Found footage horror gets its first anthology film in V/H/S, featuring some of the fastest-rising filmmakers in horror! But does it live up to its pedigree or should it get chewed up in the VCR? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
Directed by: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and Radio Silence Written by: Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Nicholas Tecosky and Radio Silence
Starring: Calvin Reeder - Gary Lane Hughes - Zak Adam Wingard - Rock Hannah Fierman - Lily Mike Donlan - Shane Joe Sykes - Patrick Drew Sawyer - Clint Jas Sams - Lisa Joe Swanberg - Sam Sophia Takal - Stephanie Kate Lyn Sheil - Girl Norma C. Quinones - Wendy Drew Moerlein - Joey Jason Yachanin - Spider Helen Rogers - Emily Daniel Kaufman - James Chad Villella - Chad Matt Bettinelli-Olpin - Matt Tyler Gillett - Tyler Paul Natonek - Paul
Running Time: 116 min
Rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, pervasive language and some drug use
It is no secret that found footage films are the Hollywood's favorite new horror staple. While the format has expanded this year into a few other genres with Chronicle and Project X, it remains most strongly identified with scary movies thanks to its origins in films like The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast, not to mention Cannibal Holocaust in 1980. The subgenre has, along with remakes, become the most talked-about horror convention in the last few years. Love it or hate it, one can't deny that it has helped reinvigorate the genre and given horror filmmakers a new medium with which to tell their stories.
Of course, it is hardly the only convention to exist within the milieu of scary movies. If horror loves one thing above all, it is adhering to its conventions; no other genre so sharply defines itself via subgenres and formats. Well before the current age had turned to found footage as a new convention, horror had its separate divisions and one of the more popular is the anthology film. From Tales of Terror and Black Sabbath in the 1960s through the '70s with The House that Dripped Blood, the '80s with Creepshow and Twilight Zone: The Movie and on forward, every decade has seen its flirtations with horror anthology. That brings us to a group of upcoming young horror filmmakers who teamed with news site Bloody Disgusting to bring us the first-ever attempt to merge found footage and anthology horror into one single film, V/H/S, which opens in theaters today after having had a run in the Video On Demand market.
While it may not have first come to mind without prompting, when you think of it found footage is a great format in which to frame a horror anthology. The film features five different segments, each presented in the bookending and interstitial story (directed by Adam Wingard) as video tapes in the home of an elderly man. A group of videotaping criminals, who take time from their window smashing to make money via taped assaults on women where they force exposure to be aired on porn sites, is hired to break into the home and find one particular video tape. After finding the man dead in his chair they search for the tape in question and begin to see what exactly they have. The framing story provides the perfect opportunity to tell these stories, making the anthology aspect unfold in a way that is organic and makes sense, and while the characters in this portion are obnoxious and unsympathetic wastes of space, the fact that they are spaced throughout the film between the other segments blunts the negative aspect of that.
Of course, like all anthologies we are subject to a varying quality in terms of the actual segments. With V/H/S the best segments are the final two, but let's tackle these in order. The first of the tapes/segments, directed by David Bruckner (The Signal), is titled "Amateur Hour" and follows a trio of guys as they go around attempting to pick up women with one of them wearing spy-style glasses with a small camera in the nose rest. When they take two ladies back to their hotel room, somebody gets far more than they bargained for. This one shares its biggest flaw with the bookending segments (which is titled "Tape 507," as a side note): the lead characters are remarkably unappealing. Bruckner, who co-wrote the segment with Nicholas Tecosky, is trying to build sympathy for whatever women might end up in the clutches of the three men who go out bar hopping and there is some effectiveness in that. However, they do it by making the guys more irritating than truly slimy, at least until later in the segment. "Amateur Night's" best asset is Hannah Fierman, who plays the shy, strange girl Lily that accompanies the guys back. She has a wonderful quality to her, but vulnerable and creepy, that works quite well for what Bruckner has planned for Lily.
The second segment/tape is "Second Honeymoon," directed by Ti West (House of the Devil) and centers around a couple who are out on a cross-country road trip but find themselves on the wrong side of a stalker. West's segment plays out much better, largely because the couple (played by Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal) are more likable and we get time to know and care about them. West makes an admirable comeback with this segment from his last project, the rather dull haunted house film The Innkeepers, and while it's not the most scare-filled segment of the anthology it is a solid one nonetheless.
"Tuesday the 17th" by Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) involves four teenagers who go out into the woods and find a killer with an interesting resistance to technological documentation. This is your traditional "cabin in the woods" storyline and it may have seemed a better story if it hadn't had the misfortune of coming out the same year as...well, Cabin in the Woods. The characters are underwritten and the lead girl, Wendy (Quinones) acts bizarrely at times for reasons which betray her motivations. It has some creative moments and the best gore of the film for those who prefer their horror laced with carnage and it's far from a total loss, but it is a let-down from West's segment.
The final two are the best segments of the film. The first of those is Swanberg's "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," in which the titular heroine (Rogers) and her long-distance boyfriend (Kaufman) converse over Skype about the strange manifestations in Emily's home. Rogers makes for a very likable lead heroine and Kaufman is sympathetic in the boyfriend role. The scares here involve late-night video chats during which things occur behind Emily, which are effective in getting the pulse racing. This one has the best ending of all of them, and possibly the most chilling in some ways.
Finally, the filmmaking group Radio Silence brings us "10/31/98" about four guys who head out to a Halloween party and end up in the wrong house, much to their dismay. The directing group also take on the acting roles and thankfully aren't complete tools the way that the characters in "Amateur Night" and the bookending segments are. This one has a nice little twist in its own right but most of all, the quartet that make up the group go a nice job filming the abandoned house that serves as the setting and they give us some solid creepy moments to boot.
This is certainly not a film that is going to be for everyone. There are people out there who are tired of the found footage format, and there are people who prefer one single story to the format of anthologies. Both of these groups should keep away, as this will not do anything to change your opinion of either. The thing that makes this film work so well is not some kind of innovation of either format but the spirit of collaboration and the joy of a horror fan in seeing some of the names who make up the future of the genre working together. Wingard, for example, has gotten a lot of buzz for You're Next which will hit US theaters next year while West, probably the best known, is well on his way to increasingly bigger and better things. While some of these segments are flawed and don't always work, you can see a spirit in this kind of independent genre filmmaking that you don't often see at the studio level. The energy level is different and the tendency to go toward conventional fare is left behind. While that may occasionally hurt the film, it helps far more.
Ultimately though, the best thing about V/H/S isn't the potential you see but simply the end result of what's on the screen. Obviously that's important; no one wants to see a movie and think "Well, it wasn't much but I can see great stuff down the line from that guy." Wingard, West, Bruckner, McQuaid, Swanberg and Radio Silence are not all strictly planted in horror, but they all have some level of roots here and they are building on those roots with V/H/S. It gives them an increasingly solid foundation from which to grow.
The 411: The found footage horror anthology V/H/S provides exactly what it promises in its concept; five stories and a framing story designed to use the found footage format in order to scare. The various filmmakers involved don't always succeed thanks to some poorly-conceived characters and the segments vary in quality, but on the whole this is a very enjoyable horror film. Ti West, Joe Swanberg and Radio Silence provide the best segments and all the filmmakers allow the low budget to inform their creative choices, usually to very solid degree. This is a film that won't change the mind of anyone who hates either of the two primary horror conventions in use here, but those who come in optimistic will leave quite happy.