When a bunch of unknowing filmmakers went in search of a Blair Witch, little did they know that what they’d really find was a whole new “found footage” film genre based on videos and surveillance tapes. Press play in the theater, and you’d watch foolhardy teens recording their terrifying misadventures while chronicling paranormal entities, final exorcisms and developing super powers. Their deliberately amateurish camera work would nonetheless catch evidence of the supernatural, glimpses more terrifying than any special effects a home movie could offer.
But just when it seems like these pictures’ storylines had gone through every single vertigo-inducing permutation possible, a bunch of truly disturbing cassettes will be found on the Hollywood shelf, or rather a house that some video anarchists have made the big mistake of breaking into. What they’ll witness in search of one notorious tape proves to be the ultimate, bundled anthology of an antiquated format’s terror for V/H/S. With a roster of rising directors that include Radio Silence (The Teleporter), Joe Swanberg (Autoerotic), Ti West (The Innkeepers) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next), V/H/S unleashes its tales on a one-night stand gone wrong, a road trip with a murderous third wheel, a ghostly video chat and a way-too haunted house.
But if there’s one horror archetype that seems welcomely familiar to anyone who spent way too much time watching old VHS’ of Friday the 13th picures, then it’s a particular cassette labeled Tuesday the 17th. Of course, it will feature a group of college students going to a foreboding place in the woods, cracking jokes about a killer on the loose – until the tape gorily reveals that this visually scrambled psycho is no laughing matter. The lightest, if no less disturbing entry on this V/H/S is the work of Glenn McQuaid, a Dubliner tape-fed on classic American horror. Beginning his career in advertising, McQuaid helped design the innovative visual effects of The Roost and The Last Winter before making an impressive directorial debut with I Sell the Dead, a delightfully post ironic mash-up of classic English grave-robbing horror, aliens and headless zombies.
Continuing to explore such ghastly avenues as an audio horror series Tales from Beyond the Pale, directing a prequel short for Jim Mickle’s striking vampire epic Stake Land, and creating titles for such indie chillers as Angel of Death, Glenn McQuaid is rapidly proving himself an impressive jack-of-all-trades in the genre. They’re bodies of work that reflect both a love for the pop terror he an the indie sensibility its mutating with, talents that now revel in the legacy of fear’s most famous summer vacation for the knowingly throwback segment ofV/H/S.
Daniel Schweiger: Could you talk about how the concept of V/H/S came about, and how you became a part of it?
Glenn McQuaid: My pal JT Petty mentioned to me that Bloody Disgusting were putting together an anthology feature and looking for contributors; shortly thereafter I got an email from Roxanne Benjamin over at Salient Media asking me if I'd like to submit an idea. I originally pitched a treatment about an ill-fated TV special on kids with ESP; they liked that idea but asked if I'd be interested in submitting something more in the "slasher" mold, and so I came up with Tuesday the 17th, which was inspired by my favorite slasher film, Tom McLoughlin's Friday the 13th Part 6 – Jason Lives.
DS: How do you think V/H/S fits into the mold of classic horror anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Creepshow, and what do you think sets it apart from them beyond the found footage convention?
GM: It's actually quite traditional in that there's a wrap-around story (or as Adam Wingard calls it "the reach-around") that we pop in and out of, and each of the segments offers its own world and tone and delivers something different. It's like a John Zorn record that changes direction just when you think you have a handle on it. Because each segment is basically a short film, they have to hit the ground running and so you're not waiting very long for the shit to hit the fan, which can be a problem with other found footage movies.
DS: After doing such a polished production as I Sell the Dead, was it difficult to take a step back and make a simpler production, or was it a more relaxed experience?
GM: I originally wrote and shot a scripted version of the piece, but it felt too contrived so I got everyone back together and we improvised the entire thing. It was a new way of working for me, so it was an interesting experience to let go of the past and just film things in a very loose manner. I was lucky to have such a committed cast. All of the characters are pretty broad, so it was fun too see how much we could get away with while keeping things feeling authentic.
DS: With most of the stories in V/H/S taking place in enclosed spaces, how important do you think it was to have yours occur completely in the Great Outdoors?
GM: At the time I didn't think too much about it, I just wanted to get out of the city and find a fun place to shoot with the kids; again, Jason Lives was very much on my mind as I prepped, so it was more about finding some woods and water. Now when I see the entire feature, I think it's great fun that my agoraphobic outdoors piece sits next to Joe Swanberg's claustrophobic Skype segment.
DS: Some people in the audience may become nauseous with the camera moves as they do the makeup effects. How far did you reckon that you could take your swinging camera moves before risking that?
GM: It was a concern while shooting. I went with a heavier camera so that the image wouldn't swing too wildly in frame and I tied to keep the "shaky cam" scenario to a minimum. I haven't heard too many complaints about it, I think audiences are becoming more and more accepting of that type of camera movement.
DS: Do you think found footage movies are scarier because they are done "in the moment," and lacking the artifice of music and full-on sound effects? How hard was it to maintain that sense of reality, especially since you pushed the comedic aspect further than the other segments as part of your salute to Jason Lives.
GM: The challenge I set up for myself was to take my favorite slasher victim stereotypes — the cheerleader, the jock, the geek and the Goth — and insert them into found footage. They are all a bit larger than life, especially the cheerleader, so I think I did sacrifice some realism, but at the end of the day I'm happy with how it all turned out. It was good to see that most of the other segments had fun throwing found-footage expectations out the window. Regarding the lack of music in the film, I kind of cheated there and added an incredibly noisy Merzbow-inspired score thanks to my killer and my sound designer Doug Johnson. It was fun coming up with how the tape would sound when the slasher was around. I put some temp Lasse Marhaug and Leyland Kirby tunes in there to get the mood going, it was great fun.
DS: How do you think your work with effects and graphics helps you as a director?
GM: It's always handy to know I can spend time in post making stuff up but when I'm on set I don't think about it at all. I hate the "fix it in post" mentality.
DS: Can you tell us how you achieved the striking distortion effect for your killer?
GM: Neal Jonas came up with that look. We were messing around with different ways to hint at the killer's presence without actually revealing it. I wanted it to remain a mystery, I even hesitate to give it a gender, I wanted it to remain an enigma even in daylight and I wanted people to see what it was capable of without actually seeing it. Those were the guidelines and we took it from there.
DS: On that end, how did you want to choose the "boo" moments where you saw effects on screen that couldn't possibly be achieved on set?
GM: We played it pretty straight on set. An actor stood in for the killer and it played pretty much the same, just with a person there doing the killing. Films like Torso and Blood & Black Lace were a big inspiration while we were out in the woods without the visual effects. Once we got into post we messed around with a ton of looks before we came up with the effect that's on there now; we really found our voice in post in that respect.
DS: Working on a collaboration like this, was there any competition between the directors to see who could push the limits the furthest? What sort of interaction did you have with your fellow filmmakers?
GM: No. I'm on the East Coast and had no clue what the other guys were up to or how all the segments would line up. I had yet to meet David Bruckner, Radio Silence and Adam Wingard so I didn't reach out to them to see what they were up to. It was a pleasant surprise when I finally got to see the entire movie — I think it's laid out just right and it's great that we all man-handled the found footage mandate in a pretty progressive way, by the end of the movie it's just absolute insanity with little regard for found-footage realness. I love that the movie ends right after the Radio Silence piece, wrap-around be damned, let's just end this now and play an awesome track, let's celebrate.
DS: What sort of technique can you play around with while filming deliberately "amateur" found footage?
GM: It is a lot of fun to set up a complicated and technical shot and then film it in a very "unprofessional" way, it adds realism and can pull the rug from under even a sophisticated audience. Found footage comes with its own set of rules, of course, but at the end of the day you're still telling a story and if the script is lacking the movie will be too. What I like about V/H/S is that we didn't get too hung up about having every moment be real. The movie never tries to sell itself on absolute reality, it's much more a celebration of fantasy than it is of realism. It's a great piece of escapism. Bruckner's segment Amateur Night is a real triumph of fantasy: here you have a pretty grim real-world scenario, and I'm watching it and thinking "is this a date rape piece? I don't think I want to watch this." And then he does a complete 360 and puts the foot down, and the result is a complete triumph.
DS: Do you think the found footage movies have essentially opened the floodgates for anyone to make their own movie, and to have them be profitable? Is there risk of the genre playing itself out because of this?
GM: It's made filmmaking a more approachable endeavor. Can anyone go out and make a good one? Probably not, but if it gets kids out there with cameras and ideas, then it's a good thing. If the story isn't there, though, it's not going to be any use.
DS: What direction do you think the found footage genre will head after V/H/S ?
GM: The sky is the limit, I'm sure other genres will pick up on it too, why not found footage war movies and romance and disaster films? There's plenty of room for period films too, I guess you could call Woody Allen’s Zelig an early found footage movie. Brad Miska is right when he says it's here to stay. There are infinite ways to tell stories within the formula and people are only starting to push the boundaries of it. V/H/S will help the genre move forward because it's basically saying it's ok to go broader with this stuff, we don't have to sell it with snuff realness, that doesn't fool anybody anyway. It's entertainment and people will suspend their disbelief as they would with any other movie so long as you're not trying to shove realness down their thoughts the entire time; that just gets annoying.
DS: Do you view this as your own audition tape to get your own Jason film? And if you did, where would you take the character?
GM: No, I never thought of it like that, but I'd jump at the chance to work on a Friday the 13th movie. I'd go right back to where Tom McLoughlin left off and get back to that kind of spooky pulpy outdoors fun. As soon as you take Jason out of Crystal Lake it loses its appeal for me. Seeing Jason in Manhattan or in outer space or with Freddie at a rave just doesn't interest me. Friday the 13th movies are campfire tales; you can't take the campfire away and keep the spirit. I'd bring it back to the lake and break out the fog machines and the full moon. To be honest with you, I'd be most keen to work on a Pamela Vorhees movie. After all, she is the mother of them all.
V/H/S makes its video on-demand debut on August 30th, and theatrically in Los Angeles on October 5th at the Nuart.