Review: Terrifying anthology 'V/H/S' creates new ghost stories for the video age
Anthology movies are incredibly difficult to pull off, and when you add "anthology film" to "found footage," a genre buzzword that is starting to wear out its welcome thanks to countless awful examples, it sounded to me like "V/H/S" was about as big a risk as anything playing here this week.
Hats off, then, to the entire team of filmmakers who collaborated on what I would honestly call one of the scariest movies I've seen in recent memory. And unlike many anthology films, "V/H/S" works as a cohesive piece, which is even more surprising because at the Q&A tonight, it was apparent that the filmmakers did not compare notes on their individual segments. What works first and foremost is the aesthetic of the film. One of the things that drove me crazy about "The Pact" the other night is just how threadbare most of the ideas were. We live in a world full of technology and marvels that horror films almost seem to resist acknowledging. How many horror films have you seen that treat cell phones as little more than an inconvenience to be explained away? How many horror films rely on tropes that have been around since before you were born? While I love the genre, I often get frustrated at how few new ideas there are in horror, and how slow filmmakers often are to even try innovation.
"V/H/S" not only embraces the idea of technology, it is essential to the way these stories play out. These are ghost stories for the 21st century. For god's sake, there's a segment here where tracking is used as an element of the horror. Tracking. You remember that from the days of VHS being the primary format, when you'd get an old tape and it would have a degraded image with noise that you could sometimes dial back a bit by adjusting the tracking? This movie actually finds a way to take that interference, that degraded image, and turn it into an innovative monster of sorts.
There is a wrap-around story here, and if there's any segment that feels less than satisfying, it's that one, but that's almost always the case with anthologies. The wrap-around is a matter of function, something that gives you an excuse to tell all the other stories. Here, the connective tissue has to do with a group of total lunatics who drive around doing terrible things and filming them. They're not murderers, but they are absolutely criminals. The first five or ten minutes of the film feel like an episode of "Jackass" where they had a meth caterer, dangerous and out of control. The guys are hired to go break into a house and steal a videotape that is somewhere inside, and once they get into the house, they find a whole bunch of tapes. That's the framework, and the segments are all different tapes that they play trying to find the one that they're supposed to steal.
I'll warn you that seeing this after publishing my article about sexual assault in horror the other night made me anxious, because sex is absolutely an issue in much of this movie. However, the mix of sex and horror isn't what bothers me. It's when people just go right to the default idea of rape in particular, and that's not this film. I think you could probably go through and break down each different segment in terms of the gender politics at play, and you'd find that this is a broad landscape of ideas and attitudes. There are so many different ways to use gender and sexuality to make an audience uneasy, and this film expertly pushes button after button, doing its best to keep you off balance from segment to segment.
The films were directed by David Bruckner ("The Signal"), Glenn McQuaid ("I Sell The Dead"), Joe Swanberg ("Hannah Takes The Stairs"), Ti West ("House Of The Devil"), Adam Wingard ("You're Next"), and the intriguingly named filmmaking collective called Radio Silence are the directors here, and I am impressed by the work all of them contributed. The film as a whole was the brainchild of Brad Miska, founder of Bloody Disgusting.com, one of the websites that's been covering horror well for a long time now. They've been branching out as a distribution company, and if this is any indication of what Miska and Roxanne Benjamin and Zak Zeman are capable of putting together, then I sincerely wish them well with future projects. They assembled a group of people who seem determined to push the definition of "found footage" to some very different and unexpected places. Swanberg's segment, for example, was shot using Skype, and he makes expert use of what should be a technical limitation to really freak the audience out.
I think the greatest thing a horror film can do to an audience is induce a feeling of dread. Anyone can scare you by having something pop out at the screen, but being able to take the audience, clue them in to what's coming, and then hold them to the fire, twisting and terrified… that's a skill set. That's real horror. This movie is loaded with unnerving imagery, simple and direct scares that play on a primal nightmare level, and ideas that blindside you with the way they twist expectation.
The film is also ordered in what I think is the exact right order. The first segment by David Bruckner sets the tone for just how crazy things might get, and the final segment by Radio Silence feels like the brakes are off and you're flying off the mountain into the void. It's crazy, and the audience tonight was screaming, jumping, viscerally reacting. This is the sort of film that's going to creep into the permanent nightmare vocabulary of the audience, and I think the cheap, shitty VHS look of everything is a big part of why. We have learned over the past 20 years that if you're watching something on film, it's not real. But if you're watching something on video, especially low-grade unpolished video, that's "real." And the filmmakers play off of that idea with such glee that I almost feel like I got mugged by an entire gang. It is a film designed to shake you with abandon.
And there is no doubt… I am shaken. Well-played.
Distributors, start your engines. Someone's getting rich.