Directed by: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Chad Villella, Ti West, Adam Wingard
Premise: An anthology of short found-footage horror stories. A group of thieves burglarize a house in search of a videotape and discover a cache of recordings.
What Works: V/H/S is a novelty picture. This film does not follow the standard organization or style of a mainstream film, including feature length found-footage pictures like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, and so it cannot be understood or evaluated in the terms that viewers usually consider a narrative motion picture. What the filmmakers have created with V/H/S is not so much a story or a collection of stories so much as it is a cinematic haunted house. The film has a frame narrative, which is itself a found-footage story, in which a group of thugs enter a deserted house and go through videotapes, revealing each of the stories that comprise the film. Each story of V/H/S is very much like a section of the recreational haunted houses that Halloween celebrants often visit in October. There isn’t much of a narrative to any of the tapes so much as a premise through which shocks are administered. The quality of the tales varies widely but the better stories, such as “Amateur Night” and “10/31/98,” are successfully scary and have the same appeal as episodes of The Outer Limits and The X-Files although the tone of V/H/S is much more consistent with Tales from the Crypt. What is most interesting and impressive about V/H/S is the way the filmmakers acknowledge and work with the found footage format. In some respects, V/H/S is the purest distillation of the found-footage gimmick and the anthological style actually solves the main problem of found-footage movies. Even though most found-footage pictures typically run only eighty to ninety minutes the filmmakers often strain to extend their narratives to that length and quite often resort to filler and exceedingly ridiculous justifications for the existence of the footage. By limiting each story to about fifteen minutes the filmmakers of V/H/S are able to avoid these problems, telling lean tales of terror with found-footage scenarios that are mostly credible. The use of analog and home video defects in the presentation also helps the film, giving it an amateur and seedy and even pornographic texture that sells the illusion while adding sleazy ambiance.
What Doesn’t: Although V/H/S takes an innovative approach to the found-footage gimmick, that approach has about many drawbacks as it has advantages. Because each of the short stories is stripped down to virtually nothing, the film relies on atmosphere and shock alone. The format of V/H/S precludes the film from establishing characters and developing meaningful stories, and so V/H/S cannot impact the viewer any deeper than making him or her jump every once in a while. Some of the stories are better than others. The segments titled “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” and “Second Honeymoon” are clumsy, overly complicated, and actually warrant a feature length treatment. V/H/S is also a very narrowly conceived movie. This film was made for the hard-R audience of Hostel and [Rec] rather than the more mainstream audience of Paranormal Activity and it is in many ways a distasteful movie, which befits its tone. But the filmmakers ignore the broader possibilities of a found footage anthology with repetitious scares and a very homogenous cast. The characters of every segment of V/H/S are the same, with virtually all the male characters twenty-something douchebag stereotypes and nearly all the women are predatory murderesses. It gets repetitious and predictable, not to mention pretty stupid, all of which is detrimental to the filmmakers’ attempt to be scary.
Bottom Line: V/H/S was clearly made by people who grew up in the era of the videocassette and were consumers of the exploitative horror films that were popular in that period of time like Faces of Death and The Evil Dead. Viewers who share the filmmakers’ interest and age group may get something out of V/H/S but younger audiences may not connect with it. This is a flawed and uneven anthology but it is also an interesting footnote in the trend of found-footage horror films.
Episode: #411 (October 28, 2012)