Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: V/H/S

2012. Directed by: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence

The horror anthology film has always been a favorite of mine. And, unlike a lot of horror fans, I don’t mind the “found footage” genre of horror films. V/H/S combines both of these things and tries to breathe new life into both.

V/H/S has a fairly simply plotline: a group of Jackass-type thieves break into a spooky house to find a videotape. Instead, they find a dead old man and SEVERAL videotapes. One by one, our bumbling thieves watch a tape, each one revealing a different scary story.

Like most anthology films, it’s hit or miss. Despite being a fan of this particular subgenre, I don’t think I’ve seen a single anthology film where I’ve liked all of the stories told. So let’s break this baby down by its segments.

Adam Wingard’s TAPE 56 acts as the wrap-around story—the way we get to the mini-stories within. While it has a nice atmosphere, and some really subtle, creepy moments, it’s one of the weaker entries. I’m not sure the movie even needed a wrap-around story, and as it is, TAPE 56 doesn’t really do much else than set up the premise. Which tape are our thieves looking for? Why does this old (presumably dead) man have all these VHS tapes? Who is the mysterious person who hired our thieves? Why does the ring-leader have a mustache that makes him look like a 70’s porn star? None of these questions are answered. I don’t have a problem with ambiguity, but the open-ended nature of TAPE 56 leaves a lot to be desired.

David Bruckner’s AMATEUR NIGHT is our first “tape” and follows three frat-boy types as they go out on the town to look for girls. One of the guys sports a pair of glasses that contain a hidden video camera/microphone combo.

The guys eventually end up at a bar, where they encounter a few ladies, one of them being the very weird, mousy Lily. Lily is quiet and more than a little spooky, but she seems to have the hots for our camera-man.

Eventually the friends end up back at their motel room with Lily and another girl. The other girl eventually passes out, and soon the friends learn that Lily is more than she seems…

AMATEUR NIGHT is a nice starting point. It takes a little way to find its grove—the first half of the story is truly obnoxious, as we follow these giggling, repulsive guys on their quest to get laid. But once the mysterious Lily enters the picture, things really start to pick up. I wouldn’t call this segment scary, but it’s certainly disturbing, and it’s nice to see these three assholes get pretty much what’s coming to them.

Next up we have SECOND HONEYMOON, from director Ti West. West has already made quite a name for himself in the indie horror world, having directed THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and THE INNKEEPERS. He has a very deliberate, slow-burn style that some love and some hate. Personally I loved both of his previous movies, so I was looking forward to this entry.

SECOND HONEYMOON follows couple Sam and Stephanie as they go on a second honeymoon out west, with Stephanie filming the proceedings. Things seem rather mundane at first, but one night, there is a loud knock on their motel room door, and Sam goes to investigate.

When he comes back, he reports that the person who knocked was a strange and somewhat scary girl asking for a ride the next day. Sam of course turned her down, and the couple goes to bed.

While the couple sleep that night, the mysterious girl comes into their motel room and films them sleeping—and brandishes a switch-blade which she softly strokes against Stephanie’s flesh.

To say more would be spoiling the pretty shocking ending, but I will say this is one of the strongest entries in the film. It’s the only one that isn’t “supernatural”, but West has a real knack for “realistic” dialog. This really feels like the video-log of a real married couple, and the way he slowly builds the tension from mundane to disturbing is masterful.

TUESDAY THE 17th, from Glenn McQuaid, is hands-down the weakest entry in the film, and should have been cut entirely. It has a neat premise—a sort of satirical take on slasher films (thus the cheeky title), and also the premise of a “final girl” coming back for revenge against the killer.

But the end result is rather lame, and the acting is downright atrocious here. Our “final girl”, Wendy, is so unbelievably unsympathetic and annoying that there’s no possible way we can get on her side.

When the killer shows up, for some reason he doesn’t photograph on the video camera; rather, he’s just a bunch of blurry, staticy glitchies. This is a cool effect, but it leads the viewer to ask: Why? It seems like something that the filmmaker did because he thought it was cool for the sake of being cool, and didn’t put much thought into it.

While TUESDAY THE 17TH is the weakest entry here, SICK THING is the most disappointing.

Emily has skype-like chats with her boyfriend James. She’s just moved into a new apartment, and pretty soon she begins to suspect it’s haunted. Also, we learn that when she was younger she had problems with self-mutilation—a problem she seems to be picking up again.

SICK THING is very well directed and acted. The skype angle—which doesn’t really make sense in a film full of VHS tapes, but whatever—works wonderfully in bringing the scares, as James (and the audience) can spot things creeping in the dark behind Emily before she notices them.

However, when the “twist” is revealed, it’s like a bunch of hot air being let out of a balloon. It’s so incredibly lame and nonsensical that it downright made me mad. Director Joe Swanberg had a great thing going here, and then, for some strange reason, decided to sabotage it completely with an ending that is, to put it bluntly, fucking stupid.

As the saying goes, you save the best for last, and that is certainly true with our last story, 10/31/98, directed by a group of filmmakers known as Radio Silence.

Like AMATURE NIGHT, 10/31/98 is about a group of frat-boy types, but unlike AMATURE NIGHT, the guys in this segment are likeable and funny; we actually enjoy following them around.

It’s Halloween night, and four friends are trying to find a Halloween party they were invited to. They find what they THINK is the right house, but once inside, they discover it’s empty. Or is it?

10/31/98 is both amusing and scary. It has an almost “kitchen sink” approach to it, where the filmmakers throw every haunted house cliché in the book at you, and it all works incredibly well. I certainly hope Radio Silence tackles some more horror stuff in the future, because they have a real knack for knowing what makes horror fans tick.

With a little trimming here and there V/H/S could’ve been truly fantastic. As it is, we’ll just have to settle for a mix of pretty darn good and mediocre. As far as grading the entries, here’s how I’d do it:

TAPE 56: C-
10/31/98: A+

V/H/S is currently available On Demand and also via Amazon Streaming. It’ll also have a limited theatrical run sometime in October. It's not excellent, but it's worth watching maybe once. 

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