I don’t know if V/H/S is a serious movie, an excuse for directors Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg, Ti West and some buddies to work through short film ideas, a larger commentary on the found footage genre or some alternative suggestion I haven’t considered. There’s evidence for all of those possibilities, but in many ways, it couldn’t possibly matter any less. V/H/S is an unnerving, terrifying and creepy found footage movie featuring characters literally watching other people’s found footage, and the more important part isn’t that the film can be talked about using terms like “meta” and “referential”, it’s that the film is profoundly disturbing. It invades privacies, manipulates the audience and even demands sympathy for terrible people. It’s vicious, and it’s damn good.
From thieves to assholes to borderline rapists, V/H/S gives the audience at least a half dozen absolutely reprehensible characters, and in several instances, it actually puts the camera in the hands of these scumbags. Through their own lens, we watch them violate women, steal shit, get fratty and in a few cases, encounter an evil far greater than their own. For most films, this rampant skuzziness would be a bad thing, but here, it comes off as the actualization of a real vision. It feels weirdly honest.
There is a certain way people speak when they’re on camera. Knowing the footage will be watched back later, they try to make a few more jokes and maintain excitement throughout, at least until life gets in the way. When something major happens, this realization of being on camera erodes into a more honest reaction to the moment. V/H/S really has this down. The way the characters speak to each other and make side comments for the purpose of posterity is perfect, which is important because the film is basically that concept played on loop.
It opens with a group of friends filming themselves acting like reckless hooligans. They destroy windows, lift up women’s tops and generally behave like high school dropout douche bags. At some point, one of the buddies says he heard about a job. Someone is willing to pay for a break-in to recover a VHS tape. They’ll know the right one when they see it. Unfortunately, a few felonies later, they haven’t the slightest idea what the right one is; so, some of them keep searching and some of them sit down and start watching.
The five films viewed within this larger story arc are all about very different things. From a married couple vacationing in Arizona to four dudes trying to find a Halloween party, they have very little in common with each other on the surface, but when viewed together, they actually feel like they belong in the same movie. They feel oddly cohesive, which is why the basic concept of V/H/S works so well. Through smart direction, realistic acting and camerawork that’s steady enough to keep viewers aware of what’s happening yet shaky enough to feel amateurish, the stories all bind together and flow, offering a steady stream of momentum and freshness, while still allowing for different stabs at scariness.
Given its unusually long runtime for a horror film (115 minutes), V/H/S probably should feel a bit extended, but it doesn’t because each entry is a fresh chance to be frightened by someone with an alternative perspective on what works in the horror genre. From kids to adults, from sexual violence to religious hauntings, the mini-films are each a different perspective on the genre they all celebrate, and together, they’re one of the best horror films we’ve been offered this year.
V/H/S might be a middle finger toward lazy efforts over the past few years in the found footage genre. It might just be a labor of horror flick love from a larger group of directors. Either way, it’s damn good, and that’s what most of us are more concerned with anyway.