When uneven horror anthology works, it really works
V/H/S is a frustrating movie for fans of horror anthologies – a sub-genre that has become disgustingly neglected over the last decade. The film, a collaboration between a group of writers and directors who represent a new and talented generation of horror, has enough going for it to the point where the film becomes impossible to simply dismiss or ignore. When the film is scary, it’s real scary and there are moments in V/H/S where it reaches out and touches true greatness. That said, there are also enough faults and misfires in the film, an anthology of found footage horror shorts, that the movie is, in the end, more often than not an intriguing grasp for greatness that – for a variety of reasons – just didn’t work out.
Daivd Bruckner (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), Joe Swanberg (Silver Bullets), Adam Wingard (You’re Next), Ti West (House of the Devil) and filmmaking collective Radio Silence each contribute a different scary story to the anthology – playing within the restraints (and occasional freedoms, I guess) of the found footage genre.
Similar to the 1986 British horror anthology Screamtime, V/H/S bookends its five short films with the tale of a group of thugs who spend an evening watching stolen videotapes – each tape revealing a new horror. As each VHS tape is popped into the VCR, a new director takes the reigns of the film and does their best to try and scare audiences.
Each segment in V/H/S is constructed entirely as a found footage film – with the short stories and the bookend segments shot on a variety of formats ranging from grainy videotape to high-definition digital to a tiny camera implanted into spy glasses to even a story told entirely through Skype conversations. The willingness for these directors, none who have ever filmed a found footage film, to step out of their comfort zone and try and force the technique into a shape that matches their particular style and tone is admirable – even if it doesn’t always work out.
V/H/S‘s main fault is a tricky one to overcome as it is born from the restraints of the found footage sub-genre itself. When trying to establish the reality of a found footage horror film, it’s hard for a filmmaker to cut right to the scares. Instead, they often build a world around their scares by taking an extended period of time at the beginning of the story to insert a bit of fluff. In a feature film like Paranormal Activity or The Last Exorcism, this establishing footage (existing as a way to sell the “realism” of found footage horror) will help bridge a connection between the audience and the characters – establishing them as real people without the use of exposition. It’s only once audiences have been immersed in the mundane banality of home video that they can be exposed to the scares that come at the film’s climax. It’s all a time-tested formula that has proven to be successful in almost every found footage horror film to come since The Blair Witch Project and – in a feature film – it works. In an anthology composed of five separate found footage stories, though, this formula goes a long way to hampering the film’s pace and serves to constantly slow things to a crawl every 15 minutes.
Segments that are particularly effective include David Buckner‘s story of a group of college-aged guys who plan to pick up a few women at a bar and have a night of heavy drinking and copious sex. When one of the gals they recruit is revealed to have a few scaly, sharp toothed secrets up her sleeve, things quickly go south for the bros. Radio Silence’s tale, a fantastic visual effects-heavy tour of a haunted house, caps the film and sends audiences out of the theater smiling ear-to-ear.
Like most anthologies, some segments in V/H/S work better than others – there’s nothing unusual about that. The thing is, though, the segments that work in V/H/S are so great, so outstanding, the movie is a must-watch for horror fans even if some of the weaker segments in the film drag the movie to a disappointing halt. V/H/S isn’t, unfortunately, the movie that’s going to resurrect the horror anthology. It is, however, an interesting and highly watchable experiment in bringing the format into a new sub-genre.
Director: David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West and Adam Wingard
Notable Cast: Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes and Adam Wingard
Writer(s): Simon Barrett, Matt Bettinellli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Nicholas Tecosky, Chad Villella and Ti West
Tags: Adam Wingard, South by Southwest, Ti West