Can’t wait for the sequel, Betamax.
When the trailer for V/H/S first hit the internet, many movie lovers were thrilled, including me. It looked like a total thrill ride, with the title and subject matter speaking to old-school horror fans, evoking a time when we used to look for hidden gems among the lurid covers of the dank, dusty horror sections of our neighborhood mom n’ pop video store.
After a limited theatrical run, V/H/S is now on Blu-ray. Does it live up to the excitement of that now-legendary trailer?
A bunch of party dudes run around the city, causing chaos while filming it all. Someone offers to pay them to break into a house and steal an old VHS tape. Recording themselves every step of the way, the party dudes find a whole collection of tapes inside the house, along with some other ghoulish surprises. Some of the tapes they find contain the following stories:
• “Amateur Night” (Directed by David Bruckner)
A bunch of party dudes head out for an evening of drinking and picking up chicks, with one of them filming it all on his hidden camera glasses. The guys bring two girls back to a hotel room, only to discover one of the girls is a lot more than what she appears.
• “Second Honeymoon” (Directed by Ti West, The Innkeepers)
A party dude and his girlfriend are on vacation, filming their adventures along the way. They’re being followed by an odd young woman, who finds her way to their hotel room.
• “Tuesday the 17th” (Directed by Glenn McQuaid)
A bunch of party dudes head off into the woods for some camping, video cameras in hand. Along the way, they’re picked off one by one, by someone or something that the camera can’t quite see.
• “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger” (Directed by Joe Swanburg)
A woman and her party dude friend converse long-distance on Skype. She fears something strange is happening in her apartment, and she wakes up with strange wounds on her body.
• “10/31/98” (Directed by Radio Silence)
A bunch of party dudes head out for some fun one Halloween night, with a video camera hidden in one guy’s costume. They go to what they think is a Halloween party, but is instead an apparently abandoned house, complete with strange phenomena happening around every corner. The guys find their way up to the attic, but aren’t prepared for what they find there.
Yes, it’s another “found footage” movie. Part of me gets it. You want to make a movie, but can’t afford the hundreds of millions of dollars Hollywood spends on its blockbusters? Just use ordinary home video equipment. These days, you can even record an entire feature on just your phone. Your movie won’t look like a big Hollywood flick, so your script had better include a conceit of some sort, letting viewers in on the fact that it was filmed this way, and thus the “found footage” subgenre is born.
Unfortunately, while V/H/S has its share of impressive low-budget creativity and ingenuity, it also has the many annoyances shared by so many other found footage films. Prepare to feel a little seasick as the camera whips and spins around anytime someone is walking, running, or, well, pretty much the whole movie. This style of filmmaking allows the filmmakers to cut a lot of technical corners, so there are a lot of blurry, dark, and grainy shots. Some might find that this adds to the atmosphere, but others will find it headache-worthy.
More disconcerting than the movie’s look, however, is its subject matter. A lot of anthology movies have the problem of one segment that’s too different from the others. V/H/S has the opposite problem, in that so many of its segments are so similar. Imagine that testosteroned-up guy we’ve all met, who reacts to everything he sees by raising his fists in the air and shouting “Whoo!” and “Yeah!” Well, almost every male character in this movie is that guy. The “partying fratboy on a rampage” type runs throughout the whole movie. All the men care about is getting drunk, smashing things, and screwing any and all females they come across. It gets even worse when we meet the female characters. Women in this movie serve only two purposes, as sex objects or as murderous monsters. This single-mindedness is no doubt intentional, a throwback to the simplistic horror characters of 30 years ago, but today’s audiences are more cynical, and therefore more demanding. An entire movie of nothing but raunchy alpha males and the women they use just doesn’t fly in this day and age.
There’s a trend I’ve noticed among up-and-coming horror filmmakers, in which they create unlikable characters just so those characters can get brutally killed on camera. The idea is that this will get a huge reaction from audiences, who will stand and cheer when the jerk character gets what’s coming to him. The obnoxious lawyer from Jurassic Park who hides in an outhouse and then gets eaten by a T-rex is often cited as the precedent for this. The thing is, the obnoxious lawyer is not the main character, and we don’t follow him through the whole movie hoping he’ll get it. V/H/S presents a whole series of loudmouthed jerks, hoping audiences will get the bloodlust for their deaths. Without characters we can identify with, the movie flounders on screen in front of disinterested viewers.
The wraparound sequence, directed by Adam Wingard, illustrates this the most cleanly, and is the movie at its weakest. The opening few minutes of the movie has this group of guys committing petty crimes, vandalism, and abuse of women. The filmmakers certainly get their point across, but just try to find any defining characteristics for these guys. Having watched the movie three times now, I can’t recall any of their names. As they head into the big scary house for their fateful encounter with the scary tapes, we the viewers know bad things will happen to them, and yet there are no consequences. When the guys get offed one by one in grisly fashion, viewers are left to shrug, and wonder why they should care.
As has been pointed out in many other reviews, the best segment in the movie is also the first. “Amateur Night” gives us a rare likable protagonist, a nice guy caught up in a bunch of craziness he can’t control. The female villain of the piece, played with fearless abandon by Hannah Fierman, is more than just a sex object for the men, but is instead a misunderstood monster. It’s fitting, then, that she and the protagonist would find each other, as they’re both outsiders in their respective worlds. But then, the movie’s stock party dude characters take over, brushing the main character aside for their in-your-face douchebaggery, which leads into the punish-the-jerks thing that the movie will soon repeat over and over.
“Second Honeymoon” is slower-paced and less visually herky-jerky than others, but it too follows the same patterns as the other segments. Our main character is always trying to get his girl to make a sex tape with him, and she keeps refusing. His getting freaked out over their apparent stalker is equal parts macho bluster and sniveling weenie. He’s clearly designed to be unlikable, and we’re meant to await eagerly his inevitable demise. So the whole exercise becomes a waiting game, little more, even with the requisite twist at the end.
“Tuesday the 17th” begins much the same way as “Amateur Night,” with a bunch of loudmouths out for a good time. With the exception of a mysterious girl who seems to know what’s really going on, these campers/victims have no distinguishing characteristics. It’s here that the hand-held cinematography gets really seasickness-worthy, but that’s intentional. The segment is built around a very nifty visual effect that plays perfectly into the movie’s look. Unfortunately, this amazing effect is in service of a stale, predictable story.
At first, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” appears to buck the movie’s trend by offering something different. Never mind that this is a Skype conversation instead of an old VHS tape (although I suppose the technology to transfer one to the other could exist), once you’ve seen it, you can tell that the guy in the segment isn’t that different from the ones in “Amateur Night,” and his wants for his female friend are not too dissimilar. She starts out the segment as the hero, investigating the strange goings-on around her, but ends up as just another object, here only for her body. The twist is an interesting one, and played in such a way that we get just enough of what’s going on without everything spelled out for us. It’s one of the better segments, but it doesn’t break the mold as much as it could have.
The repetition sets in big time in “10/31/98,” with much the same hidden camera setup as “Amateur Night.” This segment also has some great special effects, and some delightfully creepy haunted house atmosphere. There are some great “did I really just see that” moments. Sadly, these good points are wasted on another group of non-characters, a group of guys defined only by their party-hardy attitude. The main character rallies the others to be helpful and do the right thing, but it feels like they’re doing it more for plot necessity than out of any genuine character motivation. Viewers will be left with the feeling that they’ve seen this one before. Given how similar it is to previous segments, that’s understandable, and it just makes the movie seem overly long.
You might be wondering why I’m spending so much time discussing character development when the movie is made up of short segments, which means there isn’t as much time for character work as there would be in a feature. You’d think that, but is it really the case? When those kids were stuck on that raft in Creepshow 2, we give a damn because we’ve had a chance to get to know them. When Anna Paquin’s character in Trick r’ Treat frets over her “first time,” her anxiety is palpable, and that’s what keeps us watching. When the thing on the wing of the plane comes for John Lithgow at the end of Twilight Zone: The Movie, we don’t hoot and holler because he’s getting what he deserves, we’re on the edges of our seats with fear because he’s an ordinary guy caught up in an inescapable situation. V/H/S‘s lack of distinct characters mean we are denied signature scenes such as these.
You’ve got to hand to these indie filmmakers and their ingenuity. With the tiniest fraction of a budget compared to most features, they’ve gone out there with their cameras with their friends, in their own hometowns, sometimes in their own homes, and they got their movie made. That they made it with impressive special effects and a handful of daring performances is all the more impressive.
How, exactly, does one assess the video quality on the Blu-ray when the movie is filmed in such a style, often with ordinary home video equipment? The picture is scratchy and grainy, occasionally blurry, with black levels that are more grey and muddy. Of course, all this is intentional, and every out of focus shot or poorly-lit room is all part of what the movie is about. Therefore, the Blu-ray looks exactly as it’s supposed to look. The filmmakers have stretched the audio beyond the home tech capacity, with a lot of atmospheric effects and a booming pseudo-metal rock soundtrack.
Bonus features kick off with a group commentary, with a whole room full of directors, actors and crew chiming in all at once. It appears that several of the filmmakers embody a similar party-boy mentality as their characters. From there, we get several featurettes that further explore the low-budget filmmaking process, a series of cast and crew interviews, and an AXS TV special about the movie. A photo gallery, concept design gallery and some trailers round out the package.
For all of its good points, V/H/S ends up a hollow experience. What could have been truly groundbreaking horror ends up merely OK, and that’s just unfortunate.