Release Date: August 31, 2012 (VOD), October 5, 2012 (Home Video)
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Directors: Adam Wingard, Ti West, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
Screenwriters: Simon Barrett, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg
Starring: Joe Swanberg, Calvin Reeder, Adam Wingard, Sophia Takal, Kate Lyn Sheil, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Chad Villella, Tyler Gillett
MPAA Rating: R
V/H/S has been described as a horror film that will, as a fan on Reddit put it, “restore your faith in horror films,” and the hype machine has been out of control leading up to its VOD release. As happens far too often, when a film is hyped as the most horrifying film you’ll ever see; marketed and hyped to a point where the word saturated becomes appropriate (people who haven’t even seen the film are pushing it as the “next big thing in horror.”), things don’t often turn out as promised. Sadly, such is the case with V/H/S.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film, an ok horror film with scares here and there that really pay off, but a film that will change the horror world forever? No…not in the least. V/H/S is an anthology film, so let’s start with the wraparound story.
[TAPE 56] (Directed by Adam Wingard) is about a group of four voyeuristic petty criminal assholes who get their kicks taping crimes such as assaulting a woman to get a cheap breast shot and vandalizing a house sell their videos anonymously online. A fan (which they only find slightly strange, given that they exhibit/sell their work anonymously) offers a large sum of money to break into a house in the middle of nowhere to retrieve a specific video.
Unquestioningly, the group decides to go for it but find out things aren’t going to be the cakewalk they were led to believe. Upon arriving at the home, the place is a mess, with VHS tapes everywhere. The information they were given was that the only occupant of the house is an old man that’d sleep through the entire break-in if they kept things quiet, but when they get there they find the old man sitting dead in front of a glowing stack of old televisions and VCRs along with a pile of unmarked tapes. One of the group of thugs is left behind to go through all of them while the others explore the house, two specifically exploring the basement thinking the tape they’re looking for might be in storage while the other searches the house. The one left behind with the dead man pushes play on the VCR, beginning the anthology of horror to come.
[Tape 1: AMATEUR NIGHT] (Directed by David Bruckner) begins with three guys, two jock-ish types and a smaller guy they’ve talked into wearing a pair of hipster glasses with a camera inside. The plan for the evening is to go out, get trashed frat boy style, bring a few ladies back to a hotel room and make their own little porn flick. Unfortunately for them, they pick the wrong two women. One, so incredibly drunk, passes out immediately, so all three (despite some reservations from the little guy with the camera glasses) move in on the second woman and a night they thought they’d remember forever turns into a nightmare of blood and carnage as things are not quite what they seem.
As AMATEUR NIGHT ends, we cut back to TAPE 56 with a two of the guys down in the basement looking through boxes and boxes of tapes trying to find one in particular. Unable to do so, it’s decided to just take all of them when, in the shadows, a naked man runs across the frame. The guy behind the camera tries to tell the other one what he just saw but the other one doesn’t believe him, saying “let’s just get this shit and go.” Meanwhile, upstairs, freaked out, the third guy puts in the second tape.
[Tape 2: SECOND HONEYMOON] (Directed by Ti West) follows a couple as they travel across the South West on their (presumably from the title) second honeymoon. It looks about like what you’d expect as they take in the sights, checking out the Grand Canyon, having a stranger get them together in the frame for posterity. Then their first night in a hotel, they receive a strange request from a mysterious female stranger for a ride. They find it weird but decide not to call the police. But then the next night the mysterious stranger is back and the camera is on them as she’s in their hotel room as they lay sleeping.
[Tape 3: TUESDAY THE 17th] (Directed by Gleen McQuaid) starts off with 4 friends in a car, your typical slasher film fare: the brunette intelligent girl, the ditzy blonde girl, the nerdy guy in love with the ditzy blonde, and the handsome one. The brunette, Wendy, is taking them all for a day trip out to the middle of nowhere, neglecting to mention a series of murders had taken place in that exact location years before. Unfortunately for them, the murderer is still on the loose, and still looking for victims.
We cut back to TAPE 56 with two of the thieves in the room with the dead man in the chair, wondering what could possibly be taking the other two so long. One goes to look for them in the basement while the other stays behind to put in another tape.
[Tape 4: THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER] (Directed by Joe Swanberg) takes place between a guy, James, and his girlfriend Emily via video chat on their laptops. Emily has just moved into a new apartment, and things seem fine at first. Then strange things begin to happen in Emily’s apartment. Doors slam, strange sounds keep coming from a particular room, and her boyfriend James is helpless to watch over video chat as the horror only intensifies.
Back to TAPE 56, the leader of the group of thieves (I’ve taken to calling him “Moustache Guy” for fairly obvious reasons) comes into the room with all of the TV’s and VCR’s to find the other thief who had been watching the tapes gone…along with the dead man in the chair. Sensing something has gone horribly wrong he rushes from the room. Finding one of his friends decapitated in the hallway, he runs screaming through the house, trying to find his other friends. It will be the last we see of TAPE 56 which isn’t such a bad thing really because as a wraparound story to tie the others together, it itself wasn’t very frightening and seemed there only to serve the singular purpose of moving the other stories forward.
[Tape 5: 10/31/98] (Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Chad Villella, Tyler Gillet, & Justin Martinez – All under the banner of RADIO SILENCE) finds a group of friends getting ready for a Halloween bash, but get lost on their way to the party. Unsure if it’s the right house or not, they go in anyway, but no one else is there. Thinking it a Halloween prank, they begin to search around the house. As strange things begin to unfold, they find too late that they’ve come to the wrong house at the wrong time. Very strange, very horrible things are happening in that house that all lead to a climax that push the friends to the very brink of madness and terror as they realize too late what a horrible mistake they’ve made.
As I said at the beginning of this review, V/H/S has been saturated with undeserved hype, much to its discredit. I don’t say this because I hated the film, much to the contrary, I actually enjoyed parts of it and there were a select few bits within the anthology that were genuinely frightening. V/H/S was an ambitious project to say the least, bringing together some of the top talent in the independent horror filmmaking world to take the tired found footage genre and create something new out of it. They succeeded admirably in creating a mix tape of various genre tropes this reviewer had never seen by combining the anthology and found footage horror genres, sometimes successfully, and not quite so successfully at others.
The two best out of the bunch had to be AMATEUR NIGHT and 10/31/98 in terms of creativity and style. The creature effects in AMATEUR NIGHT and certain camera angles brought a level of fear and tension many of the others in the anthology lacked. 10/31/98 was perhaps my favorite of the bunch, not only because of the twist on the viewer’s expectations, but because of the final scene as the friends race from the house, even if some of those effects were lifted directly from Roman Polanski’s REPULSION, that was still an amazing, heart pounding escape from that house of horrors.
That being said, however, there were some major issues with this film. First and foremost, the characters: nearly none of them were likeable. Each character, with the exception of, let’s call him “Camera Glasses,” in AMATEUR NIGHT and a few of the friends in 10/31/98 were either annoying, stupid (Emily, I’m looking at you) or outright assholes. This is a problem found more and more in horror films these days. The audience (unless they’re assholes themselves) cannot relate to the characters and therefore no one cares what happens to them. I realize it is difficult to establish character traits within a limited time frame, but it can be done. And in this case, I was left simply not caring about most of the characters in this film, or what happened to them.
And then there are the varying stories themselves. Some were done incredibly well. AMATEUR NIGHT, regardless of three quarters of the cast being incredibly annoying frat boy types, actually instilled a good deal of horror when the defecation hit the oscillation. I could almost feel the terror the characters felt when things went so terribly wrong. I was incredibly let down by SECOND HONEYMOON. I suppose I’ve come to expect more from Ti West, but it seemed almost like he phoned it in on this one. There were one or two genuine moments where the creep factor was turned up to eleven, but overall, it didn’t feel so much like a horror short as it did a slightly more violent Lifetime Channel original.
TUESDAY THE 17th was incredibly amateurish, which may have been the point in a way but it just went overboard. I expect more from the man who directed I SELL THE DEAD, a film I absolutely adore. The “horrific camera malfunction” bits were interesting, but the acting was outright horrid and unbelievable which caused it to fail overall when it came to frightening the audience. I WILL give it credit, however, for making it look as though it could’ve really been shot by just some group of kids out in the woods which brought, if nothing else did, a certain realism to it. THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER may have been the worst of the bunch. While I applaud the use of modern video chat communication’s integration into the film, the acting was far too flat for me to get overly invested in the characters, even when the strange events began to occur to Emily in her new apartment. The twist at the end was nice, even if I did suspect something similar to it coming, it at least showed that though the acting was awful, the writer and director were trying to do something innovative with recorded video chat (something so prevalent in our lives these days) and an added twist that tied things together neatly.
I was lucky enough to attend a press screening for this film some weeks ago and it’s taken me this long to write the review simply because, while I was disappointed a great deal thanks to the hype machine that made this film out to be the next great hope for horror cinema, the project itself was inspiring and various parts of the film were quite good, while a great deal of the film wasn’t. I applaud all the writers and filmmakers for attempting something new, something more independent horror filmmakers should take note of, and though I didn’t find V/H/S to be “the next big thing in horror” cinema or the best horror film of the year, I should hope its example to risk something new will be taken to heart by independent horror writers, directors, and producers to push the boundaries of what horror films can be.