The anthology movie is currently back in vogue and V/H/S has been hotly anticipated owing to the presence of directors such as Ti West (THE INNKEEPERS) and the work of others including Simon Barrett, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Nicholas Tecosky and Chad Villella. Framed by a rather dull wraparound segment, the tonally different stories, which range from BLAIR WITCH-esque to something almost akin to POLTERGEIST at best co-opt our fears about technology and at worst retread what the directors may feel are the giggles and gore expectations of genre festival audiences, but which are drained of fun when rolled out by rote.
The wraparound follows a group of thugs as they drive to a lonely house in order to retrieve some old VHS tapes, taking great joy in wrecking the place in the process. The standard point of view shots here are presumably meant to highlight the chaos they are happy creating, but the audience are not that thick and had got the message without needing the additional headache or boredom the action brought. The medium was used as a sledgehammer to crack a nut – we get it already!
The stories themselves were variable. AMATEUR NIGHT documented another group of semi-scum on the lookout for some sexy ladies for the evening. If you keep an eye out, the costuming immediately gives the plot away for this gruesome take from a well-known TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE story. What saves this story from boredom is the lead actress, who actually brings an impressive intensity to her part and convinces you of her frailty, and one piece of rather amazing cinematography in which the natural beauty and mystery of the curvaceous feminine form are revealed in monstrous silhouette.
One segment that did work rather well on a subtle level was SECOND HONEYMOON. We follow a somewhat mismatched couple on a cross-canyon road trip, share in their intimate moments (much to her unhappiness) and follow them to a hotel where the slap and tickle is interrupted by a knock at the door from a stranger seeking a lift the next day. What this film excels at is a rather playful commentary on the audiences’ expectations of the behaviour the different sexes use to get their own back on each other for perceived misunderstandings, varying from the silly but understandable to the forceful and furious. The ending ties up the story nicely, but is frankly far too short to feel the final characters’ reactions properly.
For Glenn McQuaid’s segment, TUESDAY THE 17th we have another group of teenagers going for the customary camping trip in the woods. Naturally, we soon learn of the mandatory mass murder that happened there and can notice that the events appear to have recorded on to the area itself as the group notice odd occurrences in the copse and yet seem not the slightest bit fazed about this. The story would begin to unravel at this point as it is hard to work out what is happening, but the art direction helps to maintain interest. It is essentially a story about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that develops into using the present to erase the past in a literal fashion, the primary problem being that, frankly, you can’t tell the actors from the trees, making the action even harder to understand. Ultimately, the concept is an interesting one that loses the sum of its parts until it dissolves into the standard sausage-meat stabbing shocker.
THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER is the second Skype-related story which uses a new concept to terrifying effect, until it's forgotten that its realism in the ‘right here and now’ is what makes it so effective. We start with a young girl talking to her boyfriend on Skype and telling him that she has started to hear footsteps around the house. We follow their Skype conversation as she tries to resolve the noisy nuisance in a section that uses the found footage formula to both terrifying and totally cute effect. Character development is also key here and we get to know Emily (Helen Rogers on good, quirky form) better via a section contains some totally appropriate and rather funny gross humour that also brings up a lot of questions about her experiences. Unfortunately, the tone does not last, however, and the film ends up as not only slightly nonsensical, but sadly something that feels horribly like a cop-out, a terrible shame given the trust we had built in the authenticity suggested by the initial action. A shame.
To see a haunting film done well, look no further than 10/31/98. The action focuses around a group of guys who go to a Halloween party but find the house desolate, before suspecting they are being watched by flickering, unearthly forces. They hear noises, looking for their source, find a religious rite in full swing. Disrupting the ceremony however, they discover that the gods do not like to be messed with and the guests start to shriek. While this film has some problems (it shows too much in its busiest section, although this is filmed extremely well), what it really gains is the directing and acting. You care for these guys and it feels good to see a group of young men acting honourably in a horror film. This segment reminded me of all of the urban folklore I’ve read over the years and I loved it – in places, it’ll smack you right between the eyes.
V/H/S often loses its track as an anthology film, veering from inspiring, innovative and terrifying to boring (not by-the-numbers, just boring) butchery for the sake of it. It also contained more dodgy disembowelling than I’ve had hot dinners. If you ignore the wraparound and stay with it to the end, however, you will be rewarded with a few glimpses of what horror can do.
Dr Karen Oughton
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