Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
“V/H/S” harkens back to the horror anthologies of old like “Tales from the Crypt” and “Creepshow.” These were groups of stories that, while not very long, were just enough to unsettle you while making you wonder where each creepy tale was headed. It’s not surprising that someone would want to try something similar nowadays. However, if “V/H/S” is any indication, it seems they have failed to grasp what made such anthologies work in the first place.
This collection is very loosely held together by a main story which consists of a group of burglars breaking into a man’s home in an attempt to steal a certain videotape. Having found several of them there, members of the group begin to go through them. What they find on the tapes are people going through very strange events which includes two guys dealing with a vampire, a vacationing couple’s encounter with a hitchhiker, a group of friends being picked off by a killer who can’t be captured on camera, a woman who believes her apartment to be haunted, and another group of friends’ bizarre experience while trying to find a Halloween party.
On the surface, these may indeed sound like they would be interesting stories to put together for a horror collection, but sadly, “V/H/S” suffers from a very poor level of writing. The stories end up coming off more so as half-baked ideas that could have simply been trashed pitches for low-budget horror films. Therefore, instead of being engaging and entertaining, you get the feeling that you’re watching a random collection of events that are trying very hard to be shocking.
One of the biggest nails in the coffin for the film ends up being its style. The filmmakers decided it would be neat to make it a kind of “new-age” anthology by having it told entirely from a handheld camera’s point of view (a la a “found footage” film). This ends up being a disastrous mistake, particularly for the first story, where the camera is thrown around so much that it could conceivably make people ill if they watch it on the big screen.
It doesn’t really do anything to help the film, but it does plenty to hurt it. It seemed like every few seconds there was a blip or stuttering frames that were meant to make it look like the footage was damaged, but all this ends up doing is becoming an annoyance. You also have to keep in mind that the film runs for nearly two hours, which you could either argue is 1) too long for a movie of this kind, especially with the annoying POV camerawork, or 2) not long enough for the number of stories it wants to tell.
To be fair, some of these stories do at least start off as interesting, but with their limited time and rapid progression, you start to wish that there was more to them. For instance, the killer in the woods who can’t be captured on camera was an interesting setup. If this was developed further, there could have been an interesting story there instead of a random group of people getting killed off. Or how about the woman who believes her house to be haunted? This gets to a point where you know there’s more to the story, but it never gets beyond its random events.
The main story is just as guilty of this. All we know is that a group of burglars has been hired to steal one tape, but as to why or for whom is never mentioned. There are definitely pieces of the puzzle missing here and the writers are not doing themselves any favors by leaving them out. It’s obvious that they merely wanted this to be the thin thread tying together the other stories, but they could have at least developed it a tiny little bit.
Looking back at the older anthologies, they were able to create well-formed stories, not only because of better writing, but because they didn’t rely on gimmicks like a first-person POV. They may not have been particularly great, but they were fun, something else that is lacking from “V/H/S.” It’s amazing to learn that it took nine writers to bring this to life, the most famous of which is probably Ti West, who brought us the decent “The Innkeepers” earlier this year, as well as the well-received “The House of the Devil” in 2009.
The rest are relatively unknown, and it’s highly doubtful that this will be the film to get their names out there. Perhaps this is simply a case of too many writers trying to get their material into one film. If that is indeed the case, then perhaps it would be best for them to forget about the anthology method and instead focus on their own work. Perhaps then they could focus on all the elements that were so clearly absent from their stories here. 2/4 stars.