Ah, the heady days of 1995.
Ah, the heady
days of 1995. The Diary Of Bridget
Jones was first published in The Independent. Robbie quit Take That.
Sarajevo was under siege. And, importantly for us, the death knell of the VHS videotape was sounded as the DVD was launched. It also marked the birth of Dogme 95,
the Danish avant-garde movement which attempted to ‘purify’ filmmaking by
dragging it back to its basics.
With its grungey visuals and lack of overt special effects or background
music, retro horror anthology V/H/S
could almost be seen as a Dogme horror movie as it brings together some of the
hottest young directors on the horror scene (Ti West, Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg) and turns them loose, allowing
each to bring their own distinctive vision to the found-footage movie giving us
vampires, stalkers, demonic psychos, aliens, madmen and a good old-fashioned
A bunch of Jackass-style
douche bags-cum-petty crooks make videos of themselves vandalising houses and
sexually assaulting young women, selling the tapes online. Eager to make some money, they accept a
job from a mysterious 3rd party; to burgle a house and steal a very
special VHS tape.
Breaking into the house they find its sole occupant slumped,
dead, in front of a bank of televisions, surrounded by stacks of VHS
cassettes. One by one, the gang
start to watch the films, searching for the tape their client is after, exposing
themselves in turn to the horrifying contents, each short vignette, stranger
and more disturbing than the last.
Building on the now overly familiar found-footage conceit, V/H/S is an almost avant-garde
experiment in horror that blends sleazy exploitation shocker with a sly
critique of ‘reality’ footage, gonzo film, misogyny and the male gaze. Essentially a bunch of shorts related
to each other only by their form (POV found-footage) and linked by the framing
story mentioned above, V/H/S is messy, overlong, self-indulgent and pretty hit
and miss. Thankfully however,
there’s more hit than miss.
While the framing story itself is probably the weakest and
least likable segment of the film, the first short proper, David Bruckner’s Amateur
Night, has real bite as a bunch of wannabee porn star frat boys get more
than they bargained for when a night on the pull turns nasty. The phrase: “I like you,” will never be
the same again and the striking Hannah
Fierman will terrify you as the story’s beguiling, sympathetic
monster. Ti West’s creepy, atmospheric Second
Honeymoon recycles every clichéd, hoary old road trip/stalker tale you’ve
ever heard yet still lulls you before its final shock as a young couple are
menaced by a mysterious hitch-hiker.
Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday The 17th is a fairly
unlikeable homage to movies like Friday
The 13th as a bunch of pretty, young college kids are
slaughtered in the woods by an indestructible, demonic madman while giving us a
glimpse inside the tortured mind of the Final Girl. Far and away the best of the bunch however is Joe Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger which
sees the fantastic Helen Rogers (who
also starred in and co-wrote the excellent short film Block which is well worth seeking out online) as a young woman
menaced by the nocturnal visitations of otherworldly phantom children. Along with Second Honeymoon, The Sick Thing… works because, unlike most of the
other episodes, it takes the time to build believable characters you can
actually care about before getting to the scares and its also the film that
plays most inventively with the form, unfolding in a series of late-night Skype
conversations. The last and most
visually creative vignette is online collective Radio Silence’s 10/31/98, an effects-packed haunted house tale that
sees a group of best buds turn up at the wrong address for a Halloween party.
The acting may be pretty ropey at times and the writing may
not be particularly strong in some cases but V/H/S does what it sets out to do; it provides old-school scares
and has ideas to burn even if they’re not always fully realised while the best
of the shorts (The Sick Thing… and Second Honeymoon) critique and
satirise the inherent gender hostility and fear of women that exists in most
horror films as the mostly loathsome, indistinguishable cast of male doofus’
get their comeuppances. At 116
minutes V/H/S feels a little
bloated, and shorn of maybe two of its stories (particularly that framing
story) it’d be a far nimbler beast, but it’s a smart, funny, ambitious little
experiment in terror that works sometimes despite itself.