If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times; found footage horror is a dry well. Once a potent concept that had us all quaking in our boots with genre highlights like The Blair Witch Project and even things like Paranormal Activity, the shaky cam low-res high-tension thing has inevitably worn thin thanks to a myriad of badly sculpted films out to make big bucks on small money. Of late there’s been an outcry from the horror audience, the word is out and it’s getting pasted here there and everywhere, V/H/S has arrived to save the day and pull the handheld cam back into respectability and give us all a good reason to take up insomnia. The general opinion ain’t that far off the truth. When a film pops up written and directed by such an eclectic mix: Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die), Ti West (House of the Devil), David Bruckner(The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs), and the directing quartet known as Radio Silence, you can’t help but get interested.
Following the format of an old-school anthology horror, V/H/S reveals the dire doings of a group of social misfits hired by a shadowy employer to break into a house and steal a video tape, a tape they are told they will know on sight. Arriving at the deserted household the group find a dead body slumped in an armchair facing a few TV’s and a stack of video cassettes. As the group split up to search for the tape, watching them one by one, it becomes evident that something isn’t right. The tapes document bizarre, brutal, and terrifying events but that’s not the only thing the hapless group have to fear.
The great thing about V/H/S is that there’s something for everyone. The short segments are all weird and wonderfully horrific, but as with anything some ideas don’t quite take off. Through all the segments there winds the careful writing of obvious horror fans combined with the sometimes gentle and creepy/sometimes visceral direction of guys who know their stuff. For horror aficionados there’s enough role reversal and unanswered questions to fill a hundred film theory essays. Female roles seem to be toyed with with glee, male roles get dragged through the muck, every segment is balanced with reality and heart against fantasy and gore. Problems show up in some of the films when there’s no one to relate to, no real hero or heroine to guide us, just a large group of very weird/silly/stupid/horrific human beings and “other”. In fact V/H/S could probably be renamed something like “How Boisterous Jocks in Motels Cause Hell”, or “She’s Not What You Think”. It’s that clever reliance on horror tropes that puts the film above others since it then pulls the other way just to teach you for thinking you were smart.
Amateur Night is horror 101: jocks try to take advantage of girls, everything goes horribly wrong. Tuesday 17th is essentially a slasher with a pretty fantastic idea for a villain that genuinely scares. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger is polarising since it features possibly the best scare out the lot, but has some wobbly moments of overexposure and an ending that could leave you disappointed. 10/31/98 is a real gem; essentially a haunted house story with an initially clueless group of guys stumbling into what they think is a well-set-up house of Halloween horror. The imagery here is stupendous, macabre in a Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions kind of way, flaunting some really intense sequences and a killer finale. The frame structure of the break-in denies us answers no matter how hard you think then gives us shit-in-pants scares for our troubles.
A key strong-point of the piece is the relentless curiosity it inspires. A failure to Ta-da a reveal in all sequences results in a more engaging experience overall, though some viewers will no-doubt find it infuriating/ disappointing before rewarding. Too often, explanations cock-up an otherwise riveting affair so here the guys have reserved outlandish reasoning just to screw with our heads. I don’t doubt there’s a possible and awesome plot behind each piece; I just don’t think we need it.
Though, the found footage thing does at points get tiresome and the stories at times flit between fantastic and meh, there’s still fun to be had in this mixed bag. It’s still well written, at times genius, and definitely worth a watch, this is a must-see for horror fans and a welcome surprise to the found footage sub-genre.
Dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Chad Villella, Ti West, Adam Wingard
Stars. Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Hannah Fierman, Kentucker Audley, Simon Barrett,