Fuck you, Paranormal Activity.
Seriously, the phenomenal success of Oren Peli’s dismal micro-budget found footage movie in 2007 has opened the floodgates for a slew of creatively moribund shaky-cam horror flicks, each more abysmal than the last. Not to mention that movie’s own exasperating perpetuation (another sequel is on its way, obviously). And whilst Peli hardly invented a genre, his movie’s lucrative turnover can be held largely responsible for the glut of found footage horrors now smothering the marketplace. Saturation point isn’t coming; it’s here.
How to get out of this dead-end? Cannily, the makers of V/H/S may have found a way to push forward… by looking further back.
The portmanteau horror film was a staple back-in-the-day. A collection of short horror stories wrapped in a workable framing device = plenty of variety and bang for your buck. But by the mid 70’s however it had grown increasingly unpopular and ultimately fell by the wayside. V/H/S resurrects this device, calling upon a sextet of up-and-coming talents in the field and asking them to contribute a 20 minute piece each. All found footage, all out to scare. So the film presented here is in fact five short horror movies wrapped up in a sixth. An intriguing prospect, and one which I had high hopes for. I’ve written previously of how horror especially provokes riskier, edgier filmmaking. As a genre it’s more prone to experimentation than pretty much any other. Could this movie’s high-concept constraints trigger some new configurations?
The answer, it transpires, is uhhh kinda. A for effort, C for execution. But that’s not to say that there isn’t some very interesting work here.
As is often the trouble with portmanteau films, what you get is very much a mixed bag. Indeed the first 10 minutes of V/H/S in which the wraparound story is established is incredibly hard going. In an effort to instill a sense of rawness, a sense of the visceral, Adam Wingard’s set-up of a gang of criminals breaking into an old man’s house to find a mysterious videotape is about as nasty a succession of hard edits as I’ve ever seen. The grainy, blurry images and jagged cuts quickly bring on a sense of nausea and I feared if this perpetuated for two solid hours I simply wouldn’t be able to make it. Fortunately, the films within the film each take on different sensibilities, and, as the framing device is tempered by these smaller features, it too becomes effective. Still, without doubt Wingard’s work here is the grittiest.
Which brings us to the tapes-within-the-tape. Viewed by members of Wingard’s hooligans, we watch the five other stories; David Bruckner’s Amateur Night, Ti West’s Second Honeymoon, Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday The 17th, Joe Swanberg’s laboriously titled The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger and Radio Silence’s 10/31/98.
For me personally the first of these was the most effective. Amateur Night felt the most complete piece of the five, offering a beginning, middle and end, as well as an evenly paced ramp up as a seedy attempt to get a nervous guy laid spirals into a nightmare of vampiric mayhem, most of which takes place backed effectively by an eerily serene soundtrack of female fronted mumblecore (note to self, research track for download).
Next up, Ti West’s Second Honeymoon takes a different approach entirely, going for slow-build unease as a couple on vacation are filmed in their sleep by an intruder. It’s an unsettling idea, but one which is hampered by the time constraint, ending rather abruptly as West’s clock is forced down to zero.
Tuesday The 17th, McQuaid’s installment, proves to be a triumph of visual effects over plotting, as a group of American teens get carved up by a literal video-nasty in some generic woods somewhere. It’s a haphazard mix of Predator and, hey, Friday The 13th. And its the first installment in which a real sense is given that a great deal of helpful exposition has been bypassed in order to get to the grue.
The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger takes this problem and highlights it further as a been-there-done-that yawnfest of poltergeist-busting on a webcam takes a few sickening twists into self-harm and body horror, ultimately suggesting a far more involved plot than director Joe Swanberg has either the time or inclination to tell us.
Lastly, Radio Silence’s 10/31/98 offers a rollercoaster ride of cool effects in a haunted house which takes that mantle literally. It’s probably the most fitting closer, cramming enough rearranged furniture and spinning dishes into a few minutes as Poltergeist did into an hour and a half. If V/H/S has a crescendo, this is it.
So V/H/S is something of a compromise. Crammed with more ideas than most horror movies ever aspire to, it also succumbs to some of the genre’s least flattering habits. The men throughout are as deplorable and misogynistic as they are incredulously stupid. The impression given is that the US is solely populated by beer-swilling frat boys who like nothing more than smashing windows and degrading women. That most of them meet grizzly death in some form or another is actually a relief. A pretty lethal drinking game could be devised over how many times a group of people either divide up, go into a basement or combine the two blunders. Did nobody else see Cabin In The Woods last year?
Nevertheless, V/H/S gains considerable points for injecting a sense of adrenaline back into a tired format. It also lays down the gauntlet. A sequel, S-V/H/S is already in the can and doing the rounds at festivals as I write this. As crass and tempestuous as this film can be, I can only applaud the thought of further installments attempting to better it, especially with some of the names attached to the follow-up. It also feels refreshingly grubby. You could easily imagine finding this collection on an unmarked tape like a lost edition of You’ve Been Framed recorded in hell. And if nothing else, this first batch of stories offer something different at every turn. They might all owe a debt to staples of the genre, but each takes the knife and twists it a little, and that’s a little pain that’s most welcome indeed.