I would really love to see anthology films start coming back in a big way- specifically horror anthologies though. It’s not all that unfamiliar to hear people complain about today’s horror movies being too long with maybe only a couple good ideas and scares sprinkled through the entire thing. With an anthology film not only are they comprised of a collection of short films, but each short is able to get to the point quickly, giving the viewer a wider range of content to sink their teeth into. Such is the case for the newest found footage horror anthology V/H/S- a concept from one of Bloody-Disgusting’s founders, Brad Miska and helmed by a handful of some of horror’s best up and comers. Fine individual horror shorts with one over arching segment that is a mixed bag of good great and just ok horror treats that together combine for a rollercoaster ride of all out horror insanity and a handful of subtle chills.
I debated ranking each segment separately since each short is quite different from the next, but instead I’ll just stick to the basics and run through each segment explain what I liked and didn’t like- no spoilers, but keep an eye out for a spoiler discussion- and finally just rank the film as a whole. Again, no need to worry about spoilers for this post, minus the basic breakdown of the plot of the short.
TAPE 56 (Director: Adam Wingard)
TAPE 56 is the wraparound segment of V/H/S in that it’s what sets up us watching these various video tapes and what we see in between each of them. It follows a group of extremely unlikable dudes that run around assaulting women in order to restrain and expose their breasts and turn around and sell the tapes. They also spend some time vandalizing an abandoned building. One member of the group randomly brings up a job where they will be able to make way more money than they are making with the videos if they break into a house and steal one VHS tape. When they get there the house appears empty until they enter a room with a dead man in a chair in front of a bunch of TV’s and stacks of VHS tapes. Since they can’t seem to distinguish what tape to take they search the house for more while someone stays upstairs and watches the tapes (which are the shorts we see apart from the wraparound).
Honestly, since this is the first impression we get as an audience to the film I found it pretty gutsy to lead off with such unlikeable characters- then as I thought about it, it bothered me less since this is in fact a horror movie and it may not be necessary in the least to like any single one of them. The camera work on this one suffers from that of most found footage movies except with the added issue of the video quality mimicking that of a VHS tape- none of which bothered me much as I tend to enjoy the found footage sub-genre and the VHS quality picture was a nice touch to give me that little extra nostalgia for the format. Also, the rawness of the video quality added that extra sense of dread and realism to a concept that in this segment is for the most part, plausible.
AMATEUR NIGHT (Director: David Bruckner)
One of the better segments that V/H/S has to offer it begins with three college age guys in a hotel room preparing for a night out with the intent of bringing home some girls to have sex with. One of the guys has been given a pair of glasses rigged with a hidden camera to capture the events. While out partying two of the three are successful in picking up women although one of them is a bit on the strange side. They get the girls back to the hotel room which is when things progress from weird, to terrifying.
A running theme for these mini reviews will be the handheld camera quality- or in this case the “face held” camera quality as the camera is sitting in a pair of glasses on a guys face. It’s improved from TAPE 56, but as with most found footage films, it’s far from perfect. What works though is that even though the guys are once again kind of annoying and unlikeable they are also portrayed very realistically as over confident drunk dudes- something I’m sure everyone can relate to when out and about on a weekend. It takes a bit of patience to follow these guys to and from bar and back into the hotel room where it doesn’t take a horror genius to know something horrible is about to go down- but when it does it is quite visceral and disturbing. The direction of the final moments in this segment takes us to some dark and awkward places for a final shot that carries this intense sense of dread into the next segment. A great introduction to the type of horror the guys from the wraparound segment are about to view over the next hour or more.
SECOND HONEYMOON (Director: Ti West)
Coming into SECOND HONEYMOON from AMATEUR NIGHT the difference between the two is vast yet familiar at the same time. The similarities are only because it takes place once again in a hotel room. From here everything is vastly different as we have a couple out on a honeymoon as the husband wants to get a little freaky with his wife with the camera rolling and she is not into it at all. All of a sudden they hear a knock on the door we learn (since the actual answering of the door happens off camera) that it was a girl asking for a ride in the morning. For the remainder if the short we see an unknown person stalking the couple as they sleep until a shocking finale left me with chills creeping down my spine.
You will notice this segment is directed by Ti West so if you are familiar with that name you know that what we have here is a slow burn short with a sudden and troubling ending- and the camerawork in this one is much better as well. I do love this segment though for slowing things down a bit and allowing me a chance to study the characters and their dynamic and doing so I was able to construct an underlying sense of dread in myself wondering where and how the shock was going to come from. West is great at building an intense setting that is incredibly atmospheric and that fact is even more impressive here on display in a found footage film. The unsettling aspect here comes from the utter plausibility from beginning to end and the phenomenal use of sound in the hotel room in the stalking scenes to the point that I may never be able to relax hearing the rumbling of a hotel air conditioning unit ever again.
TUESDAY THE 17TH (Director: Glenn McQuaid)
Oh goodness- how to accurately describe my feelings on this segment. Well, I will say that of all the segments, this one is probably my least favorite in terms of the acting ability, but also probably of the bunch in general- that’s not to say there isn’t stuff to like, because there’s one aspect that I really love. This is an extremely simple story- four college kids going on a trip and find themselves in the woods being stalked by an unseen killer. The characters are generic, the actors are bad, the story is mediocre, the gore is decent, but man the killer in this is extremely cool.
The concept of this short is nothing horror fans haven’t seen dozens of times, but the fresh take on it comes in the visual concept of the killer. It’s a playful little jab at the idea of how the killers in the “slasher killing dumb teens” seem to be able to be in two places at once. I won’t describe the look or idea any further here, but I just have to once again say how much it almost saved the entire segment. As is though the teens in this short are annoyingly bad and clichéd, which even if on purpose does not make it forgivable even for the short amount of time spent with them. As for its inclusion in the bunch, it has to say something that when it comes to owning the film, I probably wouldn’t skip over it based on how much I love the way the killer is handled.
THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER (Director: Joe Swanberg)
My two least favorite segments also just happen to occur back to back. Now just because I say it’s not my favorite doesn’t mean that I hate it, but there is something that I can’t spoil in this review that I HATE about this short. What we have here is an unnecessarily long title- which given the content of the short I can’t really come up with anything else either- about a couple having what is basically a series of Skype conversations. The girl expresses her fear that her new apartment might be haunted and proves her fear to her boyfriend through the conversations as he sees the horror first hand and is unable to help her given the long distance nature of their relationship- and without spoilers, that’s pretty much it for the plot.
The good here are some of the pretty creepy scares that come from putting yourself in either person’s shoes but for me at first it was the dread I would feel from the boyfriend’s perspective of seeing these “spirits” and how helpless I would feel not being able to be there for my significant other. Eventually when the short gets to where it goes the initial reveal seems satisfying and mysterious, but as the twist plays out I felt mostly annoyed. However, I do appreciate trying to throw something absolutely crazy into the generic set up so for that I give this short some extra props. I can’t imagine a lot of people ending this segment with a full grasp on what they just saw- this is definitely one that will ignite plenty of talkback that will include personal theories as well as anger.
10/31/98 (Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella a.k.a Radio Silence)
The final segment of V/H/S indeed sends the collection out with a bang. This short comes from four filmmakers that call themselves Radio Silence and are definitely a group to keep an eye out for from here on out. The short begins with four guys (played by the directors) dressed up for Halloween (one in a bear costume rigged with a nanny cam) and are on their way to a Halloween party. They arrive at the house only to find it seemingly empty and with the flickering lights and other strange happenings assume that it has been rigged as a haunted house. As they explore further they realize quickly that what is happening is not a Halloween prank, but something more sinister.
I’m still in the process of digesting V/H/S as a whole, but as of right now this is my favorite segment of the film. It has the best camera work, the best scares and it’s actually very fun. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t find anything about this light hearted, but the short is essentially like watching people walk through a virtual haunted house. It starts out with subtle creepy touches as small as a character studying an item on the first floor of a house then later seeing the same item has somehow found its way upstairs to extremely horrifying scares of handprints following you as you run away in pure terror. The special effects look spectacular and are nearly seamless with the found footage style that only make this not only fun to look at but also scary on a visceral level.
As you can see V/H/S brings together quite the variety of cool experiments with the found footage style rather than just the typical “scan the screen for the scare” style that the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films lean on heavily. In spite of a couple segments that I have my issues with but still like for the most part the overall effect the film had on me cannot be overstated- V/H/S left me shaken, disturbed and tense. This is material that is not for the faint of heart or for people who despise found footage, but is something that horror fans owe it to themselves to at least give a chance. Lock the doors, shut the lights off and buckle yourself in your seat and prepare for one of most visceral and terrifying horror movies of the year.