Long before writing for Film Geek Central, even before the Film Geek Central podcast, you could find my reviews on a number of genre websites. It’s something I have always felt close to and have never left far behind. Because while I can appreciate all forms of cinematic expression, it is truly the fields of horror, exploitation and cult cinema that have always held a special place in my heart. It really is like going home. It’s a sentiment not everyone agrees with.
So when my good friend and colleague Austin posted his V/H/S review, I was not surprised to see a negative reaction. While he’s a well-rounded fan himself, he openly admits that horror is his least favorite genre. I imagine he feels the same way about upcoming horror films as I do every time I hear Katherine Heigl has another P.O.S. In the pipeline. My point being that Austin knows his prejudices and always welcomes another point of view, so I was happy when he asked me to offer my take on the new film V/H/S. I’m glad I did, because it took me back.
When I was initially approached to review for one site back in 2002, I was informed that the DVDs and yes even VHS tapes that I would be sent, were the ones that were at the bottom of the pile. Before plying me with classics old and new, I would be given the lowest budget films they had to offer, the ones with only the most modest and questionable origins. The first film I reviewed for the site came with a note attached that read, “WARNING: Not to be watched sober!” And that note came from the distributor.
Nevertheless, while there were some stinkers in the bunch, those films were a revelation to me. And in the process, I was introduced to some films that I still think of as modern classics. Films like Eric Stanze’s SCRAPBOOK and ICE FROM THE SUN, Matthew Jason Walsh’s BLOODLETTING or Ron Bonk’s STRAWBERRY ESTATES could give virtually any Hollywood production a run for their money in terms of mood, heart and scares. I am unaware if the makers of V/H/S thought they were harkening back to the low-fi mid 1980s or early 1990s when they created it. Whatever the case, the films that it most reminded me of were the films of the mid-90s and early-2000s – when micro-budget and SOV cinema, films which had budgets of maybe a few thousand dollars – was still a strange little secret that seemingly only a select following held in the esteem they deserved. And V/H/S/ recalls only the best of those productions.
The film blends two trends in horror films, which while not new have certainly gained a lot of traction recently. V/H/S is a found footage film, a genre which gained a lot of attention with the release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT but exploded with [REC] and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY a few years back. It’s a sub-genre which actually goes back at least as far as Ruggero Deodato’s notorious cult classic CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST from 1980.
But V/H/S is also an anthology film, a format made popular back in the 1940s but which has experienced a bit of a resurgence recently with films like TRICK ‘R TREAT, CHILLERAMA and THE THEATRE BIZARRE just a name a few.
The way V/H/S blends these two seemingly incompatible formats is pretty clever. We start out with a group of truly horrible people. Horror films these days are full of truly horrible people. The tendency to wallow in and actually reward amorality and nihilism is one of the things that is hurting the genre these days. This group is made up of people who perform stupid stunts of vandalism and even sexual assault, posting them on the internet. Fortunately, we’re supposed to hate these people and we anxiously await their comeuppance.
One of the group announces that he knows of a guy who will give them a huge payday if they can break into an old man’s home and steal a VHS tape. This film, despite taking place in the internet age, is full of VHS tapes. Go figure.
When they break into the house, they find the old man dead, sitting in front of a set of video monitors. The group splits up in search of the elusive VHS tape, always leaving one person to wait by the old man to make sure nobody else surprises them. Each person to examine the row of monitors pops in one of the many videotapes discarded nearby, each tape detailing a different strange occurrence. The person watching is never there once the tape ends.
This is the gateway into the stories. Like many anthology films, each segment is handled by a different filmmaker. This wraparound story for instance is directed by Adam Wingard (YOU’RE NEXT, A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE). Unlike other anthology films, all the stories utilize the same found footage format. This can be a tricky manner of storytelling. Sometimes, one can use it to great effect. Found footage seems to be more grounded in reality and can often gain a lot of traction by showing very little. It can also be a cheap and unnecessary gimmick as has been the case in virtually every major production of late.
For the most part, the effect is used very well here, never more so than in the first segment, “Amateur Night,” from director David Bruckner (THE SIGNAL). Like the wraparound segment, we focus on some not very likable characters, but Bruckner manages to spin this short segment into some truly amazing territory. He uses the found footage format in a manner that makes one wonder, “Hold on, did I really see that?” It’s those little horrors that you see out of the corner of your eye, but your mind can’t make sense of them. The effect here is quite simply terrifying.
Ti West (THE INKEEPERS, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) handles a surprisingly low-key yet intense story, “Second Honeymoon.” Considering West has been doing interesting things with ghosts and monsters recently, it’s easy to forget that he can portray human evil as well, just as he did in TRIGGERMAN. It’s a slow burn and yet surprises with its twists and turns. All the same, it is worth noting one problem not just with this but with most of the segments. Creating believable and sympathetic characters has always been one of horror’s greatest shortcomings. Many don’t even bother and it shows. The makers of V/H/S always do try to establish characters, despite having very little time to work with. It’s a solid effort. But if the “getting to know you” portion is often the weakest part of these films, it is even more awkward when dealing with the supposedly spontaneous yet mundane world of found footage. While West’s segment is not the best of the bunch, he continues to be one of the most fascinating people working in the horror genre.
No segment reminded me more of the wonderfully trashy films I reviewed in the past than Glenn McQuaid’s (I SELL THE DEAD) offering, “Tuesday the 17th.” A slasher story, complete with nerds and sluts and head-stabbings and butcher shop odds and ends doubling for mutilated human innards. It also has the great gimmick of having the killer show up as a wraith very specific to the format being utilized in V/H/S. Nice stuff and a great harkening back to some of the older Tempe and Sub Rosa productions (look it up, kids).
There is always a weak link in the anthology format, one segment that doesn’t hold up as well as the rest. For CREEPSHOW, it’s “The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill.” For TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, it’s “Kick the Can.” For V/H/S, it’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” Where this differs from those other two films is that this segment from Joe Swanberg (HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, and also an actor in the “Second Honeymoon” segment) is not bad per se. It just has a less satisfying end, due in part to it perhaps tipping its hand a bit too soon.
The final segment, “10/31/98” is credited to “Radio Silence,” in fact four directors working in conjunction. It starts out pretty mundane, but manages to create a truly horrifying atmosphere towards the end, as it throws in special effects that feel one hundred percent real. As fantastic as the story seems, it feels as though it really is found footage.
That’s V/H/S’s greatest strength. In most cases, it manages to create the illusion of a nightmare come to life. The film often makes no sense, and that’s fine. Our nightmares don’t make sense either. Besides, I’ve seen enough cult films to realize that logic is highly overrated in genre films. Some of the greatest horror gems from Europe and South America do not hold up under scientific scrutiny. Horror is primal, it’s about the unknown, it’s about the things that kept early humans hiding in their caves for centuries. It’s best when there’s an element of not knowing.
Though V/H/S did get a limited theatrical release, Magnet is smart playing up their usual practice of releasing films through On Demand services simultaneously. This is the type of movie more people will enjoy at home, preferably in groups and with the lights turned out. It takes two tired, played out sub-genres and attempts to breathe new life into them, for the most part succeeding. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, pervasive language and some drug use
– Running Time: 1hr 56mins.
Read Austin’s review HERE.