Found-footage films have been a go-to medium in film these days. It started getting popular with the infamous marketing ploy of the Blair Witch Project, but it has around since at least 1980 when the Italian mockumentary Cannibal Holocaust was released. If you want to count those days when we would borrow our parents’ mini-tape camcorder, strap a construction-paper smiley face to a friend’s head and record him pretending to kill our little sister, then found-footage has been around for even longer.
V/H/S, directed by Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence, uses the concept of found footage and applies it a sub-genre that is too often neglected: horror anthologies.
The segments themselves are found-footage VHS tapes, each telling a different story: a lusty woman picked up at a bar by a trio of men; a couple’s disturbing road trip; the strange past of a girl who brings her friends into the woods; ghostly occurrences during a video chat; a Halloween party gone horribly wrong.
Does it work? Somewhat.
One of the most crucial elements of a good horror anthology versus a bunch of shorts lumped together is a good continuity plot. The continuity plot revolves around a group of live-action exploitation film creators who get paid for their tapes of mayhem. Think Jackass meets A Clockwork Orange, then tossed their videos on a morbid version of Youtube. The group is hired to retrieve a videotape from an old man, with dire consequences.. It is a simple, yet effective continuity plot that seems to be in line with Tales from the Hood, as the symbolism of the devil and hell becomes evident. It also plays into a subtle fourth wall reference, since the audience is watching found-footage of a group of men watching found-footage.
Unfortunately, that’s all we get. There is no legitimate “AH HA” moment that makes this film memorable as a horror anthology. The film seems to beg for a break to showcase a traditionally shot scene. The found-footage is too much of a good thing, to the point that you begin to ask questions like, “Why are they taping all of this”, a pratfall that many found-footage films fall into. Sometimes a traditionally shot scene, perhaps injected into the continuity plot, is a nice relief, and makes the found-footage more compelling.
The actual segments, on the other hand, work very well.
To be honest, I was starting to get sick of “found-footage” movies. I can only stand so much of watching two-hour flicks of people fumbling with video cameras in real-time before they all start looking the same, and make me start asking questions like “Why don’t they put down the damn camera and get the hell out of Dodge?”
V/H/S, however, provides a decent break from that monotony, because it is made up of shorter stories, each with a different way of recording its footage.
Tape 56 (continuity plot-line)
Director: Adam Wingard
Plot: A group of misfit reality snuff film artists break into a house in search of a mysterious VHS tape. What they find is…lots of mysterious VHS tapes. With a dead body in the room and money at stake, the boys sit down and watch some of them, because that’s the logically curious thing to do.
Body Count: 3
2 pairs of breasts
If there is ever a warning about using too much of a good thing when you don’t have to in a film, this is it. This movie would have been at least twice as good if they left this continuity plot in a traditional, storytelling format. It would have made itself a bit more realistic (rather than having the audience believe that these guys are so vain that they would record themselves watching video recordings) and it would have broken up the segments to make them more effective. Instead, we are left with a nonsensical story with some random dead bodies walking around and the question, “So how did we get this tape?”
Director: David Bruckner
Plot: A trio of douchebags sets out with a pair of hipster spy glasses in order to make a homemade porno. Instead, they record their own demise at the hands of a succubus with hurt feelings.
Body Count: 3
2 douchebags shredded to shit (including 1 dick and nut-sack ripped off)
1 douchebag with a broken wrist dropped from 30 stories in the air (or flown away to the lair of the succubus?)
1 pair of breasts, multiple times
I’ve never worn glasses that I needed to see, so I don’t know how annoying it is having to constantly fix them. I can imagine it’s a hell of a lot more annoying to have to fix them just right so that the spy cam hidden in them is angled just right, even when you’re falling down a flight of stairs.
This segment is arguably the best in the series. The development of the succubus (or flying cat-demon or whatever it is) is fantastic in terms of special effects. If you watch it a second time, you can tell straight up that the human form of the succubus has something wrong with her, and not just because she’s staring intensely at us and saying point blank, “I like you” in one of the greatest methods of flirtation I have ever seen. We even see a crossover of how demon women can act just as crazy as human women sometimes. When I saw our anti-hero is laying on the ground with a broken wrist, crying, and the succubus saying, “You no like?”, I wanted him to say, “You ate out the stomach of one of my friends, ripped the dick off of the other, I just fell down the stairs and broke my arm, and now you’re head is splitting open while you’re trying to get me into some foreplay. NO, I DON’T LIKE!”
This segment has a feeling of vindication for the whole V/H/S film. It’s as if it’s trying to tell naysayers, “Look, this can work!” and then giving us a story that’s vaguely familiar from another horror anthology, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. That’s right, I contest that the writer and director watched “Lover’s Vow” non-stop for 3 days before making this segment. It’s not a bad thing. People like references to old, familiar things that they love.
The problem is, the rest of the segments didn’t come close.
Director: Ti West
Genre: Stalker/Serial Killer
Plot: A happy couple take a road trip through the West. Unbeknownst to them, they are stalked by what they believe to be a female crackhead.
Body Count: 1
1 throat slashing
Watching other people’s videologues of their vacation is one of my least favorite things to do. Sure, people want to share their amazing experiences, but when I’ve been working for 3 weeks straight on a diet of water, coffee, and pasta, the last thing I want to see is how much fun someone had somewhere that I haven’t been yet. That’s what this whole segment is. I want to go out west to some crumby western-themed towns and get my fortune told by a cheesy animatronic miner.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the whole problem with this segment. The scariest moment is when (gasp) we find that there is an unknown 3rd person in the motel room with the couple. What does this fearsome spectre do? It touches a butt with its switchblade, steals $100, and dips a toothbrush in the toilet bowl. It’s such a downer that the next time the scene repeats itself, you decide that either someone is actually going to die or you’re walking out of the movie theater.
Tuesday the 17th
Director: Glenn McQuaid
Genre: Stalker/Serial Killer
Plot: A serial killer with the power to distort the tracking of video camera stalks the woods as a survivor from a previous attack attempts to defeat it, or at least get some clear video footage of it.
Body Count: 4 (+2 bad tracking flashback deaths) (+1 animal)
1 disembowled animal
1 butcher knife ninja-starred through the head
1 repeated stabbing to the head by butcher knife
1 slit throat
1 head bashed in by a video camera followed by disembowling
I like movies about stalkers in the woods. At the same time, I know that I’ll compare any recent movie about a serial killer who can’t die to Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series or Angela from the Sleepaway Camp series. It’s a tough act to follow.
So I must give credit for this segment: it was a new way to feature a stalker in the woods. Instead of a mask or a severely burnt face, we have a killer that the audience can’t see because…it magically distorts the tracking on video equipment.
Some freak in the woods has the ability to manipulate surveillance equipment? Then why would he stay in the woods? Surely he could have more fun in a city. If he’s a supernatural force, why does he need a butcher knife? Better yet, how does he keep it so clean and sharp? These are the questions I ask when watching serial murder movies, and I want answers, no matter how ridiculous they may be. This time, i don’t get them. What’s worse, I don”t see any breasts either.
The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She was Younger
Director: Joe Swanberg
Genre: Science Fiction/Aliens
Plot: A pre-med student consoles his girlfriend, who thinks her apartment is haunted, via video-chat. Is it?
Body Count: 1 (inferred)
1 death by one too many alien incubations (inferred)
2 pairs of breasts
Well, most of the horror stereotypes seemed to have been covered. This time we have scary ghost kids. There’s just something foreboding about small, glowing children. You get the feeling that they’re going to use their small, glowing hands to throw a handful of spoiled egg salad at you, and there’s really nothing scarier than that.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Instead, we are shown the stereotypical science fiction portion of the movie that would make the ghost kids much more plausible.
Director: Radio Silence
Genre: Haunted House/Demons
Plot: A group of friends get lost on their way to a Halloween party. When they arrive at what they think is their destination, they are treated with a spectacular haunted house. Unfortunately, this isn’t the work of entertainment. It is the work of a demon.
Body Count: 8
4 guys eaten by a house
4 guys hit by a train while trapped in their car by a girl possessed
Although this segment has some of the worst deaths in the whole film (worst as in, bodies fly away, with no blood and guts), it is one of my favorites. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe I just find it hilarious that a guy in a goofy bear suit with a video camera built in is being chased through a house by demons. It reminds me of the credit into to Zombieland where we have normal scenes of weddings, strip clubs, and church barbeques desecrated by zombies. It’s absurdly awesome.
That’s how this segment plays out. Add to that special effects like hands coming out of walls, and you have a great possession segment. If only people didn’t just fly away instead of being brutally impaled, burned, or ripped apart. That house needs to seriously get more creative.