A handycam horror film, oh how refreshing! You’re all thinking it.
Well, you’re not exactly right if we’re being technical (which we are, obviously), for this isn’t one shaky camcorder movie, it's five separate ones all rolled into an equally hard to see overarching film. Thank the lord.
The retrotastically titled V/H/S is a series of shorts from some of genre cinema’s finest directors who each give us a grizzly tale in a very different fashion. These stories are tied to the main narrative (Tape 56), directed by Adam Wingard, through a series of video tapes played by Wingard’s characters who are burgling a house on behalf of a mysterious client looking for a, you guessed it,
VHS. They’re not all good, we’ll tell you that now, but then it’s a horror omnibus in a format that’s getting a little tired as we reach Paranormal Activity 8: There’s still something in the house, so it was never going to be an easy sell.
From the opening clips of our antagonising leads chasing girls for ‘reality porn’ and a scene of them smashing windows which looks as if it was designed purely to let MTV train editors, it’s quite clear we’re going to be in for a bumpy ride. The phenomenon of the handheld camera is no longer a phenomenon and can border on an annoyance at times, particularly when people like Joey from Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday The 17th are holding the camera. We get it, you have hands and you can move them, now please for the love of god and my headache STAND STILL.
Once you get past these nauseous moments and the plausibility of how some of these things are on tape, it becomes a reliable device and a way of tethering these monumentally different visions together.
Due to the cult status of many of these directors it’s a film likely to attract fans of the genre, but whether you’re a horror aficionado or a casual viewer there’s something here for everyone. If you like slow burning suspense then Ti West, the unofficial master of the style, has a short which many will find mind numbingly dull, but fans of his will eat it up. It’s slow to the point of stalling, the camera’s turned off for portions of it leaving us looking at a black screen, which is nice, but it’s nicer when he does his trademark, save all the batshit bits till the last minute, move. Starring fellow director Joe Swanberg as one half of couple Sam and Stephanie, it’s a creepily intense film, which is one of the best segments in terms of dialogue and characterisation, watching Stephanie go from naïve college chick, to sexy girlfriend, to psycho bitch is particularly intriguing. While it may be the most artful film on offer here it’s by no means the best.
That feat falls to either the opening or closing film. The opening film "Amateur Night" by David Bruckner is already somewhat of an urban legend, having apparently made two people pass out, it’s a worthy contender for best and most original short using a hidden camera in a pair of glasses as a clever alternative to the standard handheld fare. In a film about a succubus there’s lots of
opportunity to feel sick, but it’s Clint (the glasses wearer) that does all the damage here, breaking his wrist with a creaking snap as he tries to flee from what is presumably the worst sexual encounter of his life. Tips for survival boys, when a creepy girl whispers, “I like you,” repeatedly and then proceeds to perform fellatio, you man up and man up fast. Sadly for Clint the only visible bone is in
his wrist. It’s a fun frat boy segment that sees drugs, sex, violence and sexual violence prevail. Lines like, “She’s a grown ass woman…we’re all grown ass consenting adults,” are just some of the choice phrases uttered by the devious Shane while the giggling Patrick is a hilarious staple of any drug using group.
The similarities between this and Radio Silence’s closing film 10/31/98 are actually much more inherent than you might think. The latter also revolves around a group of males looking for a good time, but these guys aren’t out for sex, but scares. Off to a Halloween party Chad, Matt, Tyler, and Paul in their various fancy dress costumes turn up to an empty house and obviously then feel compelled to let themselves in, put their beer in the fridge and start wandering around. Why not, right? Right around the time chairs start appearing all over the place and hands grab at you from walls is when you might feel compelled to leave, but not these manly men, they must prove they are manly by heading towards the chanting voices whose first audible word is, “burning.” Great. In case you don’t know what a cult looks like, it looks and sounds exactly like this. In case like Chad, Matt, Tyler, and Paul you don’t know what cults are, well they’re bad, so I’d refrain from chanting with them if I were you, just a thought. This is when the film gets good and the house gets haunted. Hands come from walls, windows vanish, and plates throw themselves; if it wasn’t trying to kill them they’d be having a right laugh.
In case you don’t know what a cult looks like, it looks and sounds exactly like this.
The overarching plot is dull and contrived, with the only real thrills coming from looking at an old man in the background, it leaves unanswered questions and is only there to allow these disparate shorts to come together. It is a thoroughly refreshing way of continuing to thrive off the successful formulas we’ve all seen before though, and is a film that shouldn’t really work, but it does. Even as the stupidest of the videos play and people speak lines such as: “The lake ran red with their blood,” while dumping buckets of corn starch over leaves, you can’t help but be intrigued by what will happen next, which is really the genius of this omnibus format.
By taking different specialist directors with different interests, V/H/S manages to create five worlds within the static of the real world TV’s we’re sat watching. It might not scare the bejesus out of you, but it’s got midnight movie written all over it.