Frightfest review: V/H/S Ian White August 21, 2012 Features, Film4 Frightfest, Movie Reviews 1979 As far as I’m concerned, videotapes have been creepy ever since David Cronenberg made his excellent ‘Videodrome’ back in 1983. Or maybe it was James Woods being mutated into a human videotape machine that was the creepy part. And then the cursed videotape in Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ringu’ (1998) didn’t make me feel any better. In fact I was pretty relieved when DVD arrived on the scene, even though I’ve still got a bunch of videotapes containing eighties music shows which will probably fall apart as soon as I put them in a player. Maybe that’s a blessing. I’m not sure anyone needs to see ‘We’ve Got A Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It’ ever again. But some videotapes contain even more horrific material than ‘Fuzzbox’. And six such tapes form the unevenly sewn together corpse of V/H/S, even though B/E/T/A/M/A/X will always remain by far the scariest format, mainly because my parents bought one and never stopped complaining about it all through my teenage years. V/H/S is an anthology film written and directed by some of horror’s brightest talents. It’s a found footage movie, a subset of the horror genre which should have been put to death a long time ago, although the film makers do their best to put a disgustingly fresh twist on a played-out concept and manage – occasionally – to kind of succeed. Like most anthology movies, this one begins with a framing story. It’s a good start. We follow a gang of thugs as they film themselves terrorising a young couple in a parking garage, vandalising property, and then breaking into a house to steal a mysterious videotape. This segment, directed by Adam Wingard (‘A Horrible Way To Die’) is called ‘Tape 56’ and the videos the gang end up watching, as they hunt for the tape they’ve been sent to find, are the five found footage stories that make up the rest of the film. ‘Amateur Night’ (directed by David Bruckner) follows three guys – one of them wearing spy camera glasses – as they hit the town looking for girls to take back to their motel. Except one of the girls – an unsettling performance by Hannah Fierman – isn’t what they expected, and turns the tables on them in a gory and monstrous fashion. It’s not the most original idea (it reminded me of a brutal version of the movie ‘Cat People’) but it’s handled well and passes a stylishly bloody baton over to… …the Ti West directed ‘Second Honeymoon’ which centres around a young couple coming to the end of their Arizona vacation. As he urges her to make out for the video camera there’s an insistent knock on their motel room door. Told later, he says it was a creepy girl asking for a ride the next morning. That night, as they sleep, their room is broken into and the intruder uses their camera to begin filming as, switchblade in hand, he/she/it pulls back the covers and strokes the knife blade gently along the girlfriend’s unsuspecting body… Of all the segments, this is the one that disappointed me most. Not because it’s the worst – I think it’s pretty much third in line – but, after his terrific features ‘The Innkeepers’ and ‘The House of The Devil’, I expected a lot more from Ti West. His involvement is actually the reason I wanted to see V/H/S. But although he does a neat job of chilling us out when the intruder first appears, the twist at the end of the story doesn’t really pay off. As worst entries go, that one comes next. Glenn McQuaid’s ‘Tuesday the 17th’ follows four friends – two girls, two guys (with video camera) – as they head into the woods where, we quickly discover, one of them had a nasty experience years earlier when her friends were massacred by a vicious, semi-invisible assailant. Little do three of the friends realise, they’re part of a bigger plan that’s going to gorily backfire. How to start with this? Where the climax of Ti West’s story didn’t match the set-up, this entire segment is a hollow and way too-predictable rip of every ‘beautiful kids in the woods stalked by psycho’ movie you’ve ever seen. To be fair, there were a couple of notable touches – a camera that shows images in the viewfinder the camera operator can’t see, and a killer who seems to slide out of the texture of the videotape in a jerkily fast-motion ‘now you see me, now you’re dead’ fashion that made him / it something to be believably scared of – but a few interesting visuals can’t make up for a story that’s so slight and lazy. ‘The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily when She was Young’ was another missed opportunity. Like ‘Second Honeymoon’ it begins simply and well, with a young woman Skyping her boyfriend to tell him she thinks her house is haunted and forcing him to watch, incapable of doing anything to help her, as she investigates what might lurk in the darkness. And, in a brief flash, he sees what looks like a small child suddenly appear behind her. It’s a great idea that suggests we’re about to watch an innovatively creepy haunted house story, but then director Joe Swanberg either got bored or lost courage because the segment catastrophically changes gears and ultimately becomes generic, over complicated and, in the denouement, actually kind of stupid. A real missed opportunity, because there are moments early on that are truly unsettling. And it’s after this segment that the (almost) wrap-around ‘Tape 56’ story reaches its end. Do the thugs steal the mysterious videotape, or do they get sliced and diced instead? I’m not telling, although the answer’s pretty obvious. And, like three of the four stories that came before it, the climax of ‘Tape 56’ is a bit of a letdown too. But at least the film’s over. Not quite. Just as I was checking my watch, V/H/S saved its best until last. Radio Silence is a cadre of film makers comprising Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Justin Martinez and their closing segment – ‘10/31/98’ – charges the rapidly decomposing cadaver of ‘V/H/S’ with real imagination and electricity. Four guys dressed for a Halloween party arrive at a magnificently eerie house and find no-one else there. Searching the rooms, their video camera quickly picks up an almost peripheral shot of a girl they don’t see, and then the sound of preaching from the attic leads them to discover some kind of religious cult torturing (or exorcising?) a bound woman. At first the friends think this is some kind of Halloween performance laid on for their benefit but quickly realise they’re watching something they shouldn’t be witness to. And as they try to rescue the girl and escape the house, the walls and furniture come alive all around them… Okay, here’s the deal with ‘10/31/98’. It rocks! This was by far and away the best part of ‘V/H/S’ and the fact that I went from checking my watch to being immediately hooked as this story began, and that I wish this story could have been longer and I’d really like to see it expanded into feature length, is a tremendous testament to how cool ‘10/31/98’ is. Radio Silence created a segment that is in a whole different league to all the episodes that came before it and it was worth sitting through ‘V/H/S’ just to watch this. The truth is, anthology movies are rarely ever the sum of their parts and nearly always suffer from the law of diminishing returns. With a limited time to tell a vignette of a creepy story, they often come off like awkward morality tales with a sting that’s almost always a dropped clanger of a very weak punch line. With the exception of 1945’s remarkable ‘Dead of Night’, most anthologies start with some interesting ideas and then reach the screen looking like a bunch of desperately tagged together ‘Tales of The Incredibly Predicable’. Having said that, ‘V/H/S’ is a commendable attempt to do something new with the sub-genre and it’s far better, and certainly far more visceral, than most of the anthologies I’ve ever seen but, notwithstanding the hit-and-miss nature of the stories, it can’t overcome one massive problem: all the characters (except for the four guys in ‘10/31/98’) are deeply unlikeable and unsympathetic and make you want to take a bath as soon as you leave the theatre. Now, I know you don’t need to like a character in order to enjoy their story. I’m a big advocate of that philosophy. But that only works when you’re telling one story and the unlikeable character(s) follow an arc that holds our interest. In the case of V/H/S – before ‘10/31/98’ arrives – we spend ninety minutes and five stories (including the wraparound) watching wall-to-wall characters we don’t like and could care less about wander through scenarios that most horror fans have seen a million times before only to eventually get their comeuppance in gory ways that are less shocking than disgusting. All that relentless unpleasantness gets boring. It’s tiring to watch one segment after another that doesn’t feature anyone we want to root for. ‘V/H/S’ is very well made and extremely kinetic, and if you like all that wobbly camera POV stuff you’ll love this because it’s like the ‘Blair Witch’ cameraman just had a sugar rush. But, at a running time of pretty much exactly two hours, it’s a lot to wade through just to watch one nasty and admittedly unsettling little story (‘Amateur Night’) and one almost perfect haunted house story (‘10/31/98’ – did I mention how much I liked this one?) – at the end. I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch it. Actually, please watch it. All these film makers are talented people who will hopefully stay with this genre and do some incredible work in the future. But wait until it arrives on your format of choice and have your fast-forwarding finger psyched and ready for action.