Halloween Horror: V/H/S (2012)

I generally like found footage but I didn’t like V/H/S. The anthology film lacks scares and outstays its welcome at an over-long 116 minutes. It should be easy for found footage films to scare the viewer. The biggest challenge of a horror film is activating the viewer’s suspension of disbelief so he or she can become caught up in the proceedings. The central conceit of found footage—that what we are seeing is real footage—does half the job for the director. It bridges that gap between artifice and reality through some shaky-cam and tracking lines, and makes it easier for the viewer to be tricked into thinking what he or she is seeing is real, and, thus, scary. But V/H/S never fully embraces its analog conceit, nor does it do much to give a new spin on classic horror tales in its six short segments.

It’s no wonder then, that the best segment is the one that actually seems to have been filmed on VHS. “10/31/98” from directing collective Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez & Chad Villella) has a bunch of young men head to a big mansion on Halloween for a costume party. When they get there, the house is abandoned, but they think it’s made up to look like a haunted house, so they don’t leave. Of course, the house does turn out to be a haunted. It’s an obvious twist (most of the twists in V/H/S are obvious) but it works well because of the ingenuinity of the camerawork and inventive practical effects. Strangely enough, despite being convincely shot on VHS, this segment’s also the one with the steadiest shots. It uses simple camera moves like swish pans to great effect whenever the character hears something behind him and turns around to check what it is.

The frame segment, “Tape 56”, directed by Adam Wingard, unfortunately doesn’t utilize such simple, yet graceful, camerawork. Documenting a bunch of hooligans in search of a rare VHS tape in an old man’s house, the segment resorts to awkward jump cuts (meant to be playback errors on the tape) and deeply irksome characters. The first segment, David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night,” doesn’t fare any better, as its glasses spy-cam conceit nauseates instead of scares, and its tale of bros on the hunt for a good lay getting more than they bargained for is too full of the incoherent, repugnant acting style characteristic of found-footage films.

“Tuesday the 17th”, a riff on slasher films directed by Glenn McQuaid, isn’t more interesting than these other segments, but at least it has the neat visual trick of the camera being unable to capture the killer on camera. Ti West’s “Second Honeymoon” and Joe Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” are more interesting and thematically weightier, worth wrestling with on their own merits, even if they too fall short of achieving their ambitions. “Second Honeymoon” depicts a couple’s innocuous trip to the Grand Canyon, and “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily” documents the Skype conversations between long distance lovers that take a turn for the bizarre. Sadly, both films have essentially the same twist, and tackle the same theme: you shouldn’t trust your lover. But at least they do interesting things with the format itself.

There’s also an icky misogyny lurking throughout most of V/H/S. All of the segments purport to undercut the macho characters they depict, having them get their comeuppance for their mistreatment of women, but the fact that the men usually turn out to be the victims of horrifying evil undercuts this notion. We’re meant to be horrified that the characters are being dispatched, not thrilled at their punishment. That the men are usually punished for exercising their sexuality muddies the water even more. There’s also one too many moments here of guys filming women taking their shirts off, of nude webcam chats, or dudes tricking women into disrobing for a hidden camera. And the final twists including vengeful lesbian lovers or sexy vampire demons do little to dispel the characters’ fear and distrust of women.

V/H/S is an interesting idea, and it shows that there are still inventive ways to frame found footage horror movies, but as a collection of individual segments, it falls flat. There’s no cohesion and no real horror. It’s just a mixed bag of old tapes best left in the attic.

4 out of 10

V/H/S (2012, USA)

“Tape 56” directed by Adam Wingard; written by Simon Barrett; starring Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Kentucker Audley, and Adam Wingard. “Amateur Night” directed by David Bruckner; written by David Bruckner and Nicholas Tecosky; starring Hannah Fierman, Mike Donlan, Joe Sykes, Drew Sawyer, and Jas Sams; “Second Honeymoon” written and directed by Ti West; starring Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, and Kate Lyn Sheil; “Tuesday the 17th” written and directed by Glenn McQuaid; starring Norma C. Quinones, Drew Moerlein, Jeannine Toder, Jason Yachanin, and Bryce Burke; “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” written and directed by Joe Swanberg; starring Helen Rogers, Daniel Kaufman, and Liz Harvey; “10/31/98” written and directed by Radio Silence; starring Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, and Paul Natonek.