By Brian Lafferty
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
October 5, 2012 (San Diego) – V/H/S is a twisted ode to the videotape, a once-venerable technology that is becoming an increasingly forgotten relic in the high definition digital age. Taking the best elements of the found footage genre and integrating it with the anthology film format, it made me scared, anxious, and queasy. Each story, helmed by a different director, uses the found footage genre to its fullest potential, with scary, disturbing and unsettling results.
V/H/S is composed of five individual tales linked by a main story arc. In the main arc (Tape 56), a gang of rowdy troublemakers and thieves are ordered by some mysterious man to break into a house and find a videotape.
The tapes they sift through are recordings of five horrifying events: young men picking up two women only to learn too late a dark secret about one of them (Amateur Night); a vacationing couple stalked by a voyeuristic woman (Second Honeymoon); four friends murdered by a maniac with supernatural powers (Tuesday the 17th); an online video chat between a woman living in a haunted apartment and her boyfriend (The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger); and a group of guys who encounter a haunted house on Halloween night in 1998 (10/31/1998).
I’ve never had a problem with movies like Rachel Getting Married, which was shot in the style of a home movie, Green Zone, which featured a shaky-cam, and Chronicle and Project X, two of several found footage movies released this year. This time I felt so nauseous that I seriously entertained thoughts of walking out. This was not a reflection of the film’s quality; I really wanted to stay because it was one of the scariest movies I’ve seen this year. Fortunately, the less-shaky The Sick Thing alleviated it.
Why did I feel sick from watching V/H/S when no other film has? The reason became clear upon a few hours of reflection. When I think back about the short movies I shot in film school, I had certain subconscious filmmaking instincts. They told me – among other things – to keep the camera still even when it’s handheld, to frame each shot appropriate for the situation, and to move the camera only when necessary.
When I watch Hollywood-produced found footage movies like Chronicle and Project X, these instincts are still apparent. Despite the herky-jerky mobility in these and other Hollywood found footage films, these movements are “polished” in comparison to V/H/S, as if the cinematographers and cameramen didn’t want to overdo it. The cameras in V/H/S are held by people who either abandoned these instincts or don’t possess them.
The first case in point is Amateur Night, filmed via a camera implanted into one of the men’s eyeglasses. The mobility and cinematography are consistent with this type of camera. When he moves his head fast, the camera “lags,” then “catches up.” This proves effective when he tries to get away from the creepy woman. By also using the subjective point of view, it takes advantage of one of the basic tenets of horror: it isn’t always what you see that terrifies you, it’s what you don’t see. It put me in the same psychological position as the young man. Who or what is this woman? What horrible things is she doing to those men behind the door?
Second Honeymoon is the weakest in the scare factor, payoff, and execution of the found footage device. Director Ti West uses this cinematographic method for voyeurism, as seen though the stalker’s lusty, lingering gaze at the young wife as she sleeps. But at times the found footage becomes a victim of strain and desperation in trying to stay consistent with the established style.
Tuesday the 17th, an obvious homage to the Friday the 13th series, is fittingly the most violent. Blood and guts abound, but not at the expense of fright. The supernatural being that guts these people cannot be seen clearly because a glitch on the tape obscures him. When set against the green, quasi-dense forest, it takes an extremely sharp eye to pick him out, but his unpredictable movements don’t make it easy.
Things settle down mobilitywise in The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, which is seen through an online video chat program not unlike Skype. This format creates a feeling of helplessness on the boyfriend’s part. Like last year’s Insidious, the scares come not so much from things jumping out. Instead, the ghosts are there, but when you notice them, it jolts you just as much as the most effective jump scare.
10/31/98 is the spookiest of the tales. The events are filmed using a camera embedded in one of the men’s bear costume. Like the glasses cam in Amateur Night, it provides a subjective point of view that not only shows the action from the person’s perspective, but it also puts the audience in his mindset. As the men try to flee the house, they don’t have time to closely see the ghostly things protruding from the walls. Consequently, neither can the audience.
Those prone to motion sickness are advised to stay away. All others will be rewarded with one of the most unique horror film experiences in a long time.
V/H/S is now playing for one week only at the Landmark Ken Cinema.
A Magnet Release. Directors: 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), Radio Silence (10/31/98). Screenplay: Simon Barett, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Nicholas Tecosky, Chad Villella, and Ti West. Cinematography: Eric Branco, Andrew Droz Palermo, Victoria K. Warren, and Michael J. Wilson. Cast: Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Kentucker Audley, Adam Wingard, Frank Stack, Sarah Byrne, Melissa Boatright, Simon Barrett, and Andrew Droz Palermo. Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated R.