Diected by: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glen McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence.
Written by: Simon Barrett, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Nicholas Tecosky, Chad Villella, Ti West.
Starring: Calvin Reeder (Gary), Lane Hughes (Brad), Adam Wingard (Rock), Hannah Fierman (Lily), Mike Donlan (Shane), Joe Sykes (Patrick), Drew Sawyer (Clint), Jas Sams (Lisa), Joe Swanberg (Sam), Sophia Takal (Stephanie), Kate Lyn Sheil (The Stalker), Norma C. Quinones (Wendy), Drew Moerlein (Joey), Jason Yachanin (Spider), Helen Rogers (Emily), Daniel Kaufman (James), Chad Villella (Chad), Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (Matt), Tyler Gillett (Tyler), Paul Natonek (Paul).
V/H/S is an good example of two types of films that normally suck. The first is the anthology film, which always seems like a better idea in theory than it is in practice – normally, what happens is you get one great segment surrounded by a bunch of crap that you have to wade through to get to the good one. The second is the found footage horror film – that was popularized by good movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, but is normally just shaky camera work crap. But V/H/S is an example of why anthologies sometimes work and why found footage horror films can be extremely scary if done right. The film has two excellent shorts, one very good, one passable and only one that is downright awful to go along with a framing device that grows more tired every time we revisit it. Yet, when the film works, and the first two segments work amazingly well, it scared me more than any other horror film I’ve seen this year.
The framing device for the film, directed by Adam Wingard, is about a group of 20 year assholes, who film themselves doing despicable things and then post them on YouTube. They get a job offer to rob an old house – the only thing the client wants is some old VHS tapes. They have no idea what is on them. They break into the house, find an old dead man in a chair in front of a bank of TVs, and then find the VHS tapes – which they play one after another in mounting horror. The framing device is effective, but grows a little more tiresome each time we revisit it. This really isn’t Wingard's fault, who has less freedom than the other directors since he needs to set up the whole film, but it is effective.
The first real segment is by personal favorite in the film – and the one that scared me the most. Three horny college boys hit the bar, one with a hidden camera in his glasses. They get drunk, and pick up two women, and take them back to a hotel room – and this is when all hell breaks loose. The film is a slow burn before its shocking climax, but it is brutally effective, and the line "I like you" will now never cease to send chills up my spine. Directed by David Bruckner, this segment is brutal, bloody and brilliant.
The second film is by the great Ti West – who with his segment here and his features The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers has established himself as one of the hopes for American horrors future. His segment stars Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal as a young married couple on their second honeymoon, who are filming their adventures. First they get a strange fortune by one of those fortune telling machines seen in the movie Big. And then things get even creepier when it becomes clear someone is watching them – and films them while they sleep. Another slow burn of a horror film, leading to a truly shocking finale, this segment keeps the intensity of Bruckner’s segment going.
The third segment, directed by Glenn McQuaid, is the one that doesn’t work at all. It has an interesting, if well-worn setup, of a group of college kids heading out for a weekend in the wilderness – where of course, it has been long since rumored to be the hunting grounds of a demented serial killer, which of course, is true. I admire how McQuaid tries to put a new twist on this old as the hills concept, but what he actually puts onscreen is awful, cheesy and just not scary. This is the segment it’s safe to go to the bathroom during without the danger of missing anything.
The fourth segment is directed by Mumblecore mainstay Joe Swanberg, and takes place entirely over Skype (how a Skype conversation ended up on VHS is a question better left unasked). In it, a scared young woman, who just moved into a new apartment, talks to her boyfriend over Skype, and shares her interesting creepy stories of what is happening in her apartment. This segment is more creepy than scary and the ending, which like the others tries to add a twist, really doesn’t work at all. It may just be the best thing Swanberg has ever done – but considering I don’t normally like his films, that may be damning the film with faint praise.
The final segment is by a group who calls themselves Radio Silence, and is about a group of college kids who head out to a Halloween party – and gets in over their heads. This segment seems to have been the critic’s favorite when the film debuted at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why – out of all the segments, it is the one that keeps you guessing the most from one scene to the next. You’re never quite sure what is going to be around the next corner, what is going to happen next. And while I prefer Bruckner’s sequence – and maybe even Wests, it is creepy and scary in the extreme.V/H/S is a good horror film – that has some great moments and perhaps proof that horror anthologies work better than most other genres. Perhaps that’s because the best part of horror films is usually the setup, but often has to pad its mid-section with needless bloodletting to get up to feature length. Here, by the time each segment is done with its setup, it’s already moved directly into its climax, so as not to overstay its welcome. Unfortunately, after the first two segments, the third one is a massive disappointment, and the film never quite regains its momentum – even though the Radio Silence directed finale comes close. I know a lot of people hate the found footage genre, with its constant shaky camera work – I often do as well. But perhaps I’m just getting used to it – more and more films are using the concept, and sometimes it works – as it does in the best segments here. V/H/S cannot sustain its effectiveness throughout the whole film – but there are moments that make it worthwhile.