V/H/S (United States, 2012)

October 05, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
V/H/S Poster

V/H/S is a low-budget effort that applies the first person/"found footage" approach to a horror anthology. Or, to put it another way, it's two hours of nausea-inducing shaky cam footage that fails to tell a coherent or engrossing central story. It's hard to imagine any technique that has worn out its welcome more quickly or thoroughly than "found footage" (although maybe 3-D might give it a run for its money). One can trace its genesis back to the immortal Cannibal Holocaust, but it didn't receive popular recognition until the 1990s and The Blair Witch Project. Now, it feels stale and derivative - the last resort of filmmakers lacking in both budget and creative energy. In the case of V/H/S, both are sadly in evidence. There are admittedly some clever ideas floating around in this mess of a movie, but its haphazard Tales of the Crypt/Outer Limits-wannabe style emasculates their development. V/H/S comes across as a production that wants to be more than it is but, as they say, The Emperor has no clothes.

V/H/S tells six stories, all presented using the first-person approach, emphasizing the stupidity of characters in horror movies who would rather get the shot and die than drop the camera and run away. The more this happens in movies, the harder it is to suspend disbelief. There are times during V/H/S when the logic of shooting footage is impossible to comprehend. A couple of stories come up with plausible explanations (in one, a guy is wearing a camera disguised as glasses; another is set up as a web chat) but those that rely on the concept that someone is going to be dumb enough to keep recording after his best buddy gets eviscerated make it difficult for the viewer to vault over this bar of artificiality.

Technically, this is a period piece taking place in the late 1990s - a time when technology had advanced to the point where the Internet was commonplace but DVDs had not yet supplanted VHS as the medium of choice for home video. The film's bookend story involves three criminals who break into some old guy's house to steal a particular video tape. They find the guy dead and they can't figure out which tape they're looking for. So they start watching them (and record themselves while doing this, of course - because if you're robbing a house, you'd want to get it all on tape to provide the police with a clear record of your crime).

The first tape follows three guys who go to a club to pick up dates for the evening. They return to a hotel room with two girls in tow, but dreams of a five-some evaporate when one of the girls passes out and the other one turns out to be a succubus a taste for human blood. This segment is probably the cheesiest of the episodes offered by V/H/S, but it may be the most fun. There's plenty of gore and nudity.

Tape #2 (from Ti West, the talented filmmaker responsible for The Innkeepers) tells the story of Steve and Stephanie's second honeymoon in Arizona. Steve likes recording everything but Stephanie (much to our chagrin) draws the line at keeping the camera going when they get into bed at night. This segment features one genuinely creepy scene as a stranger enters their hotel room while they sleep, turns on the camera, and records them as he/she creeps around the room stealing money and dipping a toothbrush in the toilet bowl. Unfortunately, aside from this sequence, Steve and Stephanie's tale offers little in the way of scares or shocks.

In tape #3, a common horror trope is revisited: a group of four making their way to an isolated cabin in the woods. They never get there, though. Turns out there's a supernatural killer on the loose who can only be seen as a patch of interference in the viewfinder of a camera. One by one, the campers are killed until it's just the plucky girl against the invisible killer. Once you get to this point, it's hard to figure out how the ending could possibly be interesting.

Tape #4 is the most intriguing story, in part because it's the most fully realized one. The Outer Limits flavor is more palpable here than in any other, except perhaps #1. It's about a girl chatting with her boyfriend via webcam. After the obligatory breast flash, she confesses that she has been hearing things going bump in the night and believes her apartment to be haunted. Later, she connects with her boyfriend in the middle of the night and takes her laptop on a tour of the premises, where she catches a glimpse of what might - or might not - be a ghost. The story evolves from there, and there are a couple of surprises.

Finally, Tape #5 has a group of four guys on the lookout for a Halloween party stumble into an apparently haunted house. At first, they think it's all an elaborate practical joke until things get too real for anyone to fake. They "rescue" a girl from some kind of ritual, but whether she is being sacrificed or exorcised is initially unclear.

As if almost always true of "found footage" movies, the narrative takes a back seat to the filmmakers' attempts to deliver visceral shocks and scares through carefully choreographed "boo!" moments. Unfortunately, V/H/S is less consistently creepy than the average "found footage" movie and, while it's not afraid to deliver blood and gore, the scares are few and far between. The involved directors are among the hottest horror filmmakers on the indie scene, but this is not a good showcase of their abilities.

The shortness of the episodes disallows any meaningful character development or narrative progression. There's also a distinct lack of tension and suspense. This is as much a problem with the time limits placed upon the directors as the requirement that the segments be shot in first person. The lack of an interesting strand to tie all the tapes together is another problem; the bookending material is weak. As a result, the finished product feels less like a collaboration and more like a series of shorts with no connection that have been cobbled together in order to achieve an "acceptable" running length. V/H/S is a significant disappointment.

V/H/S (United States, 2012)