V/H/SReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/04/12 22:22:02
"V/H/S" is a horror film that offers viewers two gimmicks for the price of one--it is an anthology that consists of five short films directed by a quintet of up-and-coming names in the genre--David Bruckner ("The Signal"), Ti West ("The Innkeepers"), Glen McQuaid ("Stakeland"), mumblecore icon Joe Swanberg and the filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence--and the five tales, not to mention the wraparound stuff meant to tie everything together, are examples of the found-footage storytelling style that has apparently replaced torture porn as the go-to genre approach thanks to the ridiculous success of the "Paranormal Activity" franchise. Since most horror films today only present viewers with a single gimmick, I guess that one should give "V/H/S" a little bit of credit for providing more value for money than the others. Sadly, thanks to the combination of a collection of generally lifeless and derivative tales and a narrative take that is often pointless at best and aggravating at worst, the end result is less a bargain and more like buying something on a 2-for-1 sale at the store and then discovering that you are now stuck with twice as much of something that you don't like.In "Tape 56," the framing device directed by Adam Wingard, we are introduced to a group of thick-skulled miscreants who spend their days trashing property, assaulting and robbing innocent bystanders and making $50 a head by videotaping their crimes and posting them online for all to say. After their latest spree, one of the gang tells the others that he knows how they can make some serious money through an offer made to him by a mysterious property. All they have to do is break into the remote house of a strange old man and steal a VHS videotape in his possession. Sure, the tape is unmarked but the are assured that once they see it, they will know that it is the right one. Because these guys are not the brightest of bulbs, they agree but when they arrive at the house, they find the old man apparently dead in front of a bunch of video monitors. However, showing the kind of pluck and determination that one loves to find in garden-variety miscreants, they soldier on and one by one, various tapes are screened.
Anyone hoping for a relief from the creepy video-based thugs in the wraparound will be profoundly disappointed to discover that the first tale, Bruckner's "Amateur Night," involves another gang of cretins, this time a group of frat boy jerks who have acquired a pair of glasses equipped with a video camera and decide to employ it by picking up a couple of girls, one blotto and one on the strange side, to make some surreptitious sex tapes--a plan that, to no ones surprise, goes horribly and messily wrong everyone involved. Story number two, West's "Second Honeymoon," follows a couple whose second honeymoon trip is interrupted by a stranger who appears to be following them for some unknown and increasingly creepy reason. In the third, McQuaid's "Thursday the 17th," a weekend of fun in the woods goes downhill when it turns out that one of them was attacked and nearly murdered in those very same woods by someone--or something--who may still be out there. The fourth, Swanberg's "The Strange Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Young," chronicles a series of Skype sessions between a young woman with a mysterious arm injury and her doctor boyfriend that gradually reveal that she has some unexplained visitors. In the finale, the Radio Silence contribution "10/31/98," a trio of buddies set off on Halloween to attend a party but get lost and wind up barging in on what might be an honest-to-goodness exorcism in progress.
As with all anthology films, whether or not you will like "V/H/S" will depend to a large degree on how many of the individual segments that you find entertaining and I have a sneaking suspicion that most fans of the genre--who are the most obvious target audience--are not going to be too impressed with the various offerings they have been presented with here. The first two stories are especially disappointing because they come from filmmakers who have done highly impressive work in the past but whose contributions here both take forever to get to punchlines that are, respectively, achingly predictable and ridiculously pointless (though "Amateur Night" does at least contain a doozy of a final shot.) McQuaid's "Thursday the 17th" suffers a little bit by being in the unfortunate position of trying to subvert the kids-in-the-woods sub-genre in the wake of "Cabin in the Woods" but is stylishly made and contains a certain level of ambiguity that is undeniably intriguing.
The Swanberg contribution is a mixed bag in that it starts off impressively enough and maintains its tension for a while but falls apart during the finale. "10/31/98" starts a little slow and the final zinger is deeply irritating (can't anyone figure out a proper conclusion to an exorcism story anymore?) but once it gets going, it is both exciting and a technical marvel that is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was presumably produced on a very low budget. As for Wingard's linking segments, the best that can be said about them is that they will give viewers a chance to hit the bathroom or concession stand while safe in the knowledge that they won't be missing much of anything. The one thing that really links them all together is the uselessness of the found-footage gimmick--not only do none of the filmmakers, with the exceptions of McQuaid and Swanberg, make interesting use of the concept, the idea that people would be recording these incidents in the first place makes so little sense (don't get me started on how or why someone would transfer a Skype session to a VHS tape) that viewers will be too distracted by the incongruity of the stylistic choice to even focus on the actual stories.At times, watching "V/H/S" is akin to watching a mini-marathon of episodes from a "Tales from the Crypt" knockoff that most rational people would have given up on about halfway through the premiere. For every moment that works, there are maybe four or five that don't and while it contains enough blood and nudity to temporarily satisfy those who are in it for nothing else, its lack of creativity, energy or brevity (it clocks in at nearly two full hours and time does not go by fleetingly in this case) will have most viewers struggling to maintain interest throughout. Put it this way--if this movie were a real videotape, it would be one that would send you to find a piece of tape to place over the broken tab so that you record something genuinely scary, maybe an episode or two of "Whitney," in its place.
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