Movie Review: "V/H/S" (2012)

Maybe I’m missing something but that is one hell of an unimaginative title, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t want to linger on something as interchangeable and irrelevant as the title of a movie, but damn. I don’t even get what’s with the /slashes/ separating the letters. Talk about marketing devils.

So hey speaking of devils: moving on. I’ve grown out of it during the last years, but I used to be a huge horror nerd back in the day, to the point where it was pretty much the only genre in which I was interested, and boy was I interested in it. Nowadays I generally don’t give the good part of three shits, but that doesn’t mean I don’t look into new horror releases that sound genuinely interesting. “V/H/S” (seriously, does this stand for something in the context of the movie, or what?) was one of them. The other was “The Cabin in the Woods”, which gets a gratuitous shout-out for being one of the most brilliant movies to come out in many, many years.

Whatshisface watching a tape, who knows why.
Even outside of horror, if there’s one trend I can’t get enough of personally is the “found footage” film. This of course with the exception of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, which is about as scary as “2 Broke Girls”, and can boast a similarly baffling and soul-crushing success. This sub-genre has seen massive growth in popularity in the recent years—and why not? They’re cheap to produce, easy to market, and more often than not bring in the big bucks.

“V/H/S” is a found footage film that’s the first of its kind, but only in the sense that it’s an anthology—something that was very big in the 80’s with movies like “Creepshow” and “After Midnight”, where the audience is presented a series of short stories instead of one feature-length storyline. The presentation of the anthology in “V/H/S” is kinda sorta clever, I suppose: a bunch of redneck hooligans, one of which sports one hell of a pedo-stache that was the creepiest thing in the entire movie, break into a house to steal a bunch of VHS tapes (. . . oh now I get it!) for largely unexplained reasons. One by one, they sit down to watch these tapes, and we as the audience for some reason see what they see: five unrelated videos depicting various people’s brushes with the supernatural.

The coolest thing about “V/H/S” is its variety.  No matter what your particular fetish is in horror, you’re likely to be catered to. We get a creature feature, a ghost story, a haunted house flick, a weird-ass supernatural slasher, and some more. “V/H/S” didn’t really care about streamlining these stories, and that was a great choice because it’s precisely this variety what makes the complete experience so unpredictable and enjoyable.

Each story has its own logic and storytelling style, which is natural considering that each is helmed by a different director. While some of the tapes are more on the side of the anecdotic, others have some pretty complex structures and even some legit surprising plot twists—while my favorite story was the last, the ending of the webcam story (the horribly titled "The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger") was awesome.

The framing tape involving the one-dimensional robbers had absolutely nothing to offer except an incomprehensible storyline, unlikable characters, one very minor scare and a predictable ending. A bit weird that the main plotline was by far the weakest, but this at least increased the urgency to move on and watch the next tape. This whole device also gives the film as a whole its very clear sense of pacing and structure.

As far as the scares go, the intensity varies with each tape, and they will vary from viewer to viewer, depending on their sensibilities. The cool thing about this variety is also that it not only caters to the viewer’s preferred sub-genre in horror, but also to his or her personal fears. Personally, I found the first tape to be the most effective in terms of horror. What was badass was that the creepiness is very unique, and the elements used to create psychological discomfort are something I hadn’t ever seen used this way before.

This particular story, entitled “Amateur Night” (directed by David Bruckner) revolves around three frat guy caricatures that hit the town looking for girls to bang. I won’t go into detail, but one of the chicks they come across has this incredibly terrifying quality about her that induced a very realistic sense of fear. You don’t quite know what’s wrong with her—is she possessed, high-as-fuck, mentally insane, or what—I just knew that I wanted her to stop looking at the goddamn camera because she was freaking me the fuck out.

This story also had one of the subtlest and frankly creepiest moments in the entire film with one particularly haunting shot I don’t want to spoil, but involves a character’s silhouette standing in a very evocative pose against a very well-placed light source. It’s almost artistic in a way found footage movies rarely, if ever, are.

The obligatory plastic masked killer.
And though the movie really is more creepy than it is scary, what’s effective is that this fear generally stems from very well crafted situational horror, in which the audience is forced to put itself in the characters’ place. This works particularly well because, for one, the format kind of requires it, but more importantly because the situations presented, crazy as though they are, are actually done realistically. The characters in each tape act in very believable ways to each scenario, and the individual performances are commendable (I was surprised by the realism in the club/bar scenes), making most of them immediately relatable or likable.

This really works in favor of the movie because it’s easy to truly believe in the humanity of the characters, so the viewer becomes immediately invested. You never need more than the five minute set-up each tape has to be behind the characters because they really are just like you or me, or that girl you had a crush on, or that one guy you fucking hate from the gym.

One exception of this would be the story set in the woods (“Tuesday the 17th”, directed by Glenn McQuaid), as the young adults involved are the painfully cut-and-paste stock archetypes associated with slasher films (“The Cabin In The Woods” sure got this shit right). “Tuesday the 17th”, however, had one hell of a violent kill—though definitely not the most violent in the movie, as there’s one particularly brutal throat slashing that made me cringe—a very interesting twist on the typical slasher killer and a couple of decent moments of tension. Again, the only truly underwhelming story is the thankfully short framing device that can go suck yeast off a bowl of urine.

Pure horror bliss.
My favorite though was the final tape, “10/31/98”, set in a haunted house in Halloween. It not only presented with one truly horrifying moment involving a strange ritual early on, it also featured one of the most constantly creative and badass ‘chase’ segments I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. After a very scary situation, we follow a group of horrified kids trying to escape a house that doesn’t seem to want to let them go—it shifts its physicality, literally tries to grab on to them with trippy ghost hands, and even throws pieces of furniture at them. The creativity of how the house is a total asshole escalates constantly (loved the birds) and while it wasn’t actually scary, it was just completely fucking badass. It reminded very much of a scene in my favorite horror novel of all time.

Something I also appreciated is that there was no horseshit marketing strategy behind the movie trying to portray it as “a real story”, because that’s something “The Blair Witch Project” did with absolute and acute perfection and will never, ever, be doable again. I don’t know why movies like the “Paranormal Activity” franchise or “Grave Encounters” stubbornly try to make audiences believe that “It’s real, man!” because only the densest will buy that shit.

“V/H/S” is a film I would really recommend to any horror fan because it’s hard to believe that a genre nerd wouldn’t find something to enjoy therein. It doesn’t matter if what you’re looking for is hardcore violence, subtle psychological distress, effective boo scares, crazy awesome effects or creative storytelling, “V/H/S” basically covers everything the genre has to offer, even if thinly. I didn’t ask for much, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing despite its flaws. We're indeed talking about an ambitious, interesting, for the most part effective horror movie that works by itself, but it will in no way convert non-believers of the found-footage style of filmmaking. Oh, also: if you’re one of those wimpy wimps that actually get nauseated by the nature of this type of films, then approach carefully; it’s as shaky as Beyoncé’s remarkable hindquarters.

Yes, I am trying to pander to the mainstream. Now go watch this obscure horror nerd-fest.

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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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  1. I'm a big fan of Ti West, so I'm going to watch V/H/S in spite of the fact that I don't care for the "found footage" trend. Besides, I'm big on anthologies.

    1. West's short (the second one, called "Second Honeymoon") might be the least ambitious of the bunch, but it has a scary situation and one hell of a violent murder. I think you'll enjoy it.