Found footage horror movies are everywhere these days. With the success of the Paranormal Activity franchise, Cloverfield, and [REC] to name a few, they have almost become the genre norm rather than the exception. In addition horror anthology films have been a staple of the genre for decades, so it makes sense to combine the two forms together to offer some fun spooky stories.
As with many anthology films, V/H/S offers some shorts that are quite effective and some that are downright terrible. Each of the shorts are loosely connected to one another through a narrative of several slacker misfits trying to grab some extra cash by finding one particular VHS tape among hundreds in a dreary house (complete with a dead body in one room). As they search through the tapes, various spooky stories are unveiled to us as the characters watch themselves.
It is practically impossible to analyze an anthology movie without breaking it down to its individual parts, so let’s have a look!
“Tape 56″ — This is the overarching story that loosely links the smaller pieces of film together. As a basic narrative device it works fine, but on its own merits it is a bit by-the-numbers, and the characters overall are rather unlikable. When they aren’t smashing up abandoned buildings or burglarizing a house, they make extra cash by lifting up passing girls’ shirts while filming it on video. In fact gratuitous nudity in general is rampant in V/H/S, and while it could be argued that it is a trope of the genre (and I won’t deny I enjoy a good look at the female form as much as the next guy) it definitely felt misogynist more often than not, particularly in this story. When bad things start happening to the main characters in “Tape 56″, I felt very little sympathy towards any of them. Rating: 2/5
“Amateur Night” — The first self-contained story starts out quite strong with what could even be considered a bit of a parable, as a group of party bros hit the bars and accidentally take a woman home who turns out to be a succubus. It’s a simple story, but nailed in its execution, and was probably the most “fun” of the segments. As mentioned before, a major problem I had with the whole of V/H/S is that most of the characters were unsympathetic, and while that’s the case here, it actually works to the story’s favor, as there is a gleeful guilty pleasure in seeing jerk frat boys get ripped to shreds. The film is without a doubt the goriest of the bunch, including one moment that will particularly make any male in the audience squirm. While ultimately fairly predictable, it’s nevertheless a solid entry to start off the film. Rating: 3/5
“Second Honeymoon” — Considering this was the only story where I actually recognized the director’s name (Ti West, who has had a fairly successful career in low-budget horror), I was surprised to find this tale to be very disappointing. A young newly married couple is traveling through Arizona, and things get weird when someone (or something) starts filming them while they sleep. Completely devoid of real scares, and a transparent ending and bland finale make this one a snooze. Feel free to take a bathroom break. Rating: 1/5
“Tuesday the 17th” — A send-up of the “Friday the 13th” formula (which was already perfectly lampooned in the brilliant Cabin in the Woods earlier this year), this story is about four friends who head out to the forest, only to be attacked by a supernatural serial killer. Laughably amateur actors make this story feel like it belonged in an introductory film school class, but bonus points must be given for the creativity of the monster, which exists as a digital glitching blip when viewed through the found footage camera. It’s a uniquely creative-looking creature than manages to give the film a slight edge over the preceding one. Rating: 1.5/5
“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” — Up until the entirely unnecessary twist ending that manages to undermine the entire story completely, this is the best sequence in the film. The story is told as a series of Skype conversations between a boyfriend and girlfriend communicating long distance. The girlfriend, Emily (in a standout performance from newcomer Helen Rogers) is convinced that she is being haunted in her new apartment. Using Skype as a framing device feels fresh in comparison to most of the other stories (although one wonders how a Skype conversation wound up on a VHS tape), and the ghostly moments pack some legitimately terrifying chills. Anyone who has been in a long-distance relationship, even for a brief period of time, will immediately relate to the sense of helplessness at watching a loved one deteriorate without being able to support them in person. If only the filmmakers were able to come up with a more fitting ending, this would unquestionably be the best story in the film. Rating: 3.5/5
“10/31/98″ — Another basic premise, but executed very well. A group of twenty-something friends plan on going to a Halloween party (it’s no surprise that one of them has a camera embedded in their costume), only to wind up at the wrong house, which turns out to be alive and/or haunted. Ultimately this is a film about building atmosphere and showcasing horrific yet fantastic visual effects, but one of the advantages of the (admittedly limited) found footage genre is the immediate sense of believing whatever you are viewing could actually be real. Cloverfield involves a giant monster attacking New York city, but there are nevertheless moments where the viewer feels as if the cameraman and his friends are legitimately running for their lives from a creature as large as a city block. In this film, when the house literally starts twisting its insides to attack the main characters, it is a thrilling roller coaster ride, and a solid finale to a reasonably enjoyable, if uneven, anthology film. Rating: 4/5
All in all, horror fans should get a decent kick out of some of the stories in V/H/S, but if you are only a casual viewer of the genre it would probably be best to catch something else (Oogieloves, perhaps?). V/H/S opens on Demand August 31st, and will be in theaters October 6th, just in time to gear up for Halloween! The red-band trailer is below…
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