Synopsis: V/H/S is a point of view, found-footage horror film from the perspective of America’s top genre filmmakers. A group of misfits are hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house in the countryside to acquire a rare tape. Upon searching the house, the guys are confronted with a dead body, a hub of old televisions and an endless supply of cryptic footage, each video stranger and more inexplicably terrifying than the last…
eyelights: the basic concept.
eyesores: the execution. the incessant jitter cam. the digital distortion.
“Can you not put that so close to my face?”
I had heard tepid things about ‘V/H/S’, the 2012 anthology horror film whose central conceit was that someone had found a bunch of VHS tapes, and found disturbing things on them. I heard that it didn’t really work, so I didn’t explore it much more than that.
However, I did eventually pick up its follow-up after hearing that it was superior to the original. I like the concept and was pleased to know that it had been done well this time. But, as time wore on, naturally, I gave in to my curiosity: I also got my hands on ‘V/H/S’.
Filmed and written by a variety of different people, it’s held together by a wrap-around story called “Tape 56”, which is about a bunch of petty criminals who harass women, vandalize homes, amongst other things, and capture their exploits on video cam.
One day they’re sent out by a connection to retrieve a VHS tape from an old man. They break into his home late at night but find the place empty – there’s nothing there, not even furniture. Nothing. That is, until they find a closed off room on the upper level.
In that room, they find an old man slumped in his chair, with a bunch of monitors running white noise. On the floor are a large number of VHS tapes and a VCR to play them with. One of the guys is tasked with checking the tapes while the others keep looking.
On the tapes, the guy finds a few strange videos:
1. Amateur Night: Three guys plan to go out on the town and pick up girls to have sex with. One of them, Clint, has been set-up with camera glasses to film the encounter; we see the events from his perspective. Watch them drive downtown, watch them party at a club and try to pick up girls, watch them bring two of them back – including a creepy, wide-eyed one who has been whispering to Clint “I like you” over and over again. They bring the girls to a motel room, but the other girl passes out, so they all converge on the creepy girl. This does not end well – for the guys.
Although there’s not much in the way of plot or dialogues, I liked the eeriness of the creepy girl, who appeared otherworldy. I guess they picked her up after failing with all the others, because otherwise she wouldn’t have been a top pick. But, yeah, she’s memorable. I also liked that the filmmakers were being responsible and had the guys write off the first girl after she passed out; no matter how drunk and doped up they were, they still had a modicum of decency, which I thought was an important message to convey. Lord knows not all filmmakers would have gone that route.
But, most important, “Amateur Night” was chilling. A bit gory and grotesque, but spooky. 7.75
2. Second Honeymoon: A couple are going on a road trip and she intends to film the whole thing as a “memento”. Basically, we’re watching them on the road in their van, going to southern states and checking out the scenery. But, one night, in a motel room they’ve rented, they’re interrupted by a knock on the door. He goes to check and it’s a girl who’s asking for a lift the next morning. She doesn’t tell them where she wants to go, or why she came to their room, which leaves them disquieted. But he doesn’t want to call the cops and they decide to sleep it off.
Then, in the middle of the night, the camera switches on and it’s not his girlfriend who’s behind it – the camera soon captures both of them sleeping! The intruder is watching them sleep through the camera’s lens and even pulls out a switchblade to pull down the girls blankets before stealing money from the guy’s wallet. The next day, they carry on their road trip, unaware of having been stalked. All is well until they hit another motel room when, yet again, the camera switches on in the middle of the night. Brrr. Creepy as hell. Makes going to sleep really insecuring.
Plus which I liked the payoff, though it doesn’t seem to make sense contextually. 7.75
3. Tuesday the 17th: Two girls and two guys are in a van going to a cabin in the woods. On their way there, they discover that Wendy, the driver, has lied to each of them about what kind of party to expect. When they arrive, there’s no cabin to be seen, but she tells them that they’ll need to walk a bit to get to the cabin. As they wander about, seemingly aimlessly, she has visions of people who have been brutally murdered in these woods. She eventually lets slip to one of them that they will all die in the woods. And soon, this prediction becomes a reality – a killer stalks the woods.
But why would Wendy lead them there?
This is when I started feeling unwell: the digital distortion on this short was most unpleasant and, combined with the incessant handheld, jitter-cam, movement of the film thus far, it was a most unpleasant experience. The fact that there’s very little plot here and that it didn’t make much sense didn’t help. Let’s try to ignore the fact that the killer only shows up digitized on the camera, which is absurd, for a second: I mean, really, how could Wendy have set up traps everywhere beforehand? She’d have been killed! And she’d presumably have needed help for some of them! Meh. 6.5
4. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger: This one’s shown from the perspective of a couple who are video-chatting on their laptops, with the girl on the main picture and the guy in a small box in the bottom right. They’re in some form of relationship, but he’s away for school. She tells him about sounds that she’s been hearing around the house and seeks his support and help in figuring out what it might be – she’s convinced there are ghosts there. Plus she’s feeling something under the skin of her left arm, which is obsessing her; she can’t stop picking at it.
Is she losing her mind? He’s worried, but not worried enough that he remembers to record their chats when she calls him up in the middle of the night to investigate the sounds she’s hearing. And he’s dismissive of the things that she sees, which are clearly unusual; he says it’s just the wind, that sort of thing. As this collection of chats progresses, she loses her grip on reality more and more. But she may not be crazy after all: he’s got a damning secret to reveal. I thought this one was okay, but the motivations weren’t very clear and his behaviour was so strange that I didn’t buy it. 6.5
5. 10/31/98: Time-stamped September and October 1998, this one finds a bunch of friends first bar-b-queing and then going to a costume party on Hallowe’en night. But they’ve never been to the house they were invited to and find themselves in a completely empty place. As they wander around, trying to figure out where everyone is, they start seeing apparitions. Drunk and ready to party, they take it all in stride, thinking it’s the coolest thing ever; they think it’s just part and parcel with the evening’s activities.
But then they hear voices upstairs… They’re in for a terrifying surprise!
This one wasn’t especially scary, but it made a valiant effort, with all sorts of spooky effects in the house, like arms coming out of the walls, doors floating by, a flock of birds flying through doorways, that sort of thing. It gave the segments a slightly surreal quality that always adds to a spookshow; when you can’t make any sense of it, almost anything could happen. And frequently does. The payoff was obvious to me, but I enjoyed the last part of this short anyway, once we got past all the vacuous partying. 7.0
“Tape 56” played through the film, but never made it past “10/31/98” – so it’s not even a proper wrap-around. And its payoff was telegraphed right at the onset – it seemed so obvious to me that there was ultimately no suspense or shock. Pretty weak stuff.
And what was the point of the footage of a guy filming himself trying to have sex with a girl in his room – that is, until she sees the camera running, is upset and leaves? How did that fit in with “Tape 56”? And why did it end so abruptly, without a payoff?
So strange. It’s as though the filmmakers just edited ramshackle material together.
Though its structure is weak, I first enjoyed the film. In fact, I liked the first two segments so much that I was giving the movie a solid 8.0 and wondered why the film had taken such a hit from horror fans and critics alike. Clearly I had missed something.
Then came the next three, lesser, shorts.
But what truly made the film unwatchable for me was the jitter-cam aspect of it. I know it was intended to simulate homemade videos of the sort we find on Youtube and so forth, but the non-stop randomness of the camera movement eventually made me feel a bit queasy.
I actually had to take a break past the midway point to settle down a bit.
Further to that, most of the videos were broken up with digital distortion, which again serves to simulate the quality of digital recordings on crappy mainstream devices – except that it became tiresome to look at, plus which the digitized audio was an earsore.
(Well, maybe it would have played better on a laptop, not a large screen with surround sound.)
Frankly, when you really think about it, if all of these videos were found on VHS tapes, then there’s no reason why they would be digitized. In fact, they shouldn’t even be shot on digital cameras in the first place – they should all be shot on camcorders.
This alone illustrates how poorly-conceived the picture was: they couldn’t keep up the basic illusion of their premise! I mean, if you’re going to have a gimmick, make sure that it works. If you don’t, then your whole project comes apart at the seams.
Or unravels, as the case may be.
And that was my impression of ‘V/H/S’ in the end. While it’s not terrible, it falls way short of its potential. In its final form, it’s just a crappy-looking, crappy-sounding, and weakly-edited collection of short films that appears to have no rhyme or reason.
There are great anthologies out there.
This is not one of them.
Date of viewing: August 14, 2016