Tied together with a wraparound story featuring a group of camcorder guerillas who go in search of a videotape that’s hidden somewhere in a (mostly) abandoned house, V/H/S plays like a collection of home movies from some of the weirdest, most unlikeable and eventually scariest people you’ll ever meet. In one segment, a group of poon hound partyboys recruit their dorky friend to hook up with girls and film the act with a hidden camera; in another, four guys are invited to a Halloween party, only to discover that it’s one they should have never rsvp’ed for; and in a third, a quartet of boys and girls drives up into the woods to hang out at the lakeside site of a series of grisly, unexplained murders. Meanwhile, a couple’s road trip turns dangerous after they’re approached for a ride by a mysterious young woman, and a girl enlists her traveling boyfriend via facetime to help document some unexplained activity in her apartment.
What’s most interesting about the segments on an individual level is that they all essentially operate within the parameters of one horror subgenre or another, but they also bring unique twists to them. Not all of them are successful, mind you, but they’re unique: in the wraparound story, for example, the idea of video jackasses encountering a subject that’s none to happy to be pranked is a promising one, but the payoff to that segment makes little conceptual sense, except insofar as dead people who seem alive and people who appear out of nowhere are sort of fundamentally effective tropes, and prior to that, they were looking for and at videotapes. And in the story of the group who goes into the woods, their stalker mostly dispatches his victims in traditional ways, but the fact that he only seems visible through the lens of a camera adds a neat little variation to typical stalking-killer ubiquitousness. Simultaneously, the idea of using only laptop cameras – or even real-deal VHS camcorders – lends the material a technical authenticity, and a sort of visceral immediacy, that enhances the inevitable scares.
Other than the material’s collective technical bona fides, however, the unifying theme among most of the vignettes is the idea of delivering a comeuppance to moronic, sex-crazed alpha males; even though the filmmakers have insisted that they didn’t speak or collaborate with one another, it’s almost as if they were all exorcising decades of being geeks by vicariously taking revenge on their cooler, stupider tormentors. While I didn’t need to see quite as much of that behavior on display before the characters doing it get their just desserts, the filmmakers bolster their case against “the cool kids” by showing them in the worst possible light. Unfortunately, they frequently do that by having them make terrible, and worse, implausible decisions, which occasionally takes the audience out of the moment as they contemplate what they would have done in that particular situation.
Although I’m no automatic critic of found-footage filmmaking, I do insist that the technique be used for a good reason (i.e., people have a good justification for keeping the camera on when shit gets real), and that the camerawork accurately reflect what people not just would look at, but are in fact experiencing in each moment. And thankfully, in most cases these shorts pall pass those two tests with flying colors; there are two pieces in which the characters literally wear the camera, giving them a real first-person immediacy, and the rest are mostly constructed around characters filming some believable set of circumstances. That said, however, a couple of the filmmakers seem to forget that the panoramic sweep of our vision isn’t impaired just because there’s a camera aiming in the same direction as our eyes, and in the spy-cam sex tape short in particular, directed by Bruckner, there are many shots of the ground or arbitrary glances away from the action that are used to enhance suspense but are implausible since it’s unlikely the character either would look a certain way, or wouldn’t still catch some of the action in his periphery.
Mind you, these are nits I’m picking, and they mostly stand out because of how deliberate is the conceit of the film (encapsulated in its title), and the multiplicity of voices behind the camera. But ultimately, almost all of the filmmakers knocked their segments out of the park, creating interesting, original takes on familiar setups, and keeping the audience guessing (if not covering their eyes in dread) until the very end of their story. Overall, V/H/S is a truly terrific anthology – one that seems destined to rank among the best in horror movie history – but if there’s a reason to see it other than being really good, check it out so you can say you knew these filmmakers when they were first starting. Because if they can do this much with just a little bit of screen time, they’ll do even better with more of it – and not just in one or two feature-length projects, but for years to come in their careers.