V/H/S (2012)

I will move on to other sections of the horror genre, yet here I am with yet another anthology. This time I’m going a bit more current. Some of you may have heard some buzz about this one. It just hit a very select 15 theaters on Friday and its called V/H/S. It’s received some high praise from critics, which is very unusual for a “found footage” film. It has been available On-Demand since the beginning of September, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Needless to say I was skeptical, what with the recent market flood of horror films shot by any Joe Schmo with an HD camera. A quick glance at the Netflix streaming horror section will turn your stomach, in a bad way. This sub-genre of horror has blown up worldwide in the past 5 years. A big reason why is money. The budget of these kinds of films are microscopic when compared to a summer blockbuster. Take Paranormal Activity for example. That film had an estimated budget of $15,000, yet went on to gross nearly $200 MILLION worldwide. That’s an astronomical return on investment that any film studio will take to the bank. While this is an extreme case, even a modest hit in theaters is worth the studio’s effort to promote. Let me assure you that V/H/S is not just a part of the market flood. This film stands out from the other imitators and will actually scare you, or at least give you a good case of the heeby-jeebies.

We open on a group of guys riding around in a car. Just on patrol looking for innocent girls to run up to, grab, flip their shirts up for the camera and sell the tape. It’s some sort of black market deal they’ve been doing for a while. One of their friends says that they can make 20 times that in one night of work. All they have to do is find and steal one particular tape out of this house. Sounds easy, and really shady but they all go along with it anyway. During their search of the house they come across a body of an old man in a recliner in front of a wall of TVs and VCRs, the floor scattered with unmarked VHS tapes. The searching of the tapes makes up the rest of the film as we the viewers see the same thing the thieves are watching. The “editing” of this section of the film is unique since the entire time we are on the main story, we are essentially watching a VHS tape. Piecing together scenes from where people recorded over the tape’s prior video seems disjointed and sloppy, but I think it only adds to the found footage feel of the film. It’s too bad VHS is virtually an obsolete platform, otherwise you could have some fun making copies of this film to blank tapes and handing them out.

Each of the short films has a gimmick of some kind. Contrary to what I expected, not all of this is originally filmed on VHS but for the sake of the main plot, all of the video was transferred to VHS format. The first segment “Amateur Night”,which was filmed entirely with hidden camera glasses. “Second Honeymoon”, by up and coming horror director Ti West, as well as “Tuesday The 17th” were both shot in POV on standard HD hand held cameras. “The Strange Thing That Happened To Emily” is entirely Skype video chat. Finally “10/31/98” is filmed with a camera hidden inside a Halloween costume. With different directors on each of these segments, the film stays fresh. This is where an anthology format helps tremendously. Stretching these POV plots out to 90+ minutes can be a huge mistake, and taking any of these individual stories that far would have surely ruined them.

In “Amateur Night” three guys who get a pair of glasses with a hidden video camera in the bridge decide to have some fun and try to pick up some girls and film them having sex. This part has some real humor in it as these clowns get more and more drunk as the night goes on. When they end up in a hotel room with two girls, things get crazy when one of the girls turns out to be a bit aggressive. The glasses-cam is a pretty sweet idea, but if you got motion sickness during Cloverfield then prepare yourself.

I knew of Ti West, but I’ve never seen anything he’s done up until now. He’s probably best known for the 80’s throwback film House Of The Devil. In “Second Honeymoon” we follow a couple taking a trip through the southwest to the Grand Canyon. While staying at a hotel they are confronted by a mysterious young girl looking for a ride. The couple is a bit unnerved by this, but they go on with their vacation. Unknown to them, however, is that they are having a visitor in their hotel room every night. There’s some good tension here and the POV is very intimate and well done. Some of it reminds me of the POV sections of Kathryn Bigelow’s cruelly underrated film, Strange Days.

“Tuesday The 17th” seems the weak link in the chain for me. Horror cliches abound with 4 kids going up to a lake where some murders supposedly took place years ago. The interesting bit about this section is that the killer, for some unexplained reason, cannot be seen through a camera. This does leave a lot of room for some slight of hand special effects fun and this section works on a slasher film level. By far this is the goriest part of the film, and some people may need to turn away.

“The Strange Thing That Happened To Emily” takes Skype chat to another level. The entire short film is composed of different conversations around a young woman who’s med student boyfriend is out of town. She’s just moved into a new apartment and she thinks it’s haunted. This short has the most in common with films like Paranormal Activity, both in scare style and in content. There is a nice twist in this one and it turns out to be one of the better segments of the film after a really slow start.

“10/31/98” directed by the virtually known, yet commercially unknown directing collective known as Radio Silence, is far and away my favorite segment of the film. Four guys (the camera being hidden inside one guy’s bear costume) get an invite on Halloween to a haunted house party. So in full costume they show up at this well lit house, but nobody seems to be home. They go in and start checking the place out, running into your standard flickering lights and strange noises. It’s all fun and games until they run into something they weren’t supposed to see. The mad dash through the haunted house is a ton of fun to watch, cramming so many “what the fuck!” moments into the last five minutes.

V/H/S’s buzz is well earned. I can only imagine how fun this would be in a theater full of people, but it plays well at home with all the lights out as well. My girl, who was brave and watched this with me, was creeped out for days afterward. If you’re sick of the Paranormal Activity films (the fourth installment hits theaters in a week or so), then you could do a lot worse than V/H/S. I hope they expand the theatrical run to the major markets by Halloween, because I’d love to see this in theaters.

-Wes Kelly