is shot. The reference to the title of Friday the 13th is the only redeemable aspect of this segment.
Although “Second Honeymoon” is by far the most unnerving of all the segments, there is definitely something to be said for the effectiveness and longevity of “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” (written by Simon Barrett, directed by Joe Swanberg). Through a series of webcam chats, we learn that Emily thinks she’s being haunted by something but that her boyfriend James doesn’t necessarily believe her. The special effects are minimal and not wholly effective, but that’s not what makes this segment stand out. There are a few subtle bits of dialogue that seem completely unimportant until you think about them in a larger context. The aspects of grooming and gaslighting that are taking place here elevate this into something that is genuinely unsettling.
Finally, there is “10/31/98” (written and directed by the collective known as Radio Silence) which has some fantastic special effects that would be amazing in a haunted house film but within the context of this comical segment, seem out of place. It’s something that I think would work much better with fewer laughs and more attention to scares.
Of course, in between each of the segments (in keeping with the realism, they are not named onscreen until the end credits), we see more of the initial tape-stealing venture, which does become creepier as it develops.
I commend all the filmmakers for committing to a project that tries to bring something different and challenging to both the found footage and anthology styles of the horror film canon. Even though the results are uneven, there is enough genuinely scary and thought-provoking stuff in V/H/S to make me interested in a sequel, which was recently announced. It’s worth mentioning that most of the characters in V/H/S are varying degrees of assholes, which is fine as long as there are at least a few sympathetic characters to balance things out. Hopefully, the next installment will bring more sympathetic characters to the foreground.
V/H/S was released on Blu-Ray on December 4 through Magnet Releasing.
There are a lot of special features, including a commentary track with nine different members of the cast and crew. There are also various interviews with several of the writers and directors from when V/H/S played at SXSW. These are interesting because you get a sense of what the filmmakers wanted to achieve contrasted with your actual viewing experience takeaways. The technical aspects of filming—particularly the attempts to make “10/31/98” look authentic and the revelation that “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily . . . ” was screencaptured from actual webcam chats—are fascinating. There are a couple of webcam interviews—one between writer Simon Barrett and actor/director Joe Swanberg and another between Swanberg and actress Helen Rogers (Emily)—that are also informative and interesting.
There is also a short featurette for AXS TV called “A Look at V/H/S,” a behind the scenes photo gallery, and a conceptual design gallery for the Lily character from “Amateur Night” that shows how much thought and effort went into this segment.