Review: V/H/S

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Directors: Adam Wingard (Tape 56/Frame Narrative) David Bruckner (Amateur Night), Ti West (Second Honeymoon), Glenn McQuaid (Tuesday the 17th), Joe Swanberg (The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger), Radio Silence (10/31/98).
Release: October 5th, 2012 (viewed on Netflix)
Rating: 4 out of 5 mysterious VHS tapes for this anthology found footage feat. I think each short story had their own merit, some more than others were particularly innovative and effective while others were merely okay and respectable as attempts to do something similarly innovative and effective as their cohorts. But on the whole I was impressed by how scared I could be in twenty minute intervals and how the found footage was used differently in each segment.

I think for my review of this film, I’d like to break it down into its parts. Adam Wingard’s frame narrative started off a bit confusing, its characters mostly unlikable. But it grew more compelling as it became a fragmented horror short in its own way: a group of small time criminals are asked to steal a VHS from a house for a large sum of money. But the main inhabitant of the house is found dead and the VHS collection to choose from is abundant. Which brings us to our short films.

I hesitate to give to much plot away for each, especially the first, Amateur Night, which in particular relied on suspense and wonder, and even by the end I wasn’t totally sure what I’d just seen. The handy cam in this case is on a pair of glasses, with the hope of shooting an amateur porno with girls met at a bar/party. All I’ll say is that one girl was far creepier and menacing than it at first seems. I loved the way the found footage here showed us something totally out of the realm of reality in such an obscured and therefore horrific way, put into a very real context of failed masculine debauchery.

The second tale gave me chills without giving any answers: Second Honeymoon is therefore the most affecting but also the most frustrating for its lack of motivation. But I loved it nonetheless. Joe Swanberg (if I may so digress) is so likable that even without helpful explanation provided to us, I was invested fully in this story and willingly went along with the the somewhat awkwardly laid out markers for suspense because I knew they’d still yield audible gasps and goosebumps from me.

Tuesday the 17th was probably my least favorite. It was fascinating for what it tried to do with the slasher formula under the guise of found footage techniques, but ultimately not satisfying enough for this experimentation to pay off. The experimentation in the final story’s haunted house formula however, worked for me much better. The effects were simple but sophisticated and above all, scary in 10/31/98.

It would be my favorite story if it hadn’t been for Joe Swanberg’s directorial entry, The Sick Thing That Happened to Smily When She Was Younger. I felt like I was watching an X-Files episode within a video chat vacuum. It had probably the most shocking twist and the most interesting variation on the found footage formula out of all the segments.

And for all these strange stories to take place in about 20 minutes each as I mentioned, is both an achievement and a blessing. It is an achievement in the sense that they are built to spook us in different ways but always in a way that feels at least semi-complete (like a stand alone short would, unattached to any larger project), which is hard for any narrative I think but perhaps even more crucial in horror– to condense in such a fashion without losing any of the build up or ensuing terror. It is also a blessing though when one considers the found footage genre and the challenge it poses in engaging audiences for the length of a full feature.

I think the frame narrative helped ground these bizarre videos in something that was inherently and increasingly horrifying on its own, spaced out nicely between each and escalating in its own creepiness. I think if we are to take this film for the sum of its parts, then it is indeed an enjoyable and entertaining ride. There are highs and lows but put together as a whole, the anthology really does work. It is exciting and interesting and really quite fun.

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