I will be the first to admit that this was the most anticipated of the films I would be reviewing this month and was quite worried when my car got put in the shop limiting me from going to the theaters to see this film, however, thanks to its somewhat limited release and a watch instantly option on Amazon I was able to catch up with this found footage anthology with much elation. I am aware that there are two camps for this film, the first claiming that is lack of plot and non-notable performances result in a weak film overall, while another camp claims it to be the savior of the horror genre and a veritable renaissance in scary movie creation. I have firmly centered myself with the latter group, because not only did I find this conceptual horror film to be intensely scary, but it went far above any level of expectation I had formulated. Sure some of the segments in the film are weaker than others, but overall each story commits to an idea or form within the horror genre and creates a suspense driven narrative of ten to fifteen minutes that had me more than leaning out of my seat. I was taking notes on the film for this post but completely forgot about it within moments, the work was far to intriguing and certainly to scary to become distracted by what would invariably be half-assed comments on the social nature of the film. If anything we as a film viewing community, particularly those favoring horror films, should be praising the efforts of such a film, regardless of what you may think of their execution. The directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckern, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and the group Radio Silence deserve acknowledgement if only for trying to breath some fresh life into a flailing genre. V/H/S purely on a experimental level is something to be enjoyed with great pleasure and a certain level of psychological discomfort and remember this film has been said to induce vomiting and black-outs, even if it is purely because of the rattling camera work and onslaught of color bars and film tricks.
As noted the film is series of "found footage" pieces, all centered within one story titled Tape 51, in which a group of found footage enthusiasts are hired to retrieve an unexplained tape from a house. Upon arrival to this house they find a man dead on a chair and a handful of televisions displaying either blue screens or electrical snow. Perusing the house one of the members decides to pop in one of the tapes into his camera thus beginning the series of the films. The first work Amateur Night follows a group of college males, one equipped with a glasses cam as they attempt to pick up women in a night club only to return home to video tape the entire conquest. One of the women they meet named Lily (Hannah Fierman) is particularly attached to a member of the group starring blankly at him wile uttering the phrase "I Like You" over and over again. A bit paranoid the group agrees to take her and a few other women back to their hotel, only to discover that Lily is not exactly a woman and a creature far more disturbing an event that proves cataclysmic to the whole group. The second tape title Second Honeymoon follows a guy named Sam (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Stephanie (Sophia Takal) as they travel through Arizona on a trip to celebrate their marriage, all seems uneventful until a young woman awkwardly asks them for a ride one night, only to break into their hotel later in the night and steal their money, an act that is caught on tape by the girl as she films it with their camera. The next day leads to an awkward moment between Sam and Stephanie as they argue about money, an issue that becomes all the more intriguing when the young woman returns with a vengeance later that night. The third story titled Tuesday the 17th follows a group of young people as they travel to the woods for a vacation, only to become the prey of some sort of spectral maddened assassin, however, what one would assume to be a group of unsuspecting youth is turned on its head when one girl admits that she has experienced this all before. The next, and perhaps my favorite has the lengthy title of The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger is a webcam based video in which Emily (Helen Rogers) confesses to her doctor boyfriend about having an insatiable desire to itch a bump on her arm, something he promises to look at upon return from school. Later that night Emily explains that she has been seeing ghosts and is able to catch one of them, a small child, on camera, leading her boyfriend to agree to help with her confrontation with the ghost. This confrontation is far more than Emily bargains for and we come to realize that her relationship with her boyfriend is also not quite what we expected. Finally, a tape called 10/31/98 focuses on a group of young men, one dressed as a nanny cam, providing for the found footage video, as they travel to a Halloween party. This party upon arrival appears to be empty and the group discovers what they assume to be an intricately designed haunted house, yet when they get to the attic of the house and attempt to join in what they think to be a fake occult ceremony the falseness of the entire experience is undermined and the group undertakes an attempted rescuing of one of the houses victims. These films compose the main narrative of the film, yet it should be no surprise that the video about finding this video also has its own twists of horror as well, something that I dare not ruin because it is yet another moment of brilliant metacinema scares.
A lot of the complaints directed at this film are about its lack of scary qualities, as they relate to its unexplained narrative and little to no back story. I would argue that it is precisely this lack of logical connection that makes this work indeed unsettling. Imagine if you will that you were to randomly buy a set of unmarked VHS tapes from a local thrift store as a means to do some found footage experimental work, say like the folks over at Everything Is Terrible. Most of the stuff would probably be dubbed television shows or awkward home videos, but what if you were to find something like a group of kids being murdered in the wood. The context would not be explained and under no circumstances would you find this not scary. Conceptually I think this is what V/H/S was aiming for, an attempt at creating something that would genuinely reflect a piece of "found footage" of the paranormal degree. While I am certainly a huge fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise it does bother me at times that the narratives spend so much time explaining a back story and having character be a bit to keen on occult and supernatural occurrences. Sure the film has a slew of social criticisms, whether it be the condemnation of male sexual dominance, something that often leads to date rape or group sexual abuse and another film makes a blatant commentary on the effects financial strains can have on the unity of a marriage. Hell one of the works could even be seen as making an backhanded commentary on women's reproductive rights, but they all exist primarily as horror works. To me it is very much like The Shining, in that so much of the horror is such because it has not logical explanation for occurring and this is definitely what makes V/ H/S so intense.
Key Scene: There is a moment during Amateur Night in which the camera pans across the bar and catches Lily starring into the camera, it is really really creepy and more than sets up the intensity that will consume the remainder of the film.
Buy this movie. Buy your friend this movie. Buy anybody you love this movie...although it may cause them to question why you love them.