The found footage subgenre seems ripe for overexposure at this point. Just this year we’ve had a found footage party movie, a found footage superhero movie, a found footage cop movie, and this week will open Paranormal Activity 4, the latest in the popular found footage horror series. I understand the draw for Hollywood. The movies are cheap and the found footage motif plays into our culture’s endless compulsion for self-documentation. There are definite benefits to the genre, notably an immediate sense of empathy, a sense of being in the fray, and an added degree of realism. There are plenty of limitations too, notably the restrictive POV and the incredulous nature of how the footage was captured. With that being said, I think the people behind V/H/S finally found a smart use of this format. V/H/S is an indie horror anthology that offers more variety, cleverness, and payoffs, than your typical found footage flick.
Normally, found footage movies consist of 80 minutes of drawn out nothing for five minutes of something in the end. Usually, the payoff is not worth the ensuing drudgery of waiting for anything to happen. Watching the Paranormal Activity movies has become akin to viewing a “Where’s Waldo?” book, scrutinizing the screen in wait. V/H/S has improved upon the formula by the very nature of being an anthology movie. Rather than wait 80 minutes for minimal payoff, now we only have to wait 15 minutes at most. I call that progress. I haven’t seen too many found footage films that play around with the narrative structure inherit with a pre-recorded canvas. I recall Cloverfield smartly squeezing in backstory, earlier pre-recorded segments being taped over. With V/H/S, this technique is utilized once and it’s just to shoehorn in some gratuitous T & A. Plus, the anthology structure allows for a greater variety. If you don’t like some stories, and chances are you won’t, you know another one’s just around the corner.
For my tastes, the stories got better as the film continued. I was not a fan of the first few stories. The wraparound segment (“Tape 51”) involves a band of delinquents who are hired to retrieve one VHS tape in a creepy home. The guys are annoying jackasses, and our opening image involves them sexually assaulting a woman and recording it to sell later, so we’re pretty agreeable to them being killed off one by one inside the creepy home. I just don’t know why anyone would record themselves watching a movie. It’s not like it’s Two Girls One Cup we’re talking about here. I found the wraparound segment to be too chaotic and annoying, much like the band of idiots. It ends up becoming your standard boogeyman type of story and relies on characters making stupid decision after stupid decision. Why do these idiots stay in the house and watch movies? Why do these people not turn on the lights?
The first actual segment (“Amateur Night”) has a solid premise: a bunch of drunken frat boys plan to make their own porn with a pair of spy glasses. They bring the wrong girl back to their motel room and get more than they bargained for. Despite some interesting commentary on the male libido (interpreting a woman’s spooky actions as being sexually aroused), this segment suffers from a protracted setup. There’s a solid ten minutes of boys being boys, getting drunk, that sort of thing. And when the tables are turned, the spyglasses lead to shakier recording, which is odd considering they are pinned on the guy’s nose. The horror of the ending is also diminished because it’s hard to make sense of what is literally happening. The weakest segment is the second one (“Second Honeymoon”), which is surprising considering it’s written and directed by Ti West, a hot name in indie horror after The Innkeepers. West’s segment is your standard black widow tale, following a couple on their vacation to the Southwest and their home movies. However, a stalker is secretly videotaping them while they sleep. Borrowing from Cache, this is a genuinely creepy prospect, and the sense of helplessness and dread are palpable. It’s surprising then that West concludes his segment so abruptly, without further developing the stalker aspect, and tacks on a rather lame twist ending that doesn’t feel well thought out. “You deleted that, right?” says one guilty character on camera washing away blood. Whoops.
The second half of V/H/S is what really impressed me, finding clever ways to play upon the found footage motif and still be suspenseful. The third segment (“Tuesday the 17th”) begins like your regular kids-in-the-woods slasher film. The very specific types of characters (Jock, Nerd, Cheerleader) are set for some frolicking when they come across a deranged killer. However, the slasher monster is a Predator-style invisible creature that can only be seen via the video camera. When recorded, the monster creates a glitch on screen. I think this is a genius way to cover the biggest head-scratcher in found footage horror: why are you still recording? With this segment, the video camera is the savior, the protector, the only engine with which they can see the monster. The fourth segment (“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”) is shot entirely through Skype conversations on laptops. Emily is convinced her apartment is haunted and seeks support from her boyfriend, away on business. This segment’s co-writer and director, Joe Swanberg, is more known for being the mumblecore king than a horror aficionado, but the man makes scary good use of the limitations of his setup. The story might be a bit hard to follow, especially its ending, but there are some great jolts and boo-moments. There’s even a fantastic gross-out surprise as Emily shares her own elective surgery/exploration.
But it’s the last segment that takes the cake, ending V/H/S on a fever pitch of action. The wraparound segment isn’t even that, since it ends before the final segment, “10/31/1998.” It’s a haunted house story about a group of guys who stumble into the wrong house on the wrong night. Initially they think the human sacrifice in the attic is part of the show, but then weird things start happening like arms coming through walls and door knobs vanishing. This segment is a great example of how effective atmosphere can be aided by smart and selective special effects. When the madness hits the home, it feels just like that, and the rush to exit the house is fueled with adrenaline. You don’t exactly know what will be around the next corner. The CGI effects are very effective and the lo-fi visual sensibilities give them even more punch. The frenzied chaos that ends “10/31/1998” would be apt for a feature-length found footage movie, let alone a 15-minute short. It’s a satisfying climax to a film that got better as it went.
With all found footage movies, there’s the central leap of logic concerning who assembled this footage, for what purposes, and how they got it. With movies like the abysmal Apollo 18, I stop and think, “Why do these people assembling the footage leave so much filler?” V/H/S doesn’t commit a sin worthy of ripping you out of the movie, but when it’s concluded you’ll stop and ponder parts of its reality that don’t add up. The very idea of people still recording onto VHS tapes in the age of digital and DVD seems curious, but I’ll go with it. Several segments obviously had to be recorded onto a hard drive; the Skype conversations would have to be recorded onto two perhaps. So somebody transferred digital records… onto a VHS tape? And it just so happens that this tape then got lost.
While inherently hit-or-miss, V/H/S succeeds as an anthology film and generates new life into the found footage concept. Not all of the segments are scary or clever, but even during its duller moments the film has a sense of fun. There’s always something new just around the corner to keep you entertained, and the various anthology segments give a range of horror scenarios. The lo-fi visual verisimilitude can be overdone at times, but the indie filmmakers tackle horror with DIY ingenuity. I don’t know if anything on screen will give people nightmares, but it’s plenty entertaining, in spots. V/H/S is an enjoyable, efficient, and entertaining little horror movie just in time for Halloween. If you’re going to do a found footage movie, this is the way to do it.
Nate’s Grade: B