Like many horror anthologies, V/H/S entwines a series of short films around a single central narrative. The project, created by Brad Miska, features a quintet of wildly divergent tales that are loosely tied together by the main arc entitled Tape 56, and is comprised of directorial efforts by a series of semi-noted and unknown indie film makers, including Ti West, Joe Swanberg, and Adam Wingard. It’s another entry in the “found footage” genre, with the premise being that the events unfolding are anywhere from recent to about 15 years old and captured off of either old VHS videocassettes or digital footage.
Unfortunately, that premise leads to the first shortcoming that afflicts all six narratives, which is the excessive shaky-cam and the persistent and aggravating use of bursts of static and hazy resolution as a narrative effect. Rarely does a segment go more than five minutes without a blast of chaotic static across the screen, and it grows tiresome quickly. When used as a transitional effect — to bring us out of one story and into another — it’s effective. Yet too often it’s used to be jarring or startling, and it doesn’t take long for it to simply be annoying. This, coupled with the fact that the films are heavily edited — thereby disengaging you from the whole “found footage” conceit — means that just from the basic premise, we’re off top a rough start.
Yet that misstep can be overcome if the shorts — and the project as a whole — are engaging and affecting. And the concept is a nifty one — Wingard’s Tape 56 deals with a collection of obnoxious miscreants who trash houses and assault women for kicks, and are hired to steal a specific video tape from a house. While there, they encounter a dead body and a pile of video tapes and each of them watches a different tape to try to discover the one they’ve been tasked with finding. It’s an interesting technique for introducing the various other films, and on that level, it works. The rest of the segment is rather nonsensical, and since the characters are all worthless jerks and thus it’s hard to become too invested in the story itself.
The remaining five segments are about as mixed a bag as you’re likely to find. As you may be able to tell from the handful of aforementioned directors, there’s several members of the same mumblecore family, and their attempts to tackle horror films range from intriguing (and occasionally genuinely scary) to flat-out awful. The first segment after the intro to Tape 56 sets the stage is Amateur Night, about another group of morally bankrupt jackasses. In this case, they’re hoping to bring a woman home and then videotape one of them having sex with her. The characters are actually far more unlikable than that makes them out to be, as hard as that is to believe. The piece, directed by David Bruckner, is an utter failure for the first ten minutes, consisting of inane and puerile dialogue and loud, disjointed visuals, though it does somewhat salvage itself once the twist is revealed and the boys realize that they have bitten off far more than they can chew with their choice of targets.
After that, we have what is easily the weakest entry, Second Honeymoon, which concerns a boring, passionless and irritating couple on a roadtrip who have a brief and unsettling encounter with a strange girl at their hotel. It’s an lazy, burdensomely dull affair and not even spurting blood and prurient, indulgent displays of lesbianism can really save it. Fortunately, it’s also one of the shortest segments. It’s followed by Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday The 17th, which is a clever entry that’s dulled by some stunted dialogue, but still overall works. Four friends are on a trip to the woods where a series of murders took place years ago, and you can probably see where it goes from there. However, the piece is far more intelligent, plotting-wise, and it manages to do a solid job of subverting the slasher-in-the-woods genre and creating a new and interesting variation.
The final two pieces are easily the strongest entries — Joe Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger and the quartet of film makers known as Radio Silence’s 10/31/98. Swanberg’s entry features a long distance couple communicating via webcam, while the woman, Emily is clearly showing the effects of a nervous breakdown that’s compounded by her new apartment being haunted by creepy childlike specters. The film gives no explanation for its bizarre and utterly disturbing conclusion (actually, none of them do), yet it works both in spite of and because of that bewildering creepiness. The final entry is probably the best in terms of conventional horror stories — four friends headed to a Halloween party find the house abandoned, but they’re definitely not alone. The segment veers into some truly creepy visuals, human sacrifice and demonic possession, and also features a truly harrowing escape sequence. By the end, I found it to be the most satisfying of all.
The wholesale problems that plague V/H/S are myriad, however. There’s a deliberately amateurish feel to most of the sequences, which is to be expected given the micro-budgets and genre itself. The issue here is that at times it seems more like it’s because it’s literally just plain old amateurish film making. The directors seem to rely on a certain amount of improvisation, something that fellows like Swanberg are renowned for, but that frequently falls flat because of weak — and at times heinous — performances. Swanberg is also responsible for the reprehensibly pointless, navel-gazing Silver Bullets, and while his entry here is far superior to that mess, it still falls victim to one of the same artifices that stood out the most, namely weak and unpleasant female characterizations.
Actually, it’s not fair to paint Swanberg as the sole perpetrator of that particular transgression. For reasons I cannot fathom, overall the women are portrayed pretty awfully in these films (with Tuesday the 17th being the lone exception). They’re undressed, exposed, manipulated, abused, molested and generally treated like trash by almost every character in almost every sequence, and if there’s a purpose to it, it escaped me. This ties into the next issue and a large reason that the film stumbles overall, which is that the characters are frequently terribly written. They’re underdeveloped, shiftless, unlikable, and utterly lacking in purpose or appeal. Perhaps that’s done with reason, yet all it does is disengage the viewer by eliminating any sense of empathy.
The film eschews many of the conventional filming approaches and instead has a rambling, insipidly mundane indie feel that on occasion staggers towards the dreaded mumblecore, and while that can sometimes work in the dramatic realm, here it frequently blows up in their faces. More often than not, we end up with an introductory narrative that feels tediously monotonous, with paper-thin characters that are both boring and offensive. It’s an extended feeling of muddled and dysfunctional dialogue that’s abruptly interrupted by an explosion of bloodcurdling violence and unpleasant goriness, creating a severely disjointed and disruptive viewing experience (not helped by being far too long — at two hours, it just felt interminable at parts). Sometimes it succeeds, in some it fails, but taken as a whole V/H/S feels self-indulgent, excessive, and often simply dull.
V/H/S is in select theaters and also available via iTunes and Amazon Instant.