V/H/S makes a good attempt at breathing new life into the genres it covers but, like most anthology films, the results are mixed.
V/H/S feels like a natural conclusion to the found footage subgenre that’s become increasingly popular since Paranormal Activity‘s success. While Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project focused on a sense of realism to draw people in, V/H/S is anything but. As an anthology film revolving around the home video format, all the pretenses and rules that come with the style are thrown out. These are six short horror films that all share the same aesthetic simply to take advantage of the visceral, exciting feeling that comes with stumbling on something one isn’t meant to see. V/H/S makes a good attempt at breathing new life into the genres it covers but, like most anthology films, the results are mixed.
“Tape 56” serves as the wraparound story for each short film. Shot on an old VHS camcorder along with a digital camera (all of the tapes have been edited together in a way that suggests someone compiled the footage after the fact), it follows a group of men who make quick money by ambushing women in public and stripping them. A fan of their work contacts them with an offer that pays well: Film themselves breaking into a house to steal an old VHS tape. They agree, but all they find in the house is a dead man and a pile of unlabelled tapes. One by one they start going through the tapes, and this is how each story is introduced.
The first tape, called “Amateur Night,” is the strongest story out of all six. The tape is made by a group of young guys who use a hidden camera on a pair of glasses. Their goal is to secretly film themselves hooking up with whoever they can pick up at the bars, and in no time they’re bringing two women back to their motel room. The only problem is that one of the girls they picked up appears to have a million red flags around her which, naturally, doesn’t end well for them. This short builds up plenty of tension thanks to the perfect casting of the girl they take back. Once things do go to hell, “Amateur Night” goes all-out with the insanity which leads to some of V/H/S‘ biggest thrills.
“Second Honeymoon” is the next tape which comes from Ti West (The Innkeepers, House of the Devil). People expecting West to change his usual slow-burn style will be disappointed here. His short, which follows a couple on vacation who encounter a creepy stranger, is the only film out of the bunch that tries to pass itself off as realistic. That means the scares are limited, but West is focused on something other than cheap thrills. “Second Honeymoon” is focused on the horror of having a person’s privacy being violated. Once West reveals the horror aspect of his segment, it’s the most unsettling moment in the entirety of V/H/S. Unfortunately the ending has a twist that doesn’t work, but conceptually Ti West’s story shows why he’s considered one of the best American horror directors working today.
The next tape, cheekily titled “Tuesday The 17th,” plays out like a slasher film in fast-forward. Four people drive out to a lake for a camping trip which expectedly plays out like any other camping trip in a horror film. The killer’s portrayal as some sort of ghostly figure that only shows up on tape as a glitch creates a neat stylistic effect, but “Tuesday” crams too much plot in its short runtime. Most of the dialogue is exposition which results in a lot of stilted lines from its cast. If the short had a little more breathing room it could have been more enjoyable and less awkward with its delivery.
Joe Swanberg (who starred in “Second Honeymoon”) directs “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” which plays out entirely through recorded video chat sessions between a couple. Emily believes her new apartment is haunted while her boyfriend plays skeptic. Swanberg, who’s known more for his attachment to the ‘mumblecore’ genre, directs the weakest story. Part of this is because everything hinges on a twist that’s so poorly conceived it tanks the derivative first half of his short. While the video chat gimmick seems ripe with potential “Sick Thing” doesn’t capitalize on it enough to make something memorable.
The final tape, which surprisingly starts after the end of the forgettable wraparound story, ends V/H/S on a strong note. “10/31/98” follows yet another group of young men as they head out to a Halloween party. They get lost and end up at the wrong house, but they keep investigating and wind up discovering something sinister in the attic. This short, like “Amateur Night,” goes for broke with a climax that feels like a funhouse ride. It’s all silly, but the execution is so gleeful that it becomes infectious. “10/31/98” might not be the best short out of the bunch, but it makes for a hell of a fun time.
Other than the two well-done tapes that bookend the film, V/H/S is hit and miss. “Second Honeymoon” would have impressed if not for its clunky ending, and the two shorts that follow it drag things down considerably. As an anthology film it has a clever concept that links everything together (if this is successful there will definitely be more ‘tapes’ being made for a sequel), but it can’t break free from the inconsistency that plagues these kinds of movies.