I don’t review a lot of horror on this site. In fact, I review so little that I think I used that exact same opening sentence in my last horror review. I don’t know, horror doesn’t generally appeal to me. I just don’t like being scared. I don’t like the feeling of terror, I don’t like jumping out of my seat. What’s interesting about V/H/S is that it made me understand why I dislike so many horror movies by carrying itself in a way that is diametrically opposed to mainstream horror. It refuses to rely on jump scares. It does more than terrify, it unsettles.
There were moments where I had to look away from the screen, not out of fear that something was going to pop up and surprise me, but out of fear of the thing that was on the screen itself. I think that a lot of horror movies have monsters which, at the end of the day, aren’t scary in the least. That’s why they rely so heavily on jump scares and the like. The creatures of V/H/S, though? They are all deeply disturbing to watch. Well, mostly. Let’s dive in.
Before we start, let me explain a little bit about how this movie works. It’s an anthology film, a genre that has sadly fallen out of fashion in recent years. Basically, it’s a collection of unrelated short films tied together by a framing narrative. In this case, it’s about a group of truly vile thieves who are tasked with stealing a VHS tape from an old man’s house. They don’t know which tape to take, so they decide to watch them all until they can figure it out. The short stories of V/H/S are the videos that they find on the tapes, each directed by a different person. It’s all found footage, by the way, in the vein of The Blair Witch Project, but unlike so many recent found footage projects, the camera doesn’t feel intrusive in any of the stories. Films like Paranormal Activity go out of their way to justify the camera’s presence. V/H/S never bothers, and the camera is actually integral to many of the stories. So, without further ado, here’s my take on each segment.
This is the framing device I mentioned earlier, concerning the thieves. We cut back to them in between the other stories, as things in the house get progressively more disconcerting. The opening scenes establish these characters as absolutely despicable human beings, presumably so that we are happy to see them destroyed by whatever monster is inevitably coming for them. However, since the story is so spread out, we’ve forgotten about them each time they come back, so the payoff isn’t really worth it. Of course, the nature of the story is such that the real scares come in the small changes to the scenario each time we cut back to it. “Hey, wasn’t that body in a different place last time?” All in all, it’s a weak link in the film, but it’s necessary to hold the whole thing together.
As soon as this one started, I thought I would end up hating it, because the concept is ridiculous. The whole thing is filmed through glasses with a hidden camera in them? You’ve got to be kidding me. And the film doesn’t let you forget about them either. Just when they’ve reached the back of your mind, the main character has to fiddle with them somehow. This one was a slow burn, too. I think the beginning was supposed to be creepy, but I was bored through most of the setup. It all just seemed too obvious where everything was going. I was wrong, of course, and the climax is a bloody treat. This film probably won’t get any Oscar attention, but the makeup on the monster of the story is superb. Amateur Night does a great job of setting up the stakes for V/H/S. Anything, absolutely anything, is fair game in this world. Expect the unexpected, and be prepared for some bizarre, off-the-wall craziness.
Unfortunately, that’s immediately thrown out the window by this next segment. It’s the only part of the film that has no supernatural overtones, which I think is a mistake. If every part of V/H/S is meant to reside in a different area of horror, Second Honeymoon deals with stalkers and murderers. In other words, it’s the most down-to-earth segment of the film, and that’s its downfall. When viewed as a whole, this segment sticks out like a sore thumb due to its lack of flashy visuals and memorable moments. On its own, I can see Second Honeymoon working very well, but when it’s sandwiched in between stories about winged succubi and demonic serial killers, the atmosphere has no impact. Nothing much happens in this story. We meet the characters, they walk around and chat, and occasionally a creepy girl (no spoilers here) shows up. It’s low-key to a fault, and it’s the story I’d cut if given the choice.
Tuesday the 17th
This one is pretty nuts. What makes it so special is the clever way that it uses the camera, not to just tell the story, but to bring the scares in a constantly surprising way. Is it the strangest segment? In a film like this, that’s not really a question that it’s possible to answer. It certainly has some of the strangest elements, like a villain who shows up covered by tracking glitches on the tape. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it certainly is effective. In fact, it’s so effective that it almost makes you forget the abysmal dialogue, which includes such gems as, “You’re all gonna fucking die out here,” and a discussion of how smoking weed gives you a form of high anxiety called “The Fear”. Yeah, it’s pretty stupid. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of thing that The Cabin in the Woods so successfully satirized earlier this year, and the admittedly original spin it puts on that formula isn’t quite enough to overcome that.
The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger
This segment is the one that stuck with me the longest, probably because of the way that it twists your expectations. You think it’s a ghost story. You’d be very, very wrong. In fact, I’m still not sure just what this story is supposed to be about, but that’s part of the fun (and the terror). What exactly are the mysterious things tormenting this poor young woman? That mystery is where the real horror resides. If it had ended up being just a ghost, this story probably wouldn’t have been too notable beyond how it’s presented (as a series of recorded Skype conversations). The…villains, I guess, of this segment are the scariest of any in the film, the most unsettling, to use that word again. They don’t have to jump into frame accompanied by a musical sting to be scary. They have to stay just off screen, entering without fanfare, as if they were simply part of the furniture. And that’s what makes them so scary, that moment when you realize that something is amiss without the film telegraphing it to you. It makes them much more personal as monsters, and it brings them closer to the audience.
This was my favorite segment by far. It was so unapologetically bonkers, not to mention laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a classic horror concept: a group of friends want to go to a “haunted house” party on Halloween, but accidentally stumble on a house that might actually be haunted. Certain things that happen in this segment are hilariously insane. One moment, which I won’t spoil, had me rolling on the floor. Of course, it’s all intentional. I was supposed to be laughing (I hope). It wasn’t derisive, it was out of genuine respect for the level of creativity and imagination on display. This segment was directed by a collection of directors who call themselves Radio Silence. I’m going to be keeping an eye out for their future projects, because this little section alone is well worth the price of admission for V/H/S. So, to sum up, V/H/S is far from perfect. A few stories overstay their welcome, and not all of them even work. But the good parts are so good that it’s worth seeking out. If you’re into this sort of thing, that is.
V/H/S is available on VOD (Video On Demand) services, as well as for rental on iTunes.