V/H/S knows that horror and film have a very special relationship. We sit in the dark and subject ourselves to the chills on the other side of the screen, daring ourselves to imagine those onscreen horrors creeping up behind us. The new found footage anthology film, which has been available on-demand, opens its limited theater run today, with five short films and one framing story that each explore the interplay between horror and film.
Don't dwell too much on the title. Although the conceit of V/H/S is that each of these short films is discovered on a VHS cassette, the pieces actually play with a variety of filming media: spy glasses, video chat, and, yes, the occasional camcorder. The framing story is a simple one: A group of friends have been sent to break into an old man's house to retrieve a very specific video tape. They film themselves throughout their various criminal exploits, and this one is no different. But when they arrive at the house, they find the old man dead in front of the TV set and the house packed with VHS tapes. While the other thieves search the house for the correct tape, one of them sits down in front of the corpse and starts watching the tapes piled up next to the television.
It's a clever way to introduce the short found footage segments. (Although, again, we shouldn't think too hard about how these pieces ended up on VHS. Cursed cassettes that record every evil act ever committed to digital or physical film? An ancient evil with a fetish for VCRs? Or maybe the framing story is from the 1990s and it's gathering home movies that haven't even happened yet.) But aside from a few creepy moments, it's not a particularly engaging tale on its own. The criminals are more or less interchangeable and when they realize there's more to their assignment than they initially believed, it's hard not to shrug and think, "Well, that's what you get for breaking into a dead guy's house and stealing his stuff."
The shorts themselves are more engaging and far more thoughtful in their use of video. The first, Amateur Night, follows a group of guys heading out to a bar for a night of debauchery. Before they leave, they gift one of their members with a pair of spy glasses that will record the entire evening. (Although it's mostly the post-closing-time activities that they're concerned with.) They meet a few interesting ladies while out at the bar, but when they bring them back to their hotel room, one of the girls isn't quite what they expected. Segment director David Bruckner didn't just select an interesting video filming method for his short; he committed to it. Clint, the man with the glasses, occasionally retreats into the bathroom and studies himself in the mirror, clearly suffering from nerves and self-doubt that have nothing to do with the grisly horrors that await him. Bruckner understands that this particular brand of found footage means shooting long scenes that can only be engaging as long as they feel natural. He trusts his actors enough to follow them through long takes where they chit-chat and make out and giggle at each other. The scenes manage to feel relatively unstaged, even as Bruckner hits specific moments. That makes it all the more satisfying when the gore hits the hotel linens.
Ti West's short, Second Honeymoon, opts for for a more traditional found footage route by following the recorded misadventures of a husband and wife on vacation. Like Bruckner, West shoots for natural stretches of dialogue as his travelers film each other in the car and in motels, building his tension by making the couple seem as ordinary and lifelike as possible. Where in The House of the Devil, West created tension with odd conversations and long awkward silences, he pulls a similar trick here, but more subtly and with less melodrama. He invites the audience to study his found footage to figure out what's amiss, to let their minds wander down the unnerving moments, to imagine how this story might end. The ending doesn't have quite the payoff of the buildup, but it's an interesting exploration of using video to build tension all the same.
In one case, however, that focus on using the medium of video to build up the horror comes at the expense of telling a genuinely scary story. Glenn McQuaid's Tuesday the 17th tries to go for the classic "kids go into the woods and die" trope where the major twist is the way the killer appears (or rather, doesn't quite appear) on video. Unfortunately, the short doesn't take the time to craft an interesting story or characters. So while the slasher sequences are visually interesting (and they are, utilizing film glitches to create something shadowy and menacing), the rest of the segment is forgettable.
Joe Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, however, returns us to an exploration of how video can tell stories. Emily and her boyfriend James video chat about the bump Emily feels in her arm and her suspicions that her apartment is haunted. The segment drags a bit at the beginning and ultimately leaves us with lots of unanswered questions, but it also offers a wonderfully dark twist on how we can be deceived by online communication, even when we can see the person on the other end of the conversation.
That brings us to the final installment, 10/31/98 by Radio Silence. Much like the first segment, 10/31/98 centers on a group of guy friends out and about for the night, this time at a Halloween party. They also use a hidden camera, a spy cam sewn into one character's costume. But even with a similar setup, Radio Silence takes a slightly different tact. We're trapped with these characters, and as we watch certain sequences unfold, we feel a dawning of realization that something is amiss and then, a beat later, we witness the other characters come to the same realization. Radio Silence has essentially cast us as a member of this doomed crew of friends, albeit one who can't warn the others about the dangers ahead (not that a warning would probably help). This works especially well as the segment erupts into confused chaos and then finds its way to claustrophobic urgency.
So should you heed V/H/S's warning that the film causes fainting spells. While one person apparently did faint during a particularly gory scene at the Sundance screening, there's little beyond the usual jumps and chills to induce unusual physiological effects. There are plenty of frights in V/H/S (The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily in particular had me dragging my dog with me into dark rooms for the rest of the night), but it's stronger as an exploration of how found footage can be used to tell horror stories than as a scary movie. Chances are, after watching V/H/S, you'll be more inclined to pick apart what worked and what didn't than to hide beneath the covers.