Since The Blair Witch Project hit it big at the cinemas we have had the POV/shaky cam/found footage style bombard us with movie after movie of people filming their fears. It is a style of movie that has become as over exposed as the zombie movie and it seems you cannot go a month without a new film emerging that follows the same old dreary format. So it filled me with some dread when I came to review V/H/S, yet another POV movie. After seeing Chronicle (the best example of the genre) quite recently I was not expecting much from V/H/S. Another worry I had was that this film is a homage to the by gone age of VHS, an area I have a great love for (just check out my articles on the subject in the VHS Vault section of this very website) and remember quite vividly. So were my concerns justified or not? Well, read on to find out, but be aware there will be spoilers throughout.
V/H/S is an anthology movie which has different directors taking on each story. For those that are interested, the sections were directed by the following directors:
Amateur Night – David Bruckner Second Honeymoon – Ti West Tuesday the 17th – Glenn McQuaid The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger – Joe Swanberg 10/31/99 – Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Chad Villella, Justin Martinez, and Tyler Gillett
Amateur Night – David Bruckner
Second Honeymoon – Ti West
Tuesday the 17th – Glenn McQuaid
The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger – Joe Swanberg
10/31/99 – Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Chad Villella, Justin Martinez, and Tyler Gillett
The most famous name on this list is probably Ti West, the director of The House of the Devil. There are two things about this movie I loved straight off. Each film is shot in a different style, so we have sections filmed on digital cameras as well as sections that look like they were recorded straight onto VHS. This intercuts into the sections, so there are tracking lines coming up across certain segments and even other footage appearing on the film that had been taped over before hand. Much like the rest of the POV movies, this is all seen through the videos on show or the camera mans video recording of what we see. The second thing is that this is an anthology movie, which I believe needs some kind of resurgence because it is a great way to showcase diverse stories to a new audience.
The wrap around story called Tape 56 involves a group of drunken young adults just kicking off and generally acting a nuisance to everyone they meet. The VHS format brings their antics to life, with lots of cross cutting of them just acting horrible. All these guys are jerks, so it comes as no surprise when they decide to rob an old big boned gentlemen’s house for a rare VHS tape that they can get money off if they sell it. Two problems arise with this. First the gentlemen in question is dead in his chair and secondly, there are hundreds of tapes in his home, all of them unlabelled. While one team goes into the attic to check there, the other watches the tapes in a VCR (where the body is) to see what’s on them which leads into the other segments of the movie. For a wrap around story this is okay. They are never the strongest pieces in anthology films, because the shocks always come from the little movies with in. With this one (which is different from most anthology films) there is no real shock ending. We already know that the guy in the chair is not actually dead (because he keeps vanishing after every section, then reappears later) and that it’s only a matter of time before everyone bites it, so when it happens it is not a shock.
It also feels a little too close to the style of Amateur Night. Still, it is incredibly entertaining and does its purpose of introducing every thing else. The segments have a habit of making the leads not evil, but more juvenile or misguided. Some are in fact complete innocents in the affairs. But with this wrap around piece the people are real nasty pieces of work, you even see them watching their assault of a woman in a car park (this plays out like a homage to the scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer where Henry watches a tape of his rape of a family) so you do not have any sympathy with them when they all snuff it. One stand out scene is when they first see the dead man in his chair, watching a wall of TV’s which are all showing a static screen and the shock of when the dead mans chair is empty for the first time.
Amateur Night involves Clint, Patrick, and Shane, a group of young adults getting hammered. They are trying out the latest camera glasses that the wearer pops on their head and can record the view point of the person wearing them using a web cam camera (it is basically another reason to explain why there is a camera in this scenario). The plan is to make a porn film (similar to Girls Gone Wild). They all go clubbing and meet a group of girls, one who has hauntingly massive eyes and keeps repeating the phrase “I like you” to Clint. They all go back to their apartment, but when Clint backs out and leaves Lily to the ravages of the other two horny guys (in a scene that walks a fine line between rape and legal sex) she goes insane and changes into something no one could imagine.
This segment sets up perfectly the tone for the rest of the movie. You really do not know where the director is going to take you. We all know there is something not quite right with Lily, but was I expecting her to be a vampire-like monster? Certainly not, and a beast of a vampire too (imagine the original Fright Night vampire when it gets staked at the end of the movie and you are on the right lines). Some great casual acting from everyone involved and the sense of unease is built up to a fever pitch. The conclusion is nicely put together, with a strange sense of not knowing exactly what happened. This weird feeling the section leaves you with makes for an unsettling, yet nice introduction into the world of V/H/S.
Second Honeymoon involves a couple going on their second honeymoon around the backyards of America. When Stephanie has her fortune taken by a Wild West cowboy amusement machine, it says she will be reacquainted with a lost love. Their time together just gets weirder as they go along, because at the hotel they encounter a young woman who wants a ride. They refuse her. Later on a woman appears at night in their room and fondles Stephanie with a switchblade while she sleeps. This all leads to a shocking climax where certain parties reveal their true colors.
This story comes off as the weakest story in the bunch for numerous reasons. The end reveal with the young woman brutally murdering Sam and then showing that she and Stephanie are actually lovers does not have the intended punch that it should have. Instead of amazing the viewer, it becomes more of an irritant because we do not know the reasoning behind it. Mysteries in horror only really work if it seems a logical enough reason for it to be a mystery. To clarify my point I could see no reason why they needed to kill Sam at all or even go on this second honeymoon. We do not know the relationship between the mystery girl and Stephanie (how long have the couple had a relationship, why did they have to travel out to see her, where did they meet, etc) or their motives for the killing. Was it a desire to kill or was it revenge based? Sam does not come off as a jerk in the film; maybe a bit distant at times but that distance works in the context of the story (Stephanie seems the same as well which makes sense if she does not really love him). He certainly does not seem to have any money worth taking so greed is not an option. If Stephanie showed any signs of getting excited over the prospect of killing some one, it did not come off in the film. Why did they span the murder out over a few nights, why not kill Sam on the first night? There was no real threat to Sam’s life (aside from his tooth brush getting violated and his wallet ransacked) so we missed out on the feeling of dread that could have come from Sam if they had chosen to torment him suitably.
The main crime here is that both Sam and Stephanie are quite dull as characters. It sometimes feels like you are watching someone’s home movie (that is the framework this tale is set around, but I did not expect it to actually play out so boringly) and not a quirky horror short. Motiveless murders do work in feature films, but in an anthology story structure you expect something with a nice twist ending and Second Honeymoon fails to deliver a reason for the twist. It really needed fleshing out a little. There is some fun to be had here, the murder is very brutal and the mask the killer wears harks back to the 1976 horror film Alice Sweet Alice.
We return to a more traditional slasher horror affair with Tuesday the 17th which has four friends (Joey, Spider, Samantha and Wendy) going on a camping trip in the woods. For most people this would have sounded off alarms bells in their heads, but this group does not seem concerned. They soon change their mind and start to get worried when Wendy keeps telling them about deaths that have occurred in this forest. When the group start to go off to party, they are soon killed off by a killer we can only see as glitches and tracking errors on the tape. Wendy finally reveals she used her friends as bait to get revenge on the killer who murdered her friends, leading to a fight to the death between Wendy and The Glitch Killer.
One of my favorite stories in the movie, it revels in its knowledge of horror pop culture, but still manages to make a piece thoroughly engaging to watch. The characters are all stereo types (jock, nerd, slut, shy girl) and act like most teenagers do in the Friday the 13th movies do, but they are still quite likable. The sudden turn of seemingly quiet Wendy into committed killer is nicely done and actually makes her out to be a nasty piece of work, forcing her friends into situations so they are easy prey for the killer. The killer itself is amazing. The fact it just appears out of no where and looks exactly like video tracking faults, leads to some quite unnerving scenes where we can see a slight distortion of tape quality which looks like tape errors but is actually the killer, slowly sneaking up on its prey (who are unable to see it). The movie perverts the rules of the slasher horror genre.
The first instance is the flirty relationship between nerdy Spider and slutty Samantha and it seems that the nerdy character for once may have a shot at getting it on with the cheerleader type (up until they are murdered). The shy character Wendy you would think would survive after killing the killer, so he can rise again at a later stage and kill her. But the reversal sees the killer dead for a hand full of minutes at best before he destroys her. Some great gory scenes which push the limit of what we see in most Hollywood horror movies, this segment uses its knowledge of slasher conventions and tweaks them enough to make it a fresh and exciting visit back to the genre. It seems a lot like the movie Cabin in the Woods only less complex.
The style of The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger is more modern, with a web cam becoming the camera we see the action unfold through. This is a set piece involving two lovers in different parts of the country. James,who will soon be a doctor is concerned about his girlfriend Emily who has a bump on her arm. Through further chats it appears that her flat is haunted by a green spectre in the shape of a little girl. James is worried about Emily when she starts to hack away at her arm to get out something she believes is in her causing the bump. When Emily finally manages to confront the ghost in her apartment all is revealed.
This is another story that mixes up genre conventions, this time using the tried and tested ghost formula, but adding an extra twist to it. The web cam format works very well and both Emily and James come off as incredibly likable character’s so what happens to them seems all the more tragic. Eagle eyed viewers will have already figured out what the real ending is, because the segment gently flaunts them at you through out its running time. The fact that the ghost is not a ghost but an alien is perhaps the best twist in the entire film. Slightly creepy looking, but still human (like someone dressed in white face paint) their speech and their general look really causes the viewer to be on edge, especially as James can understand them but we cannot. He has worked for them for some time, removing alien/human hybrids from Emily, who is just an incubator for their children.
Again, all is not what it seems here. Emily must have had a mind wiping at some stage because she remembers getting a lump in her arm before (the lump is an implant). James, who seems troubled throughout, is not a bad person. In a conversation with Emily after the audience has seen the aliens he says a line about looking after her “Stop acting like I have a choice in the matter”, which shows us he is just as much a victim as Emily. The final scene of James talking to another woman who is his other supposed lover and has the same problem, suggests Emily is not the first or last to have the implant. It also makes the viewer wonder if Emily survived the process or if James has multiple women he has to take care of for the aliens. There is so much going on in this piece it continues to keep you thinking long after you have watched it. I also loved the inclusion of breast flashing in the web cam episodes, a thing a lot of people think is the main use for this device and a nice twist on that.
10/31/99 is the final and most ambitious segment. Four friends are going to a Halloween party, but are not sure if they have the right address. When they enter what they think to be the right house weird things start to happen, which they all believe to be part of the Halloween party pranks. As they make their way upstairs, they encounter a few spooky happenings, and then make their way to the attic. There they find some men holding a woman against her will. All hell breaks loose as the men who were abusing the woman are sucked up into the ceiling by an unseen force. The friends decide to escape, but go back to rescue the woman. The very house seems to be fighting against them, but they do escape with the woman and get to their car. Their troubles however are only just beginning.
Most viewers from the get go will know the friends interrupt an exorcism and the woman causes their car to stop and them to be stuck on a railway track while a train arrives. But this does nothing to stop the enjoyment of the segment. The haunting aspects are amazingly done, with hands coming out the walls and unseen forces dragging people off to their doom. The four friends are incredibly likable and nice people, going back to rescue the woman even when the house is trying to attack them. This is a notion that the entire film embraces, where seemingly nice people have bad things happening to them. There is a real sense of fun with this piece and even with its downbeat ending (Ed. Note – unless you watch the extended ending) it still makes for an enjoyable pop corn style romp. Nothing that in-depth story wise compared to some of the other segments, but very well executed and an interesting haunted house piece. It feels like a cross between House and Poltergeist.
So in closing the entire film plays out like most anthologies do, disjointed. But due to the nature of how the film is structured and how all these segments are essentially home movies, the disjointed aspect works incredibly well. You never know what scene is about to unfold and even with the average linking device it stills flows very well. Some segments are better than others, but even the poorer pieces have some level of entertainment value to them. The running time is quite long however, and certain sections could been have improved with some trimming or actually removing the segment altogether, but for the most part it plays out in an interesting and novel way. That is the main selling point for me watching the film, because at least it is different. The love these directors have for the VHS format shines through in each and every segment and even if you have no real knowledge of the format, it is still a very entertaining horror movie. It would be great to see a return to this universe, maybe a sequel or even a TV series. The dead mans house in the movie is fìlled to the brim with VHS tales that need to be told, and with different directors taking the helm this could become the new Masters of Horror. While the TV series is unlikely, a sequel (S-V/H/S) has been announced. This was a great film that for once uses the POV format and gives it fresh life, something some of its counterparts failed to do.
V/H/S is released in the UK on the 18th of January 2013 and is on DVD in the US and other countries now.