V/H/S is a horror anthology presented as one complete story, the tale of a gang of thugs who break into a house to recover a specific video cassette for an unidentified employer. They break into a seemingly empty house, scouring it for the cassette, and make two discoveries: a pile of tapes in the basement, and a room with a dead body slumped in a chair. The dead man has apparently been watching some cassettes, so one member of the crew is tasked with watching what’s already loaded into the VCR. Like a child invoking the Candyman in the bathroom mirror, the thought of pressing play and glimpsing whatever the dead guy watched proves irresistible, and, thanks to a cadre of tapes directed by a constellation of indie horror filmmakers, the loop binding together this anthology is closed. Not logically, and not so far as it bears on the plot of the wraparound feature, but it’s closed.
The nicest thing I can say about V/H/S is that it proves that the horse franchises like Paranormal Activity and [rec] (not to mention Chronicle and any number of cheaply made riffs on The Exorcist) have taken to beating isn’t quite dead yet. There are a number of good, inventive uses of the handheld camera here, a few new tricks to a genre that’d practically exhausted itself with The Blair Witch Project, but they’re all put to middling use. A spy camera hidden in a pervert’s glasses, a paranormal plot that’s carried out mostly through ongoing Skype conversations, a killer who appears on film as a glitch—these are nice gimmicks, but they don’t exactly lead horror—first person or otherwise—anywhere new or exciting.
The segment that comes closest to breaking new ground is Ti West’s “Second Honeymoon,” which is perhaps most like a full length found footage horror movie in that the majority of it is comprised of filler—the “umms” and “ahhs” of a couple roadtripping out west to rekindle their flame. As obvious as this seems, the difference here is that “Second Honeymoon” is only twenty minutes long. Those “umms” and “ahhs” aren’t filler, but are essential in building the couple as some sort of unit, their disagreements hinting at the problems they’ve set out to overcome. Thinking of how much time is wasted in the typical full length setting up the cameras and explaining to the future victims how that rig is going to definitively prove that the house they’re occupying is haunted, “Second Honeymoon” is perhaps the first horror movie about people with cameras that show those people using their cameras as real people would. That it relies on a big, shocking twist is a little cheap, but manages to encourage a second viewing.
The same can’t be said of the rest of V/H/S‘s segments, the shocks and reveals of which are fairly stock. David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” was singled out as the best of the bunch by The A.V. Club but one needs only to observe the strange, quiet girl a group of dunk, high dudes take back to their hotel room to know that she’s literally a maneater, and the “glitch killer” of “Tuesday the 17th,” cool as he sounds, is a slasher killing horny teens in the woods with a knife. “10/31/98,” which sends a group of dudes to an abandoned-looking house they think is first the site of a party, then the sight of a pretty cool haunted house attraction, manages to mash together the beats of a feature-length haunted house yarn into a compact, compelling short feature, but, like its cohorts, is let down by its ending, a bit of lazy storytelling employed by filmmakers who ran out of steam once they let the protagonists out of the house.
In terms of sheer bugfuck weirdery, Joe Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” takes the cake, presenting itself first as a straightforward haunted apartment scenario before barreling into uncharted territory without pausing for the benefit of those unable to divine Swanberg’s scant signs and portents. “The Sick Thing That Happened,” despite its obviously low budget, contains within it elements of body horror and psychodrama, the webcam cinematography gleaning some genuine tension from a student apartment distinguishable from every other such apartment by how nice and clean it is. The reveal doesn’t quite work in terms of shock—the relationship between the girl and her doctor-in-training boyfriend works best when they’re talking to each other—but it paints the boyfriend in an interesting, unflattering light, casting “The Sick Thing That Happened” as a story about male-female control, with some creepy ghost kids thrown in as a kicker.
For whatever bumps and jolts the individual segments contain, the only uncomfortable moment in V/H/S comes early in the wraparound, when the gang who eventually break into the house film themselves sexually assaulting a woman in a parking structure. There’s a lot of sex in V/H/S, which is perhaps de rigueur in the genre-at-large, but there’s a cold, septic nastiness to the way the men in this film treat women. The “top-sharking” jerks in the wraparound, the drunken leches who plan to film themselves having sex with women they’ve gotten too drunk to function, the husband who pleads with his wife to allow him to film them having sex—the only people who aren’t fooling themselves here are the horny teenagers, who claim to be exactly what they are, and the dude talking to his girlfriend on Skype.
It’s tempting to claim that the sex and sadism in V/H/S is a comment on the way men look at women, but it’s no good to just say “men are douchebags” without the sexual tension resolving in any meaningful way. In fact, the women here are deceitful, obsessive banshees in their own right, letting the “nice guy” of the group off any kind of guilty hook because he never managed to get his dick out of his pants, leading her friends into a situation she knows is dangerous, and otherwise “justifying” every untoward act of male sexual aggression. Ugliness is something I have no real issue with, but the ugliness of V/H/S is so often unaddressed that it bears wondering what’s meant as message, and what’s meant merely to titillate. The two segments that best address their male/female dynamic—”Second Honeymoon” and “The Strange Thing That Happened”—happen to be the best of the anthology, with “10/31/98” serving as the outlier that doesn’t fit the de facto theme. It’s a shame, then, that “Second Honeymoon” ends up pandering to the pud-pullers in the audience. Those five seconds may just be the strongest indication of where the anthology’s head is at.
V/H/S. An anthology directed by Adam Wingard (“Tape 56”), 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”), and Radio Silence (“10/31/98”).