Taking a short break from the music reviews and whatnot to focus on a film that’s been making the festival rounds, and which recently just popped up on-demand and on iTunes: the found footage/anthology feature V/H/S.
There is probably no more over-used trope in recent independent horror filmmaking than the “found footage” format. It makes sense that it would appeal to indy horror filmmakers, because its central conceit can cover up any number of financial shortcomings: the cameras used can be inexpensively obtained, while the rough-looking footage (enhanced by overly shaky hand-held points of view or static camera setups) can obscure low-budget special effects work, while ostensibly pulling the viewer in more easily by removing a barrier to suspension of disbelief. But the appeal of presenting “found footage” has led to a glut of similarly-styled films in the wake of The Blair Witch Project (though it took a while for the craze to catch on).
Meanwhile, few recent films have successfully pulled off the anthology format that was so prevalent in the 1960s and ‘70s (most notably utilized by Britain’s Amicus Films, with classics such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood, Asylum and Tales from the Crypt). Since the 1980s, only a handful of entries into the omnibus territory have been made, and even fewer have been able to successfully pull it off.
Largely, V/H/S succeeds where others have failed, though this film is not without its own shortcomings. But more on those in a bit.
One problem with found footage features is that too often, the camera is treated as an objective observer. Usually utilized by characters in the film to document the activity within, the camera is meant primarily to be the audience’s window into the events of the film. Right off the bat with the wraparound segment “Tape 56” (directed by Adam Wingard of Home Sick and You’re Next), V/H/S throws this concept out the window, as we are placed in the middle of a bunch of reprobates acting out in sub-Jackass fashion, going on random destructive sprees and filming themselves assaulting women in parking garages in order to expose their victims’ breasts (for which they get paid $50 per video, we find out). Instead of being a cold recording of what they’re up to, we’re almost made complicit in their acts, taking the POV of one of the gang.
The gang in question is enlisted to break into an old man’s house and retrieve a VHS tape for a much bigger bounty, and as with everything else, they document this as well (in a bit of uncomfortably humorous business, we see that they’re accidentally taping over one of their crew’s sex tapes). They discover the body of an old man (we don’t know if it’s the old man or not) sitting before a bank of televisions, where he’d been watching a number of tapes. One guy is left behind to check out the tapes that he’d been watching, and that’s where the horror starts.
The film’s first entry, “Amateur Night,” (directed by David Bruckner, the maker of 2007’s inventive The Signal) follows Shane, Patrick and Clint, who utilize a pair of glasses with a hidden camera (worn by Clint) to document their drunken night out as they attempt to pick up some women and take them back to their motel room for some homemade porn-making. Shane hits it off with a girl named Lisa, while Clint has found favor with the mousy Lily, who seems only capable of repeatedly telling Clint, “I like you.” When they return to their room and Lisa passes out, their attempts to have sex with Lily take a dark and violent turn…
“Second Honeymoon,” directed by Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Inkeepers) follows a young couple on a westbound road trip, where a fortune-telling machine in a Wild West tourist trap delivers a seemingly benign forecast. That fortune soon seems more foreboding as it becomes clear that the couple is being stalked…
“Tuesday the 17th” (by Glenn McQuaid of I Sell the Dead and visual effects coordinator for Larry Fessenden) takes the familiar scenario of “a group of kids hoping to get laid wind up facing slaughter during a lakeside retreat,” but the threat they face isn’t Crystal Lake clear…
“The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” plays out as a series of video chats between Emily and her med student boyfriend Sam as she discovers a strange lump in her arm and the seemingly unconnected presence of ghosts in her apartment…
And, finally, the short “10/31/98,” directed by the online film collective Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Chad Villella, who previously produced shorts as “Chad, Matt & Rob,” and are widely recognized for their groundbreaking “Interactive Adventures” on YouTube and their own website), follows the four guys from the ensemble as they try to get to a Halloween party at a stranger’s house, and find it deserted save for some unexpected guests…
Most of the individual stories work really well on their own. The subjective pull of the wraparound segments completely works in its favor. We don’t, and can’t, sympathize with the gang raiding the house at all—they’re a sociopathic bunch, with no respect for the living or the dead—but we’re forced to ride along with them as the film unfolds, and the fact that the things that occur during the course of the film don’t have any real explanation doesn’t detract from the horror of the end result. We don’t know what’s happening because there’s no way they can know what’s happening. We’re given as much information as they’re given, and what they’re given is nothing. And following these people blindly is part of what adds to the terror.
“Tuesday the 17th” is singularly inventive, using typical throwaway elements of the “found footage” genre as a means to ratchet up suspense. Whereas most would use video glitches as a way to cover up edits or to more seamlessly insert effects into the film, the glitches are used to announce the presence of the killer stalking the group of teens—somehow the killer is able to appear and disappear at will, and whose image can’t be captured on film, meaning we only see him as a mass of video glitches, and disturbances in the image serve as a prelude to his appearances. It results in one of the best justifications of using found footage as viable artistic means to an end. It’s an incredibly successful segment.
“The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is less successful. It seems to want the viewer to question whether or not Emily is crazy (she blithely cuts her arm open and prods around in it with a knife during one scene) after it’s been established that the supernatural presence she’s afraid of is real. Unless the implication is that what’s going on is driving her nuts, this seems to serve no real purpose beyond unnecessary body horror, and her boyfriend’s reaction to this (he just suggests putting some alcohol or iodine on this big, gaping wound to avoid infection, and we’re supposed to buy that he’s a med student) is a bit beyond belief.
“10-31-98,” though, redeems the film from this previous segment. It’s fun, engaging, lighthearted when it needs to be, horrifying when it has to be, and features some of the best visual effects work in the film. It’s a rollicking way to finish off the movie, and plays almost like a particularly frightening episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “The Gang Saves Halloween.”
Unfortunately, and ultimately, there are some BIG problems with the film. Firstly (and surprisingly!), there’s Ti West’s contribution. I’ve been a big fan of West’s previous output, but this segment just refuses to pay off. There’s not much that leads to the twist at the end beyond the fortune delivered in the Wild West-themed town, so when it arrives, it feels less like a fully-rounded story than a premise that was never truly fleshed out. Secondly, let me go back to one of my earlier statements about the found footage genre: as an exercise, it ideally removes a stumbling block to suspension of disbelief. Since what we’re watching is ostensibly “real” (rather than the artifice of traditional movie construction), we’re more easily sucked into the events that unfold before us. Unfortunately, I kept wondering throughout how most of these segments wound up on the VHS tapes that our crew in the wraparound segments are watching. The first two segments are clearly shot on digital cameras—one even hidden in the protagonist’s glasses. The third is implied via the digital glitches used to announce and depict the killer. The fourth uses a webcam and takes place entirely via Skype. Only “10/31/98” realistically could be shot using a VHS camera (the shooter is dressed as a “nanny cam”), and even then, I have doubts that this is the format used. How were these transferred to VHS? Why were they transferred to VHS? The only reason I can think of for using the tapes as a vehicle for the segments shown is the recent wave of nostalgia for the format, grown largely out of my generation’s discovery of the world of movies during the VHS boom of the 1980s.
Let me venture into a side rant, and make this much clear, at the risk of alienating folks I’m friends with: VHS SUCKS AS A FORMAT. Always has. Shitty resolution, degradation of image and sound quality with every damned playback, lousy 4:3 transfers, tracking problems, that stupid “Hi-Fi” bug popping up every few minutes when the tape screws up on stereo VCRs…these were not glory days. Yeah, we discovered a lot of great stuff thanks to the VHS boom, but in spite of the format’s problems. Not because of them.
With that out of the way, it remains that the idea of presenting segments plainly shot on digital video, presented in 16:9 widescreen, on VHS tapes kept taking me out of the movie. It makes no sense, and not in the way that the unexplained elements in the wraparound story don’t make sense. It comes across as a forced wink to a potential audience of people who see VHS as a charmingly retro format. I will give it this, though, it does remove the hazard of dating the movie due to rapidly changing technology. By presenting the movie as something that already exists on an extremely out-of-date video format, we don’t have to see these guys loading up the movies in RealPlayer or booting up Windows XP to copy the hard drives. But still.
Is it worth watching? I’d have to give a cautious “yes.” It’s got to work better in a crowd setting, plopping down with some friends on an October evening for some Halloween viewing, rather than alone on the mid-September afternoon I took to watch it. And the segments that work, work. It’s just a shame that it leads off with its two worst segments (though I did find the first one more fun while in the middle of it than thinking about it afterward), and it’s a real shame that the Ti West segment is such a failure (I’d rather have seen the movie trimmed back to a tight hour-and-a-half rather than the close-to-two-hour running time, and have West’s story relegated to a DVD bonus feature), but your mileage may vary. Give it a shot in the dark. Like I said, it’s available right now on demand (check your cable provider) and via iTunes, and is out October 5 in theaters from Magnet Releasing.
P.S. Is it weird that I kept singing the theme song to “Weird” Al Yankovic’s magnum opus UHF, replacing his title with “VHS,” to myself all through this movie?