Why mixing sub-genres is never a good idea.
The H-Bomb: A gang of annoying douche bags, who typically earn money by selling videos of themselves sharking women, are hired to break into a house and steal a videotape. They’re not told exactly what the tape is, just that they’ll know it when they see it. So they break into the place, and find an old man dead in the living room, surrounded by stacks of VHS tapes. Since they have no clue which one of these is the one they were hired to take, they make themselves comfortable next to the dead guy and start watching them one by one.
The first tape (“Amateur Night”) shows footage shot with spy glasses of three college guys on Spring Break who go out to a bar with the intention of bringing a girl back to their hotel room, where they plan on having sex with her while the guy with the spy glasses secretly records it all. The guy with the glasses is approached by a cute young lady at the bar, who keeps telling him, “I like you” over and over again. She ends up going back to the room with them, and while they think she’s a little weird, they have no idea how weird until, naturally, it’s too late.
The second tape (“Second Honeymoon”) is a seemingly innocent vacation video of a young married couple taking a road trip through the American Southwest. It’s all perfectly normal and uneventful, until the first night in their motel room, when a young woman knocks on their door asking for a ride the next morning. They find the situation a little odd, but don’t really think anything of it. Later that night, after the couple has gone to bed, someone sneaks into their room, and videotapes them while they sleep. No good can come of this…
The third tape (“Tuesday the 17th”) involves a young woman taking three friends out to a remote lake in the woods where she vacations annually. The friends think they’re going out there to swim, drink, smoke weed, and screw (ya know, things that young people never do in horror movies), but the young woman actually has a darker ulterior motive: to use her friends as bait to lure out a serial killer, who attacked her there years before. Here’s the odd catch, the serial killer is invisible to the naked eye, he can only be seen on video camera.
The fourth tape (“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”) is made up entirely of Skype conversations between college student Emily, and her boyfriend James, who is away at medical school. They start out with typical long distance relationship conversations, but then things start to happen to Emily. First, she wakes up one day to find an unexplained lump under her arm, almost as if something has been implanted under her skin. Then, late at night, she starts to see what she believes is the ghost of a young child in her apartment.
The fifth tape (“10/31/98″) involves four friends who are going to a party on Halloween Night, 1998. They arrive at the house of the party and, strangely, don’t find anyone inside, that is, until they go up into the attic. What they find up there are people who are not exactly celebrating Halloween in the normal sense…
In fact, there is not a lot of normal anything to be found in the whole of V/H/S. Usually, if I say that about a movie, I’d be paying it a compliment, but in this case, I’m not. I suppose ATM should have taught me to avoid horror movies with initials for a title, but I heard so much buzz around V/H/S, that my curiosity was piqued. Unfortunately, a movie’s hype and my own tastes don’t always align, and in this case, I just wasn’t feeling it.
For me, V/H/S’s biggest liabilities are its structure and premise. It combines two sub-genres of horror, the anthology film and the found footage film. Both have their strengths; anthology films tend to offer variety in the stories. Found footage, if done well, can come off as being “real,” thereby making them more effective. Both, however, also have their weaknesses; anthologies, particularly when more than one director is involved (as is the case here), can be very uneven, and found footage can come off as sloppy and amateurish. In the case of V/H/S, it inherited more of the bad than it did the good.
Personally, I thought V/H/S was at its worst during the first half hour, covering the opening of the wrap-around story, as well as “Amateur Night.” It did improve a bit after that, but Holy fucking Hell the first thirty minutes of this thing were torturous! I mean pulling my fingernails out by the roots, sticking needles in my my ballsack kind of torturous! It got to where I was on the verge of saying “Fuck this” and turning it off. The handheld camera work was at its absolute worst, so relentlessly shaky and ugly to look at that it was making me nauseous. But even worse than that were the characters; completely unlikable, chauvinistic dickheads who were loud, creepy (not in a good way), and just beyond obnoxious. Seriously, you have to see it to even begin to grasp how grating these assholes really were.
After that, the movie did improve once it got to “Second Honeymoon” (directed by the only filmmaker involved with V/H/S that I’m familiar with, Ti West), but not enough to make me forget about that utterly wretched first half hour. Even though things got better, there was something else about most of the stories that I found very irksome: most of them ended very abruptly, and ended in ways that gave no real resolution to what was happening and that were just downright baffling. For obvious reasons, I can’t go into specifics, all I can say is that the ending of pretty much every story made me go, “Huh? What? Wait… what?!” I don’t mind horror movies that are ambiguous, but in this case, it came off as laziness masquerading as ambiguity.
Other ways in which V/H/S came off as lazy were that the stories failed to connect to each other in any kind of compelling way, and the wrap-around story, like the individual vignettes, ended in a very abrupt and unsatisfying manner. The fact that the wrap-story ends before the final story starts really calls out how structurally unsound the film is.
Now, V/H/S, even though I obviously didn’t care for it as a whole, is not without its virtues. Every single vignette, even the worst ones, have moments of inspiration that are genuinely creepy. The girl from “Amateur Night” was effectively weird and scary, and there’s a shot where she’s standing in total darkness that was truly unnerving. There’s a point in the wrap-around story, where we notice that there’s something missing from a chair in the background that shouldn’t be missing. Again, well done. “Second Honeymoon” and “The Sick Things That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” I thought were actually quite good up until their sudden, confounding non-endings, and “10/31/98″ I liked overall.
So, even though V/H/S does have its positives, they are far outnumbered, and ultimately just completely buried by, the movie’s negatives. The worst aspect of all would have to be the length. I know I’ve been coming down on films a lot recently for being over-long, but in the case of V/H/S, I would be in dereliction of duty if I let it pass without comment. The movie is a solid two hours long. The average found footage flick is typically around 80 to 90 minutes long, and even that is pushing it. So two hours of watching such shoddy camera work is most definitely too Goddamn long!
And the length is the final nail in the coffin of this sub-genre mash-up. Despite a handful of inspired moments, I really did not like V/H/S, nor do I recommend it to anyone, even genre fans. If you do have an affinity for anthology horror films like Tales from the Darkside or Creepshow, or if you enjoy found footage, then I say maybe give it a rent, as you might glean some kind of enjoyment out of it. Otherwise, don’t bother.