Thursday, October 11, 2012


V/H/S (2012)
Dir. Adam Wingard, Ti West, David Bruckner, Glen McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
Written by: David Bruckner,Glenn McQuaid,Ti West, Chad Villella, Justin Martinez, Matt Bettinelli-Oplin, Nicholas Tecosky, Simon Barrett, Tyler Gillett
Starring: It’s hard to tell....

Ah, the horror anthology: because critics love writing the word “uneven.” Time was, it was a big enough gimmick to just have a horror anthology where different directors helmed different segments with some preposterous wraparound story sandwiched uncomfortably between them. But nowadays, kids can’t even stay awake through a single sentence that has only one paltry gimmick, so you’ve gotta up the ante with the ever-reliable double gimmick. So what we’ve got here is a horror anthology which is composed of different takes on that tiresome found footage trend we’re all so sick of, which is gradually turning films into reality TV and photography into unintelligible bullshit.

    But! I had reason to be hopeful about this one. For one thing, two of the directors (Ti West and David Bruckner) are not usually known for this sort of found footage chicanery, and in fact have in the past made mostly excellent films. I haven’t seen any of Adam Wingard’s films, but I hear A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE is pretty great and POP SKULL is pretty awful, so could go either way there. The other guys, who knows, but three outta six ain’t bad, right?

    OK so I was already going to go see it, but the thing that pushed my expectations into positive territory is actually the combination of horror anthology and found footage. I think that horror, more than any other genre, might benefit from a found-footage bent, or at least a certain kind of horror might benefit. I mean, you’re not gonna be able to recreate the atmospheric lushness of a 60’s Hammer production or a well-made Giallo without the kind of sumptuous camerawork and production that gives them that unique gothic flavor. But, it might well be able to recreate the oh-shit-oh-shit-they’re-after-me grimy realism of films like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Those films have a reputation for being grueling crucibles of punishment without respite, and I have a feeling that a well-executed found-footage story might be able to recreate that unrelenting nightmare feel pretty well. More than anything, the found footage conceit gives good reason to construct long, unbroken takes which deny the viewer the relief of having editing swoop in and save them. It’s certainly possible to do this with conventional photography (see: CHILDREN OF MEN, KNOWING) but with the found footage gimmick it seems to so naturally insert itself into the way it’s filmed that you get the benefit of the immersive long take without the distraction of the director rubbing your nose in it (see: ENTER THE VOID).

It's just that they're terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.

    And even though found-footage films will never be pretty like traditional films, there is a certain advantage to using the fixed perspective and the limitations of the media to keep your horror hidden. Most films have to rely on darkness or deliberately evasive photography to keep you in fear of what you don’t see -- here, it’s a natural effect of the shaky cam and glitchy video quality. That certainly opens up some new possibilities for good fright scenes. So all that, plus it’s a found footage anthology, meaning that they can pretty much cut right to the good parts! The granddaddy of all found footage clusterfucks, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, has a couple genuinely frightening moments, but to get to them you’ve got to wander around the woods with three iffy actors ad-libbing for hours on end. Here, they’re forced to trim the fat and just give you the bloody meat. No ad-libbed filler, just enough time for a setup and payoff.

    So I went in with all this stuff in my head, thinking this was a real chance for these six boundary-pushing young horror directors to really take the conceit and use it to do something we’ve never seen before in the horror genre. It turns out to be a moot point, though, because mostly what we get here are pretty conventional horrorshow antics with the very slight twist of being on video. But hey, they’re pretty damn entertaining anyway, so who the fuck cares. Most of the directors disappointingly don’t do a whole lot with the found footage gimmick, but they tend to have strong enough horror fundamental that they do fine anyway, or at least are only marginally hurt by the ugly photography.

    We start with a wraparound story about a bunch of hooligans who videotape their idiotic crimes and get paid for the video evidence by unnamed collectors. They break into a scary house which they’re told contains a tape that will net them a big cash windfall, but they don’t know which one it is so they (and the audience) start watching them. I’ll be honest, the wraparound story (by Adam Wingard) is pretty much tepid junk, empty of scares and full of terrible acting and unlikable characters. But fortunately it’s over quickly and we can move on to the good stuff.

Ghosts never wash their hands.

    The good stuff begins with David Bruckner’s (THE SIGNAL) excellent tale of three drunk douchebags who buy a pair of webcam glasses* in the hopes of getting a sex tape out of it. In a bar, they encounter Lily (Hannah Fierman) a decidedly odd, shy young woman who is troublingly --almost supernaturally-- quick on her feet. And the rest writes itself. Bruckner does, in fact, utilize a long unbroken take throughout most of the second half of this short, but the quality of the video is so glitchy that it almost doesn’t matter and barely registers. All is forgiven though, because Hannah Fierman’s Lily character is a remarkable, funny, scary, and memorable creation brought to life by excellent characterization and top-notch makeup. Could this have been better if it was shot conventionally? Maybe, maybe not, but this way works fine and probably ends up the strongest segment, overall.

    Then we move on to Ti West’s (THE INNKEEPERS, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) segment, which concerns a sulky, passive-aggressive couple (V/H/S/ director Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal) traveling through the Southwest and staying at motels. When they encounter a mysterious female hitchhiker, things quickly turn strange. West does well with the prickly characterization of his leads, using subtle clues to tell us everything we need  to know about this relationship. But his cleverest trick is using the unexpected neutrality of found footage to fuck with the audience. There’s a scene which genuinely caused the audience of hard-core horror folks I saw the film with to gasp, and it’s not exclusively because of the creepy concept, but rather the off-kilter nervousness which comes as a result of not having editing or music to tell us how we should feel. When a knife appears out of nowhere, the audience is genuinely on edge, not sure how far West is going to go with this. And then he turns it into a joke, throwing us off again. West’s segment is short, but among the most memorable uses of this particular visual style.  

Doesn't matter, got laid.
    Next up we have Glenn McQuaid, with a really awful, embarrassingly amateurish FRIDAY THE 13th parody. The less said about this turkey the better, but it manages to completely negate the point of using the found footage style and fail to deliver anything even mildly interesting or memorable, despite the fact that it’s the only segment that tries to get some mileage out of gore. It’s a disastrous mix of bad acting, ugly photography, unimaginative scares, derivative gore, poor pacing, and incoherent storytelling which is a good reminder of just how bad horror movies can get when they’re in the hands of less capable directors.

    Fortunately, we rebound with that asshole Joe Swanberg from Ti West’s segment, which is probably the most interesting and boundary-pushing section of the film. It’s shown entirely as a Skype (or google video or whatever) conversation between two people: the somewhat childish, vulnerable Emily and her medical-student boyfriend James. Emily begins to experience strange things, and tries to rope her out-of-town buea into helping her solve the mystery. What follows isn’t the most elegantly told horror story, but it’s an interesting attempt to do something different with the medium, and includes some welcome creepy details so it’s not purely an exercise in style. I wouldn’t want to watch a whole movie like this, but as an anthology short it’s a refreshing experiment which mostly works pretty well.

Not in the top 100 scariest things on the internet.
    Finally, we have the last segment by the mysteriously named “Radio Silence,” which turns out to be four guys names Chad, Paul, Justin, and Matt who also star (as themselves?) as four drunk douchebags on their way to a Halloween party. They arrive at the wrong haunted house, but don’t realize it until much too late. Although by this point we’re getting a little sick of drunk douchebags, the segment is unique enough to bring us to a strong ending. Most notably the whole thing is, essentially, one long shot, which does, as I postulated earlier, help cultivate the feeling of being trapped along with the characters. It doesn’t hurt that the end erupts into a pretty spectacular haunted house effects show, including some colorful touches like creepy hands reaching out of the wall to grab us. Actually the thing that it most successfully evokes is the feeling of having gone through a really awesome homemade haunted house -- which I think it probably a good horror equivalent of an action movie being described as “a roller coaster ride.” It’s fun, it’s immersive, it’s a unique experience. That’s a good way to stick the landing.

Overall, anyone who was, like me, sort of expecting V/H/S to be a proving ground for bold new horror techniques which will shape the next generation is gonna be disappointed. This could have been that, but mostly it isn’t. Still, there’s enough fun horror ideas in here to excuse the missteps and mostly work as a fun, occasionally surprising anthology which doesn’t overstay it’s welcome (an impressive feat at almost two hours). I really sort of hope that this found footage thing goes away, or at least ends up in the hands of people who are more interested in exploring it’s nuances than these six directors (mostly) seem to be -- but with its quick payoffs, varied style, and handful of genuinely memorable ideas, I think V/H/S is among the most tolerable examples of this dubious genre I’ve seen, definitely on par with [REC] or TROLL HUNTER. I know my buddy Dan P. didn’t have as much fun with it as I did, but I’m betting most horror fans will. I love horror and will always be excited about the next time someone does something really daring and unique, but until then I’ll be happy to settle for more films as solid as this one.

PS: Speaking of Dan P, check out his take on this one

*Which i guess somehow got dubbed onto a VHS tape so the crooks could watch it? Pretty weird.


BOOBIES:Oh yeah, in at least three separate segments, and twice in one, all gratuitous.
Some gore, but nothing too major.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Playing in arty theaters now.
MONSTERS: I'm split as to whether its a particularly colorful vampire or monster.
SATANISTS: It's not entirely clear what the cultists in the last segment are up to.
ZOMBIES: At least one.
VAMPIRES: You could argue yes, but I'm sort of drifting towards monster.
If so, it's not very clear.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't put it on par with [REC], but your take on it was pretty much how I felt as well. But weirder than the glasses-cam footage being on VHS, I realized, is the Skype footage--even if they did save or record it in some way, to then get it from computer to VHS? In an era, post-Skype-invention, when no one uses VHSs? Unlikely.

    But yeah, I think one of the appeals, to me, of the found-footage schtick is that it ropes us into another level disbelief-suspended realism, trying to recreate the experience of experience-capture, instead the experience of a situation itself. Trying to capture an experience itself involves evoking its essence perhaps unrealistically in terms of what it actually chooses to portray but with a high degree of fidelity to the feeling of the experience. Contrastingly, trying to capture the way we actually record and revisit experiences is maybe a less realistic portrayal of how we'd experience it in the moment, but feels real in a different way because we can imagine our own past experiences we've captured through photo, video, skype, etc., and how our narrative of what happened has largely become comprised of/shaped by what we recorded of it.

    That being said, I think one of the ways that makes the medium feel like it's working most for me is when it utilizes a naturalness in its actors that really feels like they're living while being recorded. This often includes banal or ill-timed dialogue, something that feels like no one would have ever written it into a movie, but when done right, it really draws you in instead of distances you from the film. I think this is why I really liked the first and second segments the best. Sophia Takal's character's line, when told to wash her hands after petting the donkey, of "I promise, I will wash my hands. After I eat. With my hands." was a stupid throw-away line, the kind you'd say to a friend or significant other trying (if not succeeding) to be funny and push their buttons, in a really mild and off-the-cuff way. But it totally drew me into the realism of it. Same with the drunk douchebag dialogue of the guys in the first segment; yes, many might have found it grating and annoying, but that dude laughing his ass off, drunk and high and not getting laid, going, "I'm just fucking sitting on the couch!" totally made that scene for me. I totally felt in it, and like it was playing out like it would in real life.