Look out for The Arrow's review of the film this week!
PLOT: A group of thieves break into a house and rummage through an assortment of mysterious tapes on the behest of a shady individual; each tape provides peculiar a tale of terror.
REVIEW: We are well past the point with the found-footage genre where we need something new or innovative to keep us interested. There are still advantages to the format (when effective, that “you are there” feeling can still provide ample chills), and the medium is great for a filmmaker without a lot of dough to flex his creative muscles, but it's unavoidable that all these found-footage movies are starting to blend into one another.
V/H/S has six opportunities to bring us something fresh in the found-footage realm. A collaboration between some of the more promising horror filmmakers in the business today, it's an anthology with a clever set-up providing a nifty format for the various directors to show off their own quirky ideas when it comes to the subgenre. A friendly game of one-upmanship must have been at play, so the anticipation level was high for this anthology to shake up the found-footage tedium.
Unfortunately, the results are mixed at best.
We'll just go through the segments one by one:
TAPE 56 is Adam Wingard's (A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE) wrap-around story, which introduces us to a batch of thoroughly loathsome hoods who break into a secluded house and begin the process of finding a specific VHS tape for an unseen employer. The structure of V/H/S is unveiled when, while searching for the tape, the looters must pop a few in (sadly for them, there are dozens to sift through) and witness the contents: 5 individual stories of murder and mayhem. There's little to truly enjoy about TAPE 56, as the characters are such crass, unlikable morons that their fate warrants zero interest from us. V/H/S's structure doesn't do it any favors either; while it serves the other shorts well enough by giving them full attention for 15-20 minutes at a time, the wrap-around segment doesn't build suspense, leading to an unsatisfactory conclusion.
AMATEUR NIGHT is David Bruckner's (THE SIGNAL) mostly-predictable tale of a frat boy trio's night out on the town with an eye on easy hook-ups with drunk girls. They ultimately pick up the wrong chick, who dishes out a freaky comeuppance in a sleazy motel. The make-up effects on display in AMATEUR NIGHT are noteworthy (the weird chick's “true” form, once revealed, is excellently rendered), but there's little that occurs that we can't see coming.
SECOND HONEYMOON is a typical Ti West (THE INNKEEPERS) slow-burn; a cute, average couple vacations near the Grand Canyon while an odd woman stalks them. HONEYMOON is the most distinctive of the segments because of its lack of histrionics, preferring a quiet, mostly uneventful build-up to a bloody, disturbing finale. In my opinion, this is the most successful of the whole lot. (And probably the least successful for fans of the other segments.)
Glenn McQuaid (I SELL THE DEAD) goes somewhat tongue-in-cheek with TUESDAY THE 17TH, which starts off as a bit of a spoof, documenting four noisy young adults as they hit the woods for some pot-smoking and, if the guys are lucky, sexual exploits. However, one of them has an ulterior motive for the trip, and before the gang can even get properly stoned, all hell breaks loose. McQuaid plays a little bit with the tropes of a cabin in the woods/slasher thriller, but there isn't enough time for the story to develop.
In THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER, Joe Swanberg (HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS) comes up with a somewhat intriguing gimmick: the whole thing plays out via Skype, as ditzy Emily reveals to her long-distance friend that her apartment might be haunted. A couple of decent jump-scares are accomplished, but the combination of the WTF? twist ending and the fact that Emily is a character you tire of quickly make THE SICK THING a close-but-no-cigar effort.
Finally, we have 10/31/98, which comes from a group called Radio Silence (known for their amusing YouTube shorts) and deals with a crew of raucous guys (V/H/S cannot get away from focusing on roving packs of douchebags, if you haven't noticed) who venture to a haunted house party on Halloween night, only to receive many more tricks than treats. This entry has a handful of neat visual effects, and really whips itself into a fury in its final few minutes, but it's a lot of exhausting screaming and shaking and, to be perfectly honest, by this point I was done having my vision jerked around and listening to all the shrill hollering because my head was hurting.
V/H/S has plethora of major issues (it's not actually that scary), but chief among them is this: the segments are short (of course), and there's very little time for them to build and breath. So it's a major error to populate almost every story with characters that are incredibly dumb, incredibly unlikable, or both. It may be unfair to slam a film like this for giving its characters the short shrift when the name of the game is violence and mayhem, but it's frankly tough to invest yourself in these morsels when the protagonists are impossible to root for. Think of it this way: the classic Romero/King collaboration CREEPSHOW is similarly filled with creeps and louts, but the creative team behind that film filled them with twisted, quirky life and heart. You also knew who everybody was; in V/H/S, we're dealing with “Frat turd #1” and “Drunk moron #2.” (Those aren't real names, but they might as well be.)
As for the found-footage angle itself, V/H/S doesn't bring a lot new to the table; that is to say, it doesn't find some way to make a panicky idiot running around with a camera not irritating. A couple of new wrinkles are uncovered (the Skype chat is a nice touch, while one segment features a guy with a camera in his eye-glasses), but the aggravating touchstones that are inherent in the format can't be avoided.
Unless you're fully wrapped up in these narratives, it's tough to stomach V/H/S, and I don't necessarily mean that in a good way.