This review of V/H/S stems from its screening at the True/False Film Fest 2012. V/H/S will be released later this year by Magnet Releasing.
The horror genre always seems to be changing every five to ten years. Whether it is a reflection of the times or a result of ideas running their course, you can almost chart the different waves or trends that have come about since the giant monster/bug films of the 1950′s. Trends in the recent past have included slashers, Asian remakes (Asian inspired ghost-stories), “torture-porn”, and now currently we have seen an explosion in found footage horror. Studios took notice and saw the popularity of such films as Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity while also acknowledging the obvious fact these types of films are much cheaper to make. You don’t need top of the line cameras and equipment or even big marquee names to draw the crowds. This documentary approach to the film-making lends an authenticity to horrific events that otherwise may seem unbelievable. The monster felt real in Cloverfield and the contortions and possession were cringe-inducing in The Last Exorcism. Now in 2012 it seems as if the genre has hit it’s popularity peak. Just within the first three months of 2012, we have seen The Devil Inside, Chronicle, and Project X, all presenting themselves as found footage films, do more than $20 mil. each during their opening weekend. While attendance for these films continues to soar, some critics and artists within the film community have been outspoken about their dislike of the current trend. Coincidentally, some of the people involved in the upcoming horror entry V/H/S are a few of the people I’m referring to (the most outspoken being Ti West). That is what is interesting to me about V/H/S. I too, was beginning to see it as a burden to sit through yet another one of these pseudo documentary-esque films. However, I was optimistic that a found footage anthology film was being released by people who aren’t necessarily fans of the style, but wanted to present what they would do if they tried their hand at it. As a big fan of some of these directors, I was more than willing to have them dust off the VCR and pop in their versions of what I see as a fleeting fad.
As with all anthology films there is a connecting storyline to tie everything together. V/H/S immediately introduces us to a group of hard-rocking, gun-shooting, foul-mouthed assholes who get their kicks filming each other and their misadventures that include pulling off girls tops in public. Imagine a 21st century Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange who now see an opportunity to sell their tapes to make money off of their fits of ultra-violence. When one of them hears of an opportunity to make money by stealing a tape from the basement of a house, the group decides to break in one evening only to find an old man dead in a chair and an unhealthy amount of old tapes and televisions. Just as the group watches the tapes to find what they are looking for, so too does the audience.
As with all anthology films, some of the stories work well while others seem to drag the others down. First up, we follow a group of drunk “bros” who head out for a night of sex and alcohol with the intent to film the drunken activities with eye glasses equipped with a hidden camera. The group soon takes a pair of girls back to the hotel room for some adult fun. Unfortunately for them one of the girls doesn’t seem quite right. If you don’t see the twist coming a mile away then you may have been in the bathroom puking from the shakiness of the camera. Both of these facts can be said of the majority of the short films as well. David Bruckner (The Signal) does a fine job with conveying some tension later on even though the script is paper-thin. Hanna Fierman’s performance as the weird girl in question is the redeeming element of the first film out the gate.
Next up is my personal favorite of the group. Directed by Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), the next tape shows a normal couple documenting their honeymoon through what looks to be the Arizona desert. West unravels an intriguing story in his typical slow-burn style. Tempers arise late one night when a mysterious girl knocks on their motel door followed by the disappearance of some money when they awake the next morning. This is one of the only segments that elicited a genuine sense of fear and unknown throughout that wasn’t caused by something jumping out in front of the camera. West manages to create an interesting twist and made such simple things like them having a photo taken near the edge of a cliff extremely uneasy to watch.
The third segment follows four kids visiting a lake that is supposedly haunted by a killer from year’s past. There really isn’t much else to say other than the fact that the whole story is a one-note gimmick. You can only see the killer through the camera. It’s an interesting idea that is poorly executed. No where do you ever see a glimmer of cleverness that filled Glen McQuaid‘s previous horror entry, I Sell The Dead.
The forth segment changes the pace and the style drastically. Here we are stuck with just two characters as they communicate with another though Skype. It’s a refreshing approach technically that ultimately sticks out a tad too much considering the other four all have a handheld nature. It does give though a much needed break from the other amateur filmed segments. As you can expect from this, director Joe Swanberg utilizes the idea of stuff hiding behind the viewer in question to his advantage to scare the audience. What’s scarier though is the logic used to explain the ghostly children that are visiting a woman. Truly baffling.
Finally, and I mean it, finally, we have the segment which is the obvious crowd pleaser. Radio Silence sets their intellectual sights low with this one and instead cranks out a good-ole-fashioned ghost story complete with moving chairs, human sacrifice, and a possessed girl. If you turn off your brain and not think too hard, you will most likely enjoy this one the most. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer might recall a very similar episode that also happens to take place in a haunted house on Halloween night like this story. It may not be the most original but it’s certainly the most fun.
Loud, in your face, and nauseating . . . these are a few words I could best describe the experience watching this on the big-screen. Keep in mind the fact that none of those descriptions are really meant as compliments. V/H/S exists as one of the most successful found footage films to come out due to its dedication to include almost every technical glitch, sound issue, and disruption found within the particular style. In a lot of ways it relishes in the imperfections that would normally be cut out of most films like this. Through the better half of the film we get nonsensical talking that is sometimes completely indecipherable (especially in the first story, the finale, and the connecting story), repeated camera cuts to black, and a whirlwind of camera twirling that is the real cause of the vomiting; not the subtle gore that is on display.
Fans of anthology films might find joy in watching five horror stories under two hours. Yet their knowledge of the genre and their expectancy of the twists might get in the way of their enjoyment of each story individually. Aside from the inexcusable fact that I feel that most of the stories are simple ideas that feel like afterthoughts for an episode of Tales From the Crypt, I feel that the way the stories are currently presented are not actually fun to watch. On the television screen they may come off differently, but on the big screen the self-referential video glitches create a dizzying mess of distractions that serve to only hide the amateurish stories. If the directors and writers involved aren’t fans of the found footage genre than they certainly have created a film that highlights everything most people hate in the genre. Last time I checked, the only complaint many had with The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield was when characters were running or quickly moving the camera. Why then would you choose to incorporate this so often in the final film?
In a lot of ways I begin to wonder about the quality of future films to come. If studios intend to back and release films created on handheld devices, shot with existing lights, and filmed on a quick and easy schedule, what is going to happen to the idea of “well-made” films? I wonder if we will get to the point where cinematographers like Robert Elswit will become a lost treasure. This may come across as a hyperbolic statement but it could get to that point. We are the Youtube generation. Teenagers and other adults film their own lives on a regular basis to the amusement of their friends; much like the protagonists in this film V/H/S. Look at the #2 film in the country this week, Project X. It consists of teens for the better half of the movie dancing and drinking. Very little attention is paid to the dialogue as the emphasis seems to be placed on displaying fun and a giant music video-of-sorts. In the end, that film and some of the segments in V/H/S come across as something a Youtube junkie could sloppily throw together. Should we not try to encourage a respect for film-making and storytelling techniques? All of the directors involved in V/H/S (aside from the relatively unknown Radio Silence) are extremely talented directors that have all created artistic, entertaining, and thought provoking films that help push the horror genre forward. V/H/S isn’t that horrible of a film. It just never pushes this current horror style out of the casket that has been long waiting for it. It’s a dying novelty. It’s nothing more. Why a director like Ti West who has openly talked about the limits and downfalls of the trend decided to take part in this is beyond me. Though I will thank him for doing so because his tale is the only one that may be watchable a few years from now. Speaking of a few years from now . . . aren’t we do for a new trend in horror?