Released: 5 October 2012
Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence
Budget: $15 million
Stars: Kentucker Audley, Calvin Reeder, Hannah Fierman, Drew Sawyer, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Norma C. Quinones, Bryce Burke, Helen Rogers, Daniel Kaufman, Tyler Gillett, and Nicole Erb
A gang of criminals is paid to ransack and old man’s (Frank Stack) house and finds a stack of VHS tapes, each one containing a gruesome horror story in the form of found footage. These depict a group of friends looking to make an amateur porn video and crossing paths with a demonic succubus, a couple on a road trip who encounter a strange girl, a group of friends lured into the woods to confront a supernatural entity, a university student who experiences paranormal activity in her flat, and four friends who run afoul of a cult performing an exorcism.
Since I grew up watching The Outer Limits (1995 to 2002) and am a big fan of movies like Creepshow (Romero, 1982) and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (Harrison, 1990), I have quite a soft spot for anthology films, especially those involving science-fiction and horror. V/H/S was the brainchild of Brad Miska, the creator of Bloody Disgusting, who reached out to the directors and creative minds he had met through his website about contributing to a horror anthology. Capitalising on the success of the found footage genre, the creators were given complete reign to submit whatever proposals they have for the project. V/H/S premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it was positively received, and even got a limited theatrical release. Generally, V/H/S received mixed reviews; while some praised the film’s consistently high quality, others took issue with the concept’s execution, though its $1.9 million gross was enough to finance two sequels, a spin-off, and an eventual reboot of sorts.
Like Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, V/H/S is an anthology film made up of a framing narrative and several short horror stories so it only makes sense to review each one individually before talking about the overall film, which means that this review will be structured a little differently from my usual ones.
“Tape 56” (Wingard) is probably the weakest of all the short stories included in V/H/S but there’s a reason for that; it’s merely the frame narrative that follows a gang of criminals as they record themselves doing stupid shit around the city while dressed like “gangsters”. They drive around at high speeds, accost a couple and forcibly pull a girl’s top up, smash windows and damage and deface property, try to make amateur sex tapes, and generally act like a bunch of complete douchebags. They get a bit more than they bargained for, however, when Gary (Bruckner) says they can get huge score but simply breaking into an old man’s house and stealing a VHS tape, only to find a dead body in the house and stacks upon stacks of the defunct media cassettes. While the others search the house looking for the objective, Brad (Adam Wingard) stays behind and watches the short films that make up the rest of the film; between each story, the film cuts back to Brad to see his reaction and, as the film progresses, Brad mysteriously disappears, leaving Rox (Audley) to take over the viewing. Although the thugs eventually decide to simply take all of the tapes, the old man’s corpse disappears from the background and the shit-kicking assholes are left to be are torn apart by the zombified homeowner.
“Amateur Night” (Bruckner) is easily the stand-out short of the film since it went on to inspire a spin-off movie; however, while I do consider it to be a great opening story for the movie, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was the best of them. Shane (Mike Donlan), Patrick (Joe Sykes), and Clint (Sawyer) are three friends who have rented a hotel room and plan to hit the nightclubs and brings girls back there to film a porno using special video glasses worn by Clint. While Clint is unsure about the deception, his two loudmouth frat-boy friends are insistent on going through with the plan and waste no time in hitting up Lisa (Jas Sams) and successfully convincing her to go back to their hotel room while Clint catches the attention of shy Lily (Fierman), a timid, mousy girl who approaches him and says that she “likes [him]”. The four head back to the hotel room, with the three fiends completely rat-assed; Lisa is so out of it that she passes out soon after they get back and, though she continues trying to awkwardly seduce Clint, Lily soon finds herself the target of Shane and Patrick. Hurt and disgusted that his friends would take advantage of a girl he was interested in, Clint locks himself in the bathroom so he doesn’t have to watch and record the threesome but his shock at Lily’s cat-like demeanour and her clawed feet soon turns to terror when Patrick bursts in with a huge chunk taken out of his hand and Lily suddenly sprouts fangs and rips Shane to shreds! When Patrick tires to fight her, she shrugs off the attack and pounces on him with superhuman ferocity, drinking his blood and ripping off his genitals! Terrified, Clint flees into the stairwell, where he trips and falls and breaks his wrist; the blood-soaked succubus, her face split down the middle, approaches Clint and is so distraught at his fear of her that she unleashes a diabolical roar and transforms into a demonic winged creature and carries him off into the night to an unknown fate.
“Second Honeymoon” (West) is probably the creepiest of all the short films if only because it seems like a plausible scenario that could happen in reality. Sam (Swanberg) and Stephanie (Takal) are a young married couple on a road trip to Arizona for their honeymoon; Stephanie is documenting the trip on her camera, which features such exciting stuff as getting “gas”, spotting bullet-riddled car husks, petting donkeys, and staying is dirty hotel rooms thanks to Sam not reserving better lodgings. When they visit a Wild West-themed resort, Stephanie is told by an animatronic that she’ll soon be reunited with a loved one, but Sam is disheartened when she later asks him not to record them doing sexual stuff in the hotel room. While trying to put him off, they are interrupted when a strange young girl (Kate Lyn Sheil) knocks on their door and asks them for a ride in the morning. Creeped out by the incident (and the girl, whom Sam found weirdly intimidating), Sam chooses to worry about it in the morning; while they’re sleeping, however, a masked stranger enters the room without them noticing, caresses Stephanie with a switchblade, steals $100 from Sam’s wallet, and washes his toothbrush in the toilet bowl in an incredibly unsettling scene. The next day, after brushing his teeth with the soiled toothbrush (!), the girl is nowhere to be seen and the couple get into an argument when Sam accuses Stephanie of taking the money; Sam insinuates that it’s not the first time she’s done something like that but, though this creates some tension, they are still able to enjoy themselves when they visit the Grand Canyon. Back at the hotel room, Sam suggests stopping off in Las Vegas the next day but, unfortunately for him, he never gets that far as he’s stabbed through the neck with the switchblade and chokes on his own blood when the stranger returns to the room that night. The short then ends with a shot of Stephanie making out with the stranger, revealed to be the young girl from the previous night, and then continuing on her journey with her lover.
In “Tuesday the 17th” (McQuaid), Wendy (Quinones) takes her new friends Joey Brenner (Drew Moerlein), Samantha (Jeannine Yoder), and Spider (Jason Yachanin) on her annual trip to a lake in a nearby secluded forest. Each of her friends are confused by Wendy’s traditional excursion out to the woodlands, and the fact that she has told each one a different story to get them up there. As they explore the woods, the camera sporadically glitches out and images of mutilated corpses are flashed onto the screen, which are made all the more disturbing by Wendy’s increasingly unsettling behaviour; she becomes stoic and morose, sullenly regards areas where the images appear, and promises Joey that they’re all going to die. As they relax with some weed by the lake, Wendy tells them that she experienced a series of gruesome murders there a few years ago and the culprit was never caught; though they laugh it off as a joke, Samantha is soon killed when a supernatural entity (Burke) that resembles a screen glitch kills her with a knife to the back of the head and then stabs Spider repeatedly in the forehead. After Joey turns down Wendy’s advances, she callously reveals that she lured them all there as bait for the entity, who slices Joey’s throat and relentlessly pursues Wendy through the woods. Determined to trap, kill, and identify the killer, Wendy lures it into a bear trap but the camera cannot register it as anything other than a glitched series of tracking errors; the entity escapes Wendy’s death traps, beats and eviscerates her, and as she lies quivering she too begins to glitch out.
“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” (Swanberg) mixes things up a bit by being framed entirely as a video chat between Emily (Rogers) and her boyfriend James (Kaufman), who is training to be a doctor. Initially, she’s mainly concerned about a strange bump on her arm but her troubles escalate after she moves into her new apartment and begins experiencing strange noises and disturbances. James is sceptical and believes that she was merely dreaming but, when she calls him in the dead of night, he sees a child-like entity rush in and slam the door shut. Although he dismisses this in the morning, Emily shares how she had a similar haunting experienced as a child that left her needing surgery and complains that the pain in her arm is worsening. The next night, James watches and guides as Emily tries to confront the entity, which appears as a small, neon green creature and the experiences only distress her more when she learns from her landlord that no children have ever lived in the building and no one has ever died in there either. James is distressed to find Emily digging at the lump on her arm with a meat fork similar to how she permanently scarred herself cutting into her leg as a child and promises to check it out in person as soon as possible. Ashamed and increasingly horrified, Emily agrees to stop and wash it off and then asks James to be her eyes while she tries to communicate with the ghosts, but when she’s knocked unconscious by the children he rushes into the room and slices open her torso to extract an alien embryo! Revealed to have been working with the aliens and harming Emily for years in order to incubate their alien/human hybrids, James promises to stand by Emily even after she’s been diagnosed as schizoaffective but is also shown to be having similar manipulative talks with another female incubator (Liz Harvey).
Finally, “10/31/98” (Radio Silence) follows friends Tyler (Gillett), Chad (Chad Villella), Matt (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin), and Paul (Paul Natonek) as they head to a Halloween party at a friend’s house while dressed in ridiculous costumes. Unbeknownst to them, they end up at the wrong house but simply believe that they’re the first ones to arrive; after sneaking inside, they soon experience paranormal events (such as flickering lights, ghostly reflections, and hands reaching out of the walls to grab them) but foolishly believe that it’s all part of the experience and that the party has been themed around a haunted house. When they head up into the attic in search of the party, though, they find a girl (Erb) suspended from the rafters and at the mercy of a group of men performing an exorcism by chanting “Cast him down”. The friends join in, believing that it’s all part of the fun, and anger the cult’s leader (John Walcutt) in the process; the interruption causes the cult members to be brutally manhandled by an unseen force and, though the friends initially flee, Tyler convinces them to go back to help the girl. After freeing the girl from her bonds, they are beset by all manner of terrifying phenomena as ghostly arms try to grab them, objects are tossed around at them, handprints appear on the walls, and the very house itself closes up in an attempt to trap them. While they manage to escape through the basement as the demonic poltergeists rampage through the house, their car suddenly stops across a set of train tracks and the girl teleports out into the road, walking away surrounded by crows as a train races towards the car and its trapped inhabitants.
If you’re not really a fan of found footage films then V/H/S probably isn’t going to be the movie for you; the entire film is shot using handheld, low quality cameras, meaning that there’s a lot of shaky camera movements, wild sweeping panning, film jumps and visual glitches, and scratchy, low quality sound permeating the whole movie. Additionally, this isn’t really a film where you learn a great deal about the characters; each short has a few minutes to show a snapshot of its characters lives and set up the scenario they’ve been placed in, so it’s not really an in-depth character study or with any goal other than to disturb and unsettle its audience.
In this regard, V/H/S/ largely succeeds; each of the shorts is distinct enough so that there’s something here for even the most hardened horror fans. From a bloodthirsty succubus to a glitchy phantasm and demonic poltergeists, there’s plenty of variety on offer in V/H/S and even if you don’t like one or more of the stories there’s probably going to be at least one that leaves you a little intrigued. Personally, I enjoy elements from all of the stories; I like seeing the asshole gang in the framing story get beheaded and picked off by the old man, the design of the succubus is downright disturbing and it’s easy to see how the concept was expanded upon into its own movie, and the glitch ghost is a terrifying concept that puts a unique spin on the cliché “haunted woods” setting. The idea of a wife conspiring against their husband is a palpable horror, as is that of aliens taking the form of disquieting child ghosts, and coercing a human into helping them breed disgusting hybrids is as disturbing as it is sickening for James’ wilful manipulation of the girls he influences. Similarly, while “10/31/98” is probably the most cliché of all the shorts, it’s a suitably tense and discomforting end to the film.
Indeed, one of the things I really enjoy about V/H/S is how spectacularly bleak it is; basically every character dies and each short ends with the suggestion that a greater evil, be it supernatural or extraterrestrial, exists to threaten humanity in some way. “Tape 56” has startling implications in that it suggests that all of these events happened in this fictional world and I enjoy how each short leaves a lot of questions and loose ends for audience interpretation; like, who was that girl and what was the deal with her relationship with Samantha? Where did the glitch ghost come from and how did Wendy escape from it? How long have those aliens been implanting their hybrids into unassuming young women? For me, it’s all very imaginative and leads to some fun speculation; additionally, the entire film is like a series of short, sharp nightmares that set up a simple premise with realistic characters and then goes out of its way to be as unsettling and disturbing as possible. In this regard, the shaky camera really helps escalate the tension and the horror, as does the low camera quality; everything feels as it would if we were experiencing it first-hand and not being able to properly make out things being seen or heard onscreen just makes things more chaotic and horrific.
V/H/S is quite the bold experiment; by roping in a bunch of amateur filmmakers can giving them free reign to craft short, sharp snippets of horror, Brad Miska delivered quite the macabre collection that would be a treat for any horror fan. Sure, found footage films and shaky cam filming is an overdone cliché in this day and age as it seemed like everyone was doing it at one point, and it can be a nauseating and confusing filmmaking method but, in certain situations, it’s appropriate, especially when it’s done well. For my money, V/H/S uses the technique to great effect; anthology films aren’t too common these days, potentially because it can be difficult crafting the individual stories and for audiences to properly connect with the ever-changing narratives, but I find them endlessly entertaining. The short horror stories on show here provide just enough to unsettle, terrify, and inspire personal interpretation and imagination regarding each scenario and the greater world on show, and I found even the film’s rougher edges to be all part of its charm so I definitely feel like V/H/S has been unfairly overlooked in the pantheon of independent horror.
Have you ever seen V/H/S? What did you think of it and which of the short stories was your favourite? How did you interpret the worlds presented in the short stories and which of them would you have liked to see expanded upon? Are you a fan of anthology narratives? If so, would you like to see more and which anthology show is your favourite? What horror films are you watching this month in preparation for Halloween? Whatever you think about V/H/S, feel free to leave a comment by signing up or visiting my social media and pop back next Monday for my review of the sequel!