(Magnolia Pictures) While undeniably tempting, shortcuts are the quickest way to water down any product over time. They cheat the user, the field, and the audience out of something that we all once revered – potential. Unfortunately, the horror film community has been a major offender of taking shortcuts for quite some time, especially in its “found-footage” sub-genre. What once seemed liked an innovation in horror storytelling, the found-footage movie has proved to be more of a get-rich-quick scheme over the last six years with an onslaught of cheap alien, exorcism, zombie, and haunted house franchises. So cross your fingers and hold your breath as you drive past the cemetery, because creativity and ambition may have returned to the world of horror in the form of a few old VHS tapes.
V/H/S takes the risk of combining the found-footage genre with an old horror throwback – the anthology film – and where it could have been frightening for all the wrong reasons, it ends up being the first movie in a while to instill a genuine feeling of dread into its audience. The movie’s six unrelated short films were directed by David Bruckner (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell The Dead), Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes The Stairs), Ti West (House Of The Devil), Adam Wingard (You're Next), and the filmmaking quartet Radio Silence (from YouTube fame), and for the most part, each chapter of this effort, despite being written and directed by people who aren’t collaborating with each other, adds to the overall experience aesthetically and narratively.
The anthology film requires what is called a wrap-around story, which is a short opening narrative that gives us a reason for the other independent stories to be introduced. The wrap-around story is usually the worst part of an anthology because it is bound to its purpose of moving the story along to the next short film (see 2011’s The Theatre Bizarre), but Adam Wingard’s tale of handycam happy hoodlums being paid to confiscate a VHS tape from an old man’s home has a few scares of its own. The gang arrives at the house and realizes the job may take longer than they hoped. Instead of one tape, there are piles of tapes and they have to watch each one to find what they are looking for. At least they can take their time and enjoy them, because the old man who lives there is already dead. I’m sure he’ll stay that way.
Each of the tapes is a different short film, a far more creative technique of introducing the other five stories than the typical horror narrator who invites you to settle in and watch a few of his favorite ghastly tales. This gives the movie an unsettling “story inside a story” vibe where even as we progress through the tapes, there is always the looming feeling that things could go wrong back with our boys in the wrap-around. Each film spotlights a different horror standby, with the monster, slasher, paranormal, and haunted house models each getting their moment of focus. All of the stories are filmed in the found-footage style, but what is usually unforgivably campy in the genre (who would hold on to a camera when there are monsters chasing you?), the short films of VHS find innovative ways to incorporate why these grisly tales have been captured in the first place. In Amateur Night (David Bruckner), three bro characters are planning a night out on the town after buying spy camera glasses off the internet. 10/31/98 (Radio Silence) has our POV come from a head-mounted camera that completes a Nanny Cam costume for a character on his way to a Halloween party. These details are small, but make all the difference in conveying a sense of realism to the audience.
Horror is built on the foundation of tension and release, and for the most part, the six short stories do an above average job of introducing characters, showing us what they want, making the audience uneasy by teasing what is to come, and then finally giving us the bloody gruesome conclusion we paid for in the first place. When filming with one camera, acting space choreography is paramount and this is what truly separates the different stories. Where The Terrible Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Young (Joe Swanberg) relies on frightening images quickly popping up on the screen, Amateur Night and 10/31/98 use long tracking shots and some surprisingly solid acting to make us feel that not all is well in the world.
V/H/S should be celebrated for its ruthless and reinvigorating take on a genre that has been spitting out duds for some time. The movie as a whole also serves as a kind of creative coming-out party for this new wave of horror filmmakers that we can expect big things from as they continue to mature in their craft. Whether you walk away from V/H/S thinking of the smaller pieces or the sum of its parts, there’s little doubt that horror hasn’t died quite yet.
For Fans of: REC, The Descent, Cloverfield
Why We Like It: Creative storytelling, inspired horror, new wave directors, ghosts & monsters