In the tradition of classic portmanteau horror films like Dead of Night (1945), Black Sabbath (1963), Tales From the Crypt (1972), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and Creepshow (1987), among dozens of others, V/H/S takes the familiar horror anthology idea and throws a "found footage" twist into the mix. As such, there's a lot shit talking going on around the internet about how tired the approach is, combined with a lot of hipster posing about how mediocre and unscary this collection of short films is.
Well those people can go fuck themselves.
V/H/S is an experiment in low-budget filmmaking that works. Brad Miska, founder of Bloody Disgusting and producer of this film took the basic anthology concept to a group of trusted filmmakers and let them pitch their ideas for found-footage horror. Once the pitches were accepted, the directors were allowed pretty much free rein and the result is extremely satisfying.
Consistent winners at the past few Fantastic Fests in Austin, Texas, writing/directing team Wingard and Barrett have been challenging genre traditions with their films A Horrible Way to Die (2010), What Fun We're Having (2011), and most notably their latest film You're Next (2011). They are given the yeoman's challenge of setting up the framework for the anthology.
As such, this segment not only serves as our introduction to the film, but we keep cutting back to this group of fuck-ups and miscreants in-between each of the short films. Most of said fuck-ups and miscreants are happy making their VHS sexual assault videos (lots of running up and grabbing women and yanking their tops up while filming) and uploading them to the internet. But for Gary (Calvin Reeder), it's time to step it up and make some real money.
A mysterious stranger has offered them a huge paycheck to break into an old man's house and steal a particular video tape. Which tape? They'll know it when they see it, he was assured. So the gang, who are constantly videotaping themselves with a pair of old VHS recorders, break in, only to find the old man dead in front of a bunch of TVs and piles of videotapes.
Things go south from there, as you might expect.
While the self-taping conceit gets a little tiring here and there, I gave in to the nostalgia of the glitchy textures of the analog recorders. Hell, I've still got a pile of old VHS tapes in my possession that I don't even have a player for anymore. But there's just something about that grainy, washed out, slop video that feels real.
And Wingard gets that.
I'm familiar with David Bruckner thanks to an innovative "zombie" film I fell in love with called The Signal. It was broken into three segments, each with a different director continuing the story, and Bruckner was responsible for "Transmission 1: Crazy in Love" which set all the horribly violent madness off.
With "Amateur Night", he and co-writer Tecosky, present a night on the town for a trio of twenty-something douchebags determined to secretly film a home-made porno with the help of a pair of glasses with a hidden webcam inside. I admit, as this installment began I was worried that all we were going to be getting were tales of douchey douchiness, but that was not to be.
Nerdy Clint (Drew Sawyer) is stuck in the glasses and becomes the eyes, and ultimately the conscience, of the piece. His friendship with the more jock-like Shane (Mike Donlan) and Patrick (Joe Sykes) is strange but oddly natural thanks to very realistic performances by all the actors involved. And while they're more Free Id kinds of guys, Clint hangs back in the crowd, secretly filming their night at the bars trying to pick up loose ladies to have sex with on camera.
The real find here though is Hannah Fierman as Lily, the cute weird skinny girl with the huge eyes who takes a shine to Clint. Her quick, barely audible "I like you"s were perfect. Who wouldn't take her home?
Which makes what comes next, while somewhat expected, so totally shocking and disturbed.
Bruckner pulls no punches with either the awkward, anxious potential sexcapades or the blood-soaked end result. I want to see more stuff like this. Especially if Fierman is involved. She was totally entrancing and otherworldly and I'd love to see Lily's relationship with Clint taken to the next level.
Heh heh. Not like that, you perverts.
Written and Directed by Ti West
Going into this, Ti West was the only name that I knew without having to double check them on IMDB. I was a fan of his breakthrough film House of the Devil and I absolutely loved his latest film The Inkeepers (as you can see from my review, HERE), so I went into this segment with the highest expectations. And while the ultimate payoff fell a little short, this was the most professionally scripted and filmed piece of work in the whole anthology.
Which is even more impressive as it was filmed over a long weekend with just the three actors and West in a car, driving from L.A. to Arizona. There's not a single wasted moment here. There's a lot of improvisation and that really brings a sense of realism to the party that really makes this one stand out, but even the improve dialogue is incorporated into the overall plot and creates a narrative texture as though every line were scripted.
The story is fairly simple; Sam (Joe Swanberg, director of the "Sick Thing" installment later in the film) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) are on their Second Honeymoon, videotaping their cross-country trip to the Grand Canyon, when something very, very bad happens. Well, bad in one sense – kind of sweet in another, way more twisted sense.
There's a moment in this one that is so real and so horrifying, I admit I freaked out a little watching this in the dark my couch (thanks to HDNet Movies Sneak Peek). It's a nightmare for anyone who might be spending the night in a motel anytime soon.
This is the good stuff right here.< /p>
"Tuesday the 17th"
Written and Directed by Glenn McQuaid
Glenn McQuaid directed the macabre and highly entertaining I Sell the Dead and brings a similar blackly humorous attitude to this ode to 80s Slasher Films. To be honest, this one probably brought the least to the party and could have used another five or ten minutes of character-building and scene-setting, but you know what?
I loved the fact that it consciously hit every slasher film cliché from the illicit drugs to the group stereotypes. It even plays with the Final Girl trope by having this essentially serve as a sequel to a slasher film we never got to watch, where the Final Girl goes searching for revenge. That never gets old, no matter what you say.
The way the slasher (The Glitch, according to the credits) is represented is also a nice twist. I don't know if he was a real physical presence or only exists on the video images, but the fact that his image is always distorted with a video glitch suggests something supernatural and strange going on.
This one was a lot of fun that wrapped up too quickly. I wanted more.
"The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger"
Joe Swanberg is considered a name in the mublecore film movement and has produced, written, and directed twelve low-budget, naturalistic feature-length films about relationships, technology, and filmmaking. "Sick Thing…" takes these same interests and moves in a decidedly disturbing – at times downright frightening – direction.
The story of Emily (Helen Rogers) is told through video web chats with her med-school student boyfriend, James (Daniel Kaufman) and is one of the most effective uses of the found footage conceit. The way it emphasizes the sense of closeness that is achieved with today's communication technology is twisted into paranoia as Swanberg and Barrett pull the rug out from under us to rub our nose into the fact that deceit is just as easily achieved as that sense of connection.
So not only does this one go full tilt on what at first seems like a bog-standard haunted house story, it also turns into a creepy relationship thing that, according to the credits, involves aliens. And mental illness. And weird genetic experiments. And nightmarish emergency surgeries. And serial monogamy.
This one stuck with me the most. Very nice work from start to finish. Maybe the high point of the collection.
I had no idea who Radio Silence was. It was only after the film that I did the research and found out that Radio Silence is actually the YouTube video team of Chad, Matt & Rob. Their Interactive Adventures are all extremely fun and the Pranks Gone Bad are fucking hilarious. If you haven't seen them, you should immediately follow that link and prepare to laugh out loud over and over.
Okay, are you back? Now it should come as no surprise that their installment is both funny, horrifying, and ultimately the most entertaining and clever of any of the short films. What starts out as an amusing group of losers heading off for a Halloween party, turns into something I don't even want to begin describing so you can enjoy it to the fullest.
As with their YouTube videos, Radio Silence have a knack for taking what begins as a harmless (mostly), semi-douchie prank video and taking it to an extreme horror/sci-fi conclusion, and "10/31/98" is no different. This is excellent work and I can't wait to see what they do next.
Don't get hung up on trying to figure out what was going on with the house of video tapes or how all of these stories ended up on random VHS tapes when they were filmed with a variety of technologies. If that ruins this for you, then you really need to stop trying.
Seriously. What's wrong with you?
This is about film experimentation with some of the brightest lights of the contemporary low-budget horror world. It's about having fun with the found footage concept and pushing directors to get creative in their storytelling thanks to the inherent limitations this sort of story entails.
I highly recommend checking this out. If that means watching without your douchier friends, then by all means do so. I was highly impressed and will keep my eye out for whatever any of these directors are working on next.
Now I'm all excited for the next big horror anthology, The ABCs of Death, which not only has half of these folks involved but TWENTY THREE OTHER HORROR DIRECTORS FROM AROUND THE WORLD!!!!
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.