V/H/S is an ingenious amalgam of two horror staples: the “found footage” subgenre, and the horror anthology structure. Containing a total of six short stories, the film provided the opportunity for a handful of up-and-coming horror directors to experiment with herky-jerky POV horror. Eschewing the polish and sheen of recent films like Cloverfield and Project X, V/H/S aspires to emulate the style of The Blair Witch Project: low-budget, raw and often fuzzy footage that may induce motion sickness due to its shaky cinematography. For this reviewer’s money, V/H/S undeniably works; it’s an insanely atmospheric, often thrilling selection of short movies, and there’s no shortage of blood, boobs, twists or dark humour.
Providing a wrap-around framework for the shorts, V/H/S introduces us to a gang of young thieves who film themselves breaking into a house, endeavouring to retrieve a VHS tape that they’ve been hired to find. With stacks of video cassettes lying around, the gang begin taking time to watch the unlabelled tapes. In the first tale they watch, Amateur Night (directed by Adam Wingard), a trio of horny young men aim to film a night of drunken sex using a pair of spy glasses. However, they pick up a creepy, quiet girl, and things quickly deteriorate from there. The second story, Ti West’s Second Honeymoon, features a young couple filming their tourist exploits as they road trip through the American Southwest, but find themselves stalked by a hooded figure. Next up is Tuesday the 17th (directed by Glenn McQuaid), a Friday the 13th-inspired story about four friends who travel to a remote wooded area for a weekend of lakeside fun. But a vicious apparition rules the area, and is not going to let the intruders leave. The fourth story, Joe Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, is told through a series of video chats between two long-distance lovers. Emily believes that her apartment is haunted, and tries to convince her boyfriend of the paranormal presence. Last but not least is 10/31/98, directed by a four-man collective who call themselves Radio Silence. This last segment observes a few boys heading out to attend a Halloween party who find themselves in a haunted house.
Perhaps the most common complaint of found footage movies is that they’re boring. After all, it’s hard to sustain a movie purportedly told through home video footage, and there’s often more build-up than payoff. V/H/S works so well because it jettisons the need to stretch out ideas to feature-length, and thus each story has the freedom to be short and brisk, essentially cutting most of the bullshit to skip straight to the payoff. Furthermore, there’s a welcome element of surprise – you don’t know how long each story will go for, and you don’t know what each story will hold. It provides variety and disorientates us, compelling us to bite our nails in uncertainty of what’s about to happen. Unfortunately, the primary story about the burglars who find the tapes is too repellent, silly and dull. Added to this, the idea that these guys film their exploits is difficult to accept, and the fact that they keep filming strains believability to breaking point. V/H/S would have benefitted from either losing this narrative thread entirely, or portraying the story through conventional writing and filming, rather than forcing the found footage conceit.
Fortunately, the directors of the rest of the five shorts each found ingenious ways to avoid the recurring “Why do those idiots keep filming?” question. In one segment, a character is wearing a pair of eyeglasses fitted with a small camera. Another segment consists entirely of webcam chats. In other stories, the camera plays an important role. And in the last segment, a camera is embedded in a characters’ Halloween costume.
The best story, by far, is 10/31/98. Perhaps because the segment was masterminded by four people, it’s the most inventive and resourceful short film, employing some seamless CGI mixed with old-school special effects trickery to sell the dread of this haunted house. Across the board, the actors all deliver naturalistic performances, without the usual stiffness associated with the subgenre. Perhaps the biggest victory of V/H/S is that it looks and sounds genuine. Paranormal Activity 3 was meant to be told through video cassettes from the 1980s, but it was too crisp and sharp. V/H/S, on the other hand, looks grungy and fuzzy, making us believe we’re watching old home movies on an old VHS. Mise-en-scène is spot-on, too. But several stories would have benefitted from more judicious editing. If two or three minutes was excised from each story, the picture would have run a more serviceable 100 minutes, rather than the excessive 115 minutes it ended up being. Furthermore, there are a few logistical issues with V/H/S. For instance, why would the thieves sit inside a creepy house watching the tapes, rather than taking them home to watch? And why would a selection of computer chats end up on a VHS tape?
Packing the grungy menace of the early pictures of directors like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, V/H/S is a clever grab-bag of frights and intoxicating tension, all filtered through the found footage aesthetic. It feels dangerous and often real, and it puts a lot of glossy Hollywood pictures to shame. Each of the film’s components would make for fine, memorable horror shorts. Therefore, with the segments all pieced together, the finished product is a terrific slice of independent horror filmmaking. It’s an ideal movie to watch in a dark room on a Friday or Saturday night. And it’s required viewing for horror buffs.