Thursday, August 30, 2012

V/H/S ★★½

If You Thought You Had Some Weird Home Videos...

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Horror films seem to follow trends for several years until people get tired of knowing what to expect. We've seen countless slasher films, ghost stories and demonic children, each appealing to a different type of horror audience. Most recently, the "found footage" stories have been resurrected, especially since the release of Paranormal Activity in 2009.

The new film V/H/S relishes in this type of horror genre with six unrelated short films, each dealing with a particular filmmaker's take on horror. It's an anthology of shorts, with one main storyline that tries (but doesn't really succeed) to bridge all of these films together. Documentary-like "footage" is used to tell these stories and each one pays homage to a different horror genre. Some of them work, some don't, but you can't help but admire the craftsmanship in each one. 

Tape 56 

This is the main story arc that introduces to several truly despicable men. We're introduced to them through a series of acts, one involving them finding a woman in a parking lot and forcibly lifting her shirt up to flash the camera as they hold her boyfriend back. They're thieves of some kind, as one of them tells the other that they're supposed to break into a house and steal a VHS tape. When they arrive at the house they find it deserted, except for an old man, apparently dead, in a recliner chair. There's a television in front of him with a VCR. One of the guys stays behind to watch one of the videos while the others go and search the rest of the house. 

Each film is introduced in this way, each time a different member of the group returning to the living room with the previous member now missing (this doesn't seem to bother any of them). The creepiest element to this story is the old man in the chair. We know that he's probably not dead and that something bad is going to happen. Obviously something strange is going on since one member of the team disappears after one video is shown. 

Overall, this is the weakest of the films. Say what you will about the horror genre, but I at least want some emotional investment in the characters on screen. As the main arc of the film shouldn't we at least want to root for these guys? There's not one redemptive quality to any of them and thus we hope that they'll be killed off quickly, which may be the film's point. For me, however, I would have preferred actual characters as a through line for the whole film as opposed to these idiots. 

Amateur Night ½

The story here centers around three college guys - Shane, Patrick and Clint - eager to meet women, so much so that they've attached a camera to Clint's (the nerdy do-gooder of the group) glasses to document their conquests. In other words, they want to make an amateur porn video with Clint taping it. They end up meeting some girls, one of whom takes a particular interest in Clint by repeatedly whispering to him, "I like you." Something is off about this girl - she doesn't look quite right and as the night progresses, she seems more and more otherworldly - and the camera-operating Clint suspects this but chooses to ignore it. I won't give away what happens, suffice it to say that of all of the entries in this anthology, this one is by far the most grisly. If your definition of true horror means a lot of blood and carnage, you'll probably enjoy this installment. 

For me, this one almost works but, like Tape 56, falls short with its characters. Clint is the voice of reason and is quite literally the audience to the events taking place. His two friends, however, are moronic drunks who like to take advantage of women, once again emphasizing that the approach here is to root for death over survival. 

What I like in this film is the use of the camera as an attachment to Clint's glasses. It gives us a fun, first-person perspective with some inventive angles and very disturbing character interactions. Overall it's a film to be looked at for style over substance; a lesson in finding new ways to tell the same story over and over, this time making the camera an actual character within the story. 

Second Honeymoon ½

Of all the entries, this is the only one without supernatural elements to it, and yet it is the one that disturbed me the most out of any of them. It focuses on a couple, Sam and Stephanie, taking their vacation out west in celebration of (as the title suggests) their second honeymoon. They've been documenting their trip via hand-held camera, interviewing each other about the day's events thus far. One night at their hotel room a woman knocks at the door asking Sam for a ride the following morning. He's disturbed, but ultimately thinks it's no big deal. That night someone else turns the camera on, recording them as they sleep. 

I doubt this entry will disturb anyone else as much as it did for me, but there's something about the voyeuristic nature of this film that gets to me. I like that it tried to be different from the rest, relying solely on human interactions to tell its story. It's also the first one that provides likable characters in the lead roles, which furthers the suspense when the intruder enters the room.

Where it falls short is in adhering to the rules laid out by the previous and following films in having something supernatural as part of the story. Yes, this is a series of unrelated films, but every single one of them do something different within the supernatural found-footage genre. Had this been a short film that just existed on its own, it may not have felt so out of place. 

Tuesday the 17th 

Friday the 13th fans, this one is for you. This is the first film that blends style and substance in the right way: A group of twenty-somethings enter the woods, only to be picked off one at a time by an unseen killer, but the killer is a creation within the camera itself. The members of the group include Wendy, Joey, "Spider" and Samantha, who are on their way to to Wendy's hometown for a weekend trip. They end up stopping to go for a walk in the woods and Wendy cryptically tells them that they will all die.

Once again these characters are not all that likable, but the killer that the filmmakers decided to create here is inventive and terrifying. It uses the hand-held camera as a method with which to actually see when the killer is about to attack, allowing for originality and quite disturbing imagery. It's grotesque, over-the-top and utterly ridiculous, yet it works at delivering all the frightening elements that classic horror film fans will surely love.

The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger 

Living in an era where using Skype and vlogs for communication are evermore present, it's amazing that no film in recent memory has used the two-person screenshot via video chat as a method for delivering genuine fear. Making the story feel of its time and place, while also creating a tale straight out of The Twilight Zone, The Sick Thing works on a variety of levels.

The story itself is about Emily and her boyfriend, James, talking through video chat about Emily's increasing paranoia that she has ghosts living in her apartment. She misses James and eagerly awaits his visit in the coming weeks. As each night passes, Emily tries to make contact with the entities she claims are with her, while James skeptically watches through the computer. As is usually the case, everything is not what it seems. Those who use Skype regularly might think twice about what goes on behind them when chatting with a friend after seeing this film. They also may decide that using the laptop camera to examine paranormal activities where they live may not be the best investigative technique.

This is the second film that features a lead character (Emily) that is worth watching and not just another slab of meat for a killer. Emily thinks she's going crazy and we the audience, of course, know this to be false. You want to cry for her, especially when the twist is revealed and her fate seems certain. As a diehard Twilight Zone and Rod Serling fan, I found the writing here to be spot on and the twist to be a classic left fielder.


Ending this anthology with a bang is the film that (finally) pays homage to the Sam Raimi Evil Dead series, with four friends, Tyler, Paul, Matt and Chad, driving around trying to find the Halloween party they've been invited to. When they find the house, no one appears to be home, yet they enter anyway.

I'll put it this way: This is not a house I would ever want to be stuck in for any length of time. Thankfully, this film gives us a group of guys who actually do the right thing but ultimately pay a steep price for their chivalry. Around Halloween there are dozens of places that host supposed haunted house tours. This film illustrates exactly what those people are going for - only this time it's real. This is by far the most supernatural of all of the installments in V/H/S, making 10/31/98 is a worthy ender to an otherwise mixed bag of tricks.

V/H/S, as a whole, has it out for women; many of the lesser installments objectify them, while others prove that if a man is actually decent enough to help a member of the opposite sex, she'll most likely kill you. I hope this is not a trend that continues in modern day horror films, as it was dated even when horror films were part of mainstream movies, but only time will tell. Overall, V/H/S almost works as a collection of inventive short films, but the lesser installments weigh it down. If there's a way to catch them individually, that might be better than sitting through two hours for about 30 minutes of good filmmaking. 

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