Fear is a dish best served analog in the insidiously creepy found-footage horror anthology V/H/S.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS AND POSSIBLE NIGHTMARE FUEL!
A group of four miscreants is hired by an unknown person to obtain a VHS tape from a seemingly empty house. The group makes penny-ante money selling videos of themselves sexually assaulting random women and of smashing vacant buildings, so the large payout for such a simple task seems too good to be true. When the group gets to the house, they find only a pile of VHS tapes next to a wall of flickering TVs…and a dead man sitting in front of them. Combing through the tapes, the group finds a series of disturbing videos that may be much more than they bargained for.
Ever since The Blair Witch Project made an unearthly amount of money back in 1999, the found-footage approach to horror has become diluted through its own ubiquitous nature. Most films end up like The Devil Inside, a film so incompetent that audiences angrily booed and shouted at the screen during the ending. By claiming to be “real” footage, such a film actually becomes more artificial than the slickest of big-budget studio fare. Occasionally, entries in the found-footage genre, like the excellent superhero origin story Chronicle, will restore some semblance of faith that the approach can be dramatic and compelling. V/H/S takes this concept to the extreme, being quite possibly the most effectively unsettling found-footage horror film to date.
This is what is commonly referred to as “the point of no return.”
The film is composed of six different “tapes.” The main story arc, filmed through the cameras of the group looking for the titular MacGuffin, frames a collection of unrelated vignettes. The “tapes” vary in quality, although there isn’t truly a weak link in the group. There’s no visible connection between any of the tapes, although several of the actors look similar enough to each other to make that questionable. The cast is composed entirely of unknowns (and in some cases the directors of the segments), giving the characters an uncomfortable anonymity. In general, they aren’t model-pretty or super-fit, being attractive enough to engender sympathy but still instilling a sense of dread. It’s one thing to see something happening to someone like Daniel Radcliffe. It’s quite another when the person on screen looks like he could be your brother, your best friend…or even you.
The framing tape, called “Tape 56” in the credits, is effective due to its total lack of context. We’re never told why the group’s mysterious client wants the tape, what the tape contains or even if the tape is one of the five that’s shown on screen. The characters in this tape are the least sympathetic since most of their establishing footage shows them doing unquestionably awful things, and it’s tempting to wish supernatural mayhem upon them. It becomes clear almost immediately that the men are in way over their heads and that they’re questioning everything they’ve done up to this point.
Breaking, entering and paying the price.
In “Amateur Night”, a trio of frat jocks attempts to film themselves having sex with some conquests from the local clubs only to have the whole thing go horribly wrong. “Second Honeymoon” shows what happens when a mysterious stranger asks for help from a couple on vacation. In “Tuesday the 17th”, a group of friends runs into trouble during an impromptu camping trip. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is shown through video chat footage between Emily and her boyfriend, as Emily becomes more and more frightened by strange happenings in her apartment. Finally, “10/31/98” documents the fateful trip of four friends to a Halloween party at a stranger’s house.
The tapes work entirely through established horror tropes and urban legends, but they find their power in recontextualizing them into frameworks new and familiar. “Tuesday the 17th” is obviously a take on the masked slasher genre popularized by Friday the 13th, but here the killer is instead represented by a glitch in the video. He looks human enough, but his entire figure is obscured by garbled visuals. He’s so horrifying that even the camera is afraid of him. “Second Honeymoon” works because of its sheer banality. It’s like a recreation of every hitchhiker story that you’ve ever heard, but it works because the couple is normal to a fault. “10/31/98”, inarguably the most exciting of the tapes, gains its effectiveness by its medium. The haunted house is given new life and a terrifying tactility by the matte finish of the video, making the special effects seem all the more real.
One hell of a one-night stand.
If the tapes have any common theme, it’s the betrayal of trust, which in the end may be much more frightening than any slasher, ghost or demon. All of the tapes revolve around people being swept into events beyond their reasoning by people or things that they have no reason to distrust or, in the case of “Amatuer Nights”’ blitzed frat boys, no ability to distrust. The characters are being punished not necessarily for their own transgressions but for trusting that the people around them are as reasonable and good-natured as they are. It’s that instilling of paranoia that makes the film so resonant. That friend of yours could be leading you into a trap, or that first date you just had could also be your last. That taps into a much more primal fear than something like a freaky ghost girl, because it’s so real and immediate.
Not every tape is equal, though. Emily’s story is the weakest of the bunch, if only because it feels the most staged and scripted. Emily’s side of it seems natural enough, but her boyfriend can’t deliver the lines with the appropriate tone to sell them properly. It also includes some extremely gratuitous nudity in a film already crowded with blood, guts and naked bodies of both genders. It’s just about the only time the film feels like it’s pandering to what it thinks the horror fans want, although it does get points for featuring more male butts and packages than the past two years’ of horror films combined. “Amateur Night,” despite being one of the more entertaining tapes, contains a fair amount of rather repugnant misogyny that isn’t fully ameliorated when the boys get paid back for it in kind.
The house gets so messy when you have demons.
The other nagging issue involves a minor technical quibble or two. The film is presented in wide-screen instead of the 4:3 aspect ratio expected by the title. It only barely distracts from the verisimilitude of the tapes, but it is a distraction nonetheless. Additionally, the videos are all shot on different equipment, only one of which appears to be an actual VHS camcorder (“10/31/98”). It not only time stamps its footage, but dates itself with the use of a pager and a character dressed as the Unabomber for Halloween. How Emily’s Skype feed or the footage from the frat boys’ webcam (hidden in a pair of glasses) ended up on a video format that was already dying in 1998 is never satisfactorily explained.
It’s easy to get swept up in the tapes, however, and that’s possibly the entire point of the film in the first place. The boys in “Tape 56” film their criminal exploits because there’s a market for it, and that market is us. Voyeurism is as natural to the modern human as breathing, especially in a culture that has made demigods out of “reality” TV stars. The boys in “Tape 56” are too curious not to watch the videos they’re sent to retreive and by extension so are we. The only question is whether or not we can unsee what has already been seen. Well, there’s only one way to find out: press play.
Rating: 8 out of 10 / B+
is currently available to rent in North America through video-on-demand on both iTunes and Amazon. It is scheduled for theatrical release on October 5.
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and slept with the light on last night.