California Literary Review

Halloween Home Video #3: V/H/S

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October 12th, 2012 at 9:00 am

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Halloween Home Video (2012 edition) is your guide to the hidden delights of this year’s horror movie market. In a series of quick-and-dirty reviews, we hope to introduce you to your perfect home video screamfest.

Promotional picture for horror anthology V/H/S

© 2012 Bloody Disgusting


For The Boozy Bash In Your Dorm’s Basement

V/H/S is the anthology you should have seen coming but probably did not. A team of hip, twisted young directors offer up a medley of shorts celebrating that troublesome new superfad, the “found footage” horror film. This is the shaky-camera, forced perspective, “faked to look real” style made popular by movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, which amateur directors are working to death in the low-budget horror market.

When Blair Witch hit the scene, the novelty of the idea (and very clever marketing) convinced some people that maybe what we were seeing could have happened. This ambiguity did not last long, and once gone the feeling was impossible to recapture. By the time Paranormal Activity ushered in a new found footage trend, audiences were in on the hoax but still eager to see what frightening tricks directors like Oren Peli could conjure. People are still paying good money to see these movies. And although there have been attempts to push the genre further, as in The Last Exorcism or the ambitious sci-fi tale Chronicle, the limitations of the genre make it hard for any but the most creative directors to serve up something new. Fortunately, the parties responsible for V/H/S approached their task with plenty of imagination. In record time, we have been sufficiently inundated with found footage style that subversion to the point of parody seems appropriate. V/H/S, in all its raw savage chaos, exemplifies both the best and the worst traits of found footage.

The shorts are woven together with a narrative about some ne’er-do-well pranksters sent to commit a bizarre burglary centered around a mysterious videotape. Searching stacks of tapes scattered around an eerily quiet house, they discover tale after tale of ghastly misadventures. Please note that despite the central conceit of a neglected tape stash, little if any of this movie originated in actual VHS form. The only reason malevolent forces might have dubbed these videos to the antiquated format is because it’s cooler and scarier than digital video. Like in The Ring. From a practical standpoint, it looks doubtful that any of these films has a perspective that could reasonably have been captured with a VHS camera. For those of you too young to have used one of those, it was some hefty chore. In order to focus on the best parts of V/H/S, first put from your mind any notion of real VHS tapes. It may be a half-baked style choice, but they made it and stuck to it. Just let it go.

According to the tradition of anthologies, from Black Sabbath to Creepshow to Trick ‘r Treat, not all the shorts in V/H/S are created equal. The most notable name in this mix is Ti West, director of the superb House Of The Devil (just to name his best). While West’s segment “Second Honeymoon” is not the most interesting or innovative in this collection, it demonstrates his proven knack for mining dread from quiet, mundane moments. Like a goodly portion of West’s work, it takes just a little too much of its own sweet time.

There are, in each segment, moments of true inspiration to balance the uneven pace and the over-reliance on “video interference” as a narrative gimmick. Despite the overall laxity of the storytelling, V/H/S repeatedly goes for the gut and pummels the nerve endings raw. Be warned: this is one violent, naked, gruesome movie. From the raunchy frat fable “Amateur Night” to the momentous events of “10/31/98,” via “Tuesday the 17th” and, yes, “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger,” be prepared for some uncomfortable brushes with the lower orders of humanity. The hideous, the harmful, and the downright monstrous are on constant parade in V/H/S. Don’t split hairs; just have fun with it. The Exorcist and The Innocents and Kwaidan will still be there when you’re finished with V/H/S. Open your mind to a reasonable level of vulnerability, don’t think too hard about it, and against your better judgment you will probably enjoy yourself a whole hell of a lot.

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