The anthology is an important and rightly admired corner of the horror genre. It allows filmmakers to explore a variety of scary stories in a fast-paced and punchy short form that at its best offers more bang for your buck with a string of creepy things that's scares linger long after the credits roll. At its worst, it's a cluttered collection of schlock, bad acting and flat frights. Unfortunately, I found V/H/S--and its grouping of found footage shorts helmed by different directors--falls into the latter.
As a horror fan who harbors a deep respect for both the anthology and found footage subgenres, I was thrilled to finally see V/H/S. When handled properly, both of these horror arenas can offer something distinctly terrifying. However, I found V/H/S to be a muddled mess of thinly drawn characters, nonsensical narratives, and disturbing misogyny.
There are six stories in total, the first being a framing device where a batch of interchangeable lowlifes aims to rob a decrepit house of a mysterious VHS tape. Our introduction to them is their self-recorded crime spree that kicks off with the gang sexually assaulting a woman, seizing her and exposing her bare breasts to the camera as she screams in terror. These men are too vile to relate to, so I had no emotional stake in their story. While the protagonists found in the tapes they watch are lesser degrees of evil—ranging from deceitful lovers to perverse frat boys and would-be rapists—they are still barely developed, so one story after another lacks resonance.
The threadbare writing is largely to blame, but the actors, who are by and large awful with no charisma and dead line readings, don't help. The whole thing feels amateurish, like a film student's attempt at terror. The arcs themselves feel half-formed and are frequently confusing between the shoddy camera work, hiding necessary information, and the narratives presenting setups with no payoffs, or worse yet payoffs that have no setup whatsoever. In short, I was perplexed throughout. WTF moments can be a fun element of horror, but only when they are supported by the storytelling. That is not the case in V/H/S.
Likewise, characters are constantly making choices that are simply convenient for the plot. Chief among these is the common found footage pitfall of a character recording what is essentially coverage for the movie, but from their perspective would be a meaningless moment, like a crook recording himself putting a tape in a VCR then focusing the camera on himself watching it. While two sequences integrate the camera into a character's costume, overcoming this obstacle by making it an easily incorporated part of the narrative, the others contain dissonant moments of "why would you film this?"
Let's move on to the misogyny. First off, while nudity--especially female nudity--and violence against women are standard horror tropes, they are not inherently misogynistic. However, the way both are utilized in V/H/S is insidious. In just the first 40 minutes of the film, its male protagonists ogle, pressure and prod women for sex, commit sexual assault, attempt to covertly record a sex tape twice, and nearly commit rape on a passed-out young woman. But not all women are sex objects or victims of these men's desires. Some are also monsters and murderers, and in one case a literal castrating man-eater. While I believe we are meant to find these men vile, we're still invited to identify them by ogling these women alongside them. This is certainly disturbing, but not in a satisfying horror movie way.
In the end, I found V/H/S to be a major letdown. The sloppy use of the found footage device is unjustified in about half of the shorts, and brings little advantage to the rest, often obscuring characters or action that could make the story more engaging. There's little to cling to as far as the characters go, making for a thoroughly dull viewing experience. While there are some bright spots where actual tension is developed—like a creepy late night video shot by an intruder—the endings generally leave viewers with more questions that feelings of terror. Plus, as this is a Blu-ray review, I feel it's my responsibility to mention that the attempt to achieve the aesthetic of VHS tapes, which is to say, glitchy and low resolution, seems a waste of Blu-ray's high-def format. Ultimately, made up of jumbled stories that would be too weak to stand on their own, V/H/S feels like a film experiment that fails to come together.
Obviously, I did not care for this movie. But if I did, I'd be thrilled for all the insight into its creation these special features provide. Each filmmaker offers their own version of special features for their segment. The helming team Radio Silence presents an alternative ending for "10/31/1998." Glenn McQuaid's contribution is "More Tuesday the 17th," which gives a little background into the mysterious Wendy along with a couple of behind-the-scenes shots and a smattering of scenes deemed too lame for the movie, and rightly so. Director Joe Swanberg interviews his "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" writer Simon Barrett and star Helen Rodgers.
With "Amateur Night – Balloon Night," David Bruckner gives some insight in how the climactic final shot of "Amateur Night" was achieved, where cameras are rigged to specially equipped balloons. He also delivers a concept design gallery that reveals the monster sketches and prosthetic planning for his man-eater. And a behind-the-scenes photo gallery gives a look into the production of "Tape 56," "Second Honeymoon," "Amateur Night" and "Tuesday the 17th".
"AXS TV: A Look at V/H/S" explains the "creative mission" of the movie with interviews with the crew and clips from the feature. There's also a string of interviews, grouped thusly: V/H/S producers Brad Miska & Zak Zeman, "Tape 56" writer Simon Barrett & director Adam Wingard, "Second Honeymoon" writer-director Ti West, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett of Radio Silence, "Amateur Night" writer-director David Bruckner & "Tuesday the 17th" writer-director Glenn McQuaid, and more from "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" writer Simon Barrett & director Joe Swanberg.
Next on the disc is a commentary track that features a whopping ten people from the movie, including Simon Barrett, Joe Swanberg, Helen Rodgers, Adam Wingard, Brad Miska, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, David Bruckner, Chad Villella, and Tyler Gillett. Basically, the disc is packed with just about every extra a fan of this feature could want, which might be enough to make up for the purposefully crunchy quality of the movie's look.