Found footage horror doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, despite the fact that there are precious few examples of the curious sub-genre done right. These films cost next-to-nothing to make (by Hollywood standards), meaning that even a meager showing at the box-office or on DVD can translate to all-important profit. This makes it much more enticing to studios to commit a couple of million dollars to a found footage film, as it’s a low risk way of angling for their own Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch success story. The thing that most of these found footage flicks are lacking, however, is the monumental wave of hype that ushered in the arrivals of the aforementioned films. The grass roots marketing tactics of both films were brilliant, with Blair Witch’s “true story” campaign and Paranormal Activity’s audience reaction approach piquing audience interest and, despite a healthy amount of well-deserved backlash, making for two of the most profitable releases in motion picture history.
The people behind the found footage anthology, V/H/S, have apparently been doing their homework, as they have used a similar – albeit nowhere near as ambitious – tactic in promoting their film, and that tactic is surrounding it in hyperbole. For months before I even saw a trailer for V/H/S, the film was already awash in a sea of praise, and being credited as a film that would “restore my faith in horror” (although, last time I’d checked, I didn’t lose it). All of this led to V/H/S being quickly snatched up for distribution by the Magnet Releasing arm of Magnolia Pictures, and, at the time of that announcement, it looked like V/H/S was poised to be the next example of found footage “lightning in a bottle”.
Like most anthology films, V/H/S consists of a collection of tales held loosely together by a frame story. The frame story, in this case, Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56”, centers on a group of way-too-old-looking hipster delinquents with wool hats and porn star moustaches who are hired to steal a V/H/S tape from a house. Being that they film all of their wrongdoings with strangely outdated cameras, they, of course, bring these along with them on the job. When they arrive at said house, the guys find a dead old man sitting in a roomful of television sets, and a large assortment of V/H/S tapes scattered everywhere. This, of course, prompts the group to split up to “search the house” while one of them stays behind to watch the tapes.
The first tape, David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night”, is about a trio of frat boy douchebags – Shane, Pat, and Clint – who are heading out for a night of sexual conquest. Clint, the slightest and most non-threatening member of the wolf pack, is fitted with a pair of ultra geeky glasses with a miniature camera attached, offering us a first person P.O.V. of the evening. The three men pick up a pair of seemingly game girls, and quickly return to their hotel room to allow Clint to document the proceedings. Things go awry, however, when one of the girls passes out, making the oddball Lily (who’s apparently take a shine to Clint) Shane’s backup plan. Lily seems to welcome his advances, but, when the very drunk Pat decides to join in, Lily reveals her desire for more than just sex.
Anyone who’s ever seen…well…anything ever, will immediately know where this one is going the minute the feral looking Lily is introduced. What saves this from being just another example of “wild woman/vampire/monster-chick kills horny dudes” cinema is the nifty and very creepy makeup effects, and the rather fun and jolting conclusion.
Tape two, Ti West’s “Second Honeymoon”, follows Sam and Stephanie; a young couple taking a road trip through the southwest. During a stop in a tiny desert town, the couple receives a knock on their motel room door from a mysterious girl looking for a ride. Sam declines, and the girl spends a couple of hours pacing back and forth in the street in front of the motel before disappearing altogether. Content that she’s moved on, the couple goes to sleep, but, soon after, their trusty video camera turns on. The intruder films Sam and Stephanie as they sleep, steals a hundred dollars from Sam’s wallet, and then dips his toothbrush into the toilet bowl before placing everything back the way it was. It’s then that we see the reflection of a masked girl in their bathroom mirror; obviously the girl Sam refused to give a ride too, who is none too happy by his rejection.
West’s installment is slow-moving, and ultimately pointless, with much of its running time dedicated to Sam and Stephanie’s bickering, which, while probably essential to the segment’s hugely disappointing “twist”, makes sitting through it something of a chore. This was a huge letdown for me, as I’m a big fan of West’s films, so I was expecting much more from him.
The third tape - and easily the worst of the lot – is Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th”. In what I’m ASSUMING is a parody of slasher conventions, Tuesday the 17th is about a trio of disparate twentysomethings (jock/cheerleader/geek) who are invited to a to remote “lake” by their creepy friend, Wendy. While the gang get stoned, giggle, and take craps in the woods, Wendy drops little ditties like “you’re all going to die out here”. Of course, Wendy speaks the truth as, years before, she and a group of other friends were attacked by a supernatural killing machine (filmed in herky-jerky fashion to make him look like a swarm of digitized bees). Wendy was the only survivor, but no one believed her when she described the uncanny abilities of the killer, so she’s returned to the scene of the crime with her friends as bait to lure out the killer and capture him on film! It’s as stupid as it all sounds, miserably acted, and just downright headache-inducing. It’s also not even remotely funny, so it fails even as parody.
In Joe Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”, we’re given a video chat conversation between Emily and her med student boyfriend, James, who is interning at a hospital across the country. Emily has recently moved into a new apartment that she’s convinced is haunted, but James is not convinced until, one night, Emily calls him and asks him to watch her while she investigates sounds coming from the next room. James is shocked to see that a childlike apparition has taken up residence in his girlfriend’s apartment. The next few nights, Emily contacts James to have him assist her in making contact with the spirit of the child, but there’s much more going on here than a simple haunting.
Sick Thing works primarily due to its web chat gimmick, and the “over the shoulder” scares it provides. We’ve seen this technique used before, but Swanberg employs it effectively enough to make this a standout segment, despite yet another unsatisfying conclusion.
Strangely, the film’s frame story actually wraps up before the final tape, “10/31/98”. Directed by a group of filmmakers working under the collective moniker of Radio Silence, is easily the most effective and jarring of V/H/S’s stories. It’s basically a found footage haunted house story, but, thanks to some clever CGI and FX work, it’s unlike any we’ve seen, with all manner of creepy happenings making for a goose-heavy scarefest that would make William Castle proud.
As one can probably gather by this review, V/H/S was a hit-or-(mostly)-miss affair for me. Of the six stories, only half actually work, and, even then, only one of those (10/31/98) works particularly well. The film also requires some suspension of disbelief when one considers that VHS tape as a recording medium died out years ago. I realize it makes for a good movie title, and the idea of a found footage anthology made up of various VHS tapes is nifty one, but it makes next to no sense that more modern forms of video capture, such as web chats, “spycam footage”, or even material shot on mini DV cams, would be on an antiquated format like VHS tape to begin with. I get that it would require some re-jiggering (not to mention that stuff like the web chat and micro cam concepts would be out the window) but why not set the film in the heyday of VHS to begin with? Hell, the actors in the frame story already look like they’ve stepped right out of the 80s anyway (and one of them is even toting an oversized VHS camera). It’s probably super nitpicky of me, but I can’t be the only one who’s bothered by this, can I?
Anyway, V/H/S (the movie, not the medium) isn’t going to “reaffirm your faith in horror” as Gawker.com suggests, nor is it going to make you pass out, throw up, or curl up in the fetal position as “reports” from screenings would have you believe. Basically it’s just another mediocre film betrayed by its own meticulously generated hype.