In my experience, it seems like many film critics are a little baffled by the found footage horror genre. I can relate, but the appeal is still obvious, since cameras are omnipresent these days (in fact, the odds are very high that you’re reading this article on a device with built-in camera right now), and the home video aesthetic has become so common thanks to YouTube that we now freely associate it with “reality.” Using a storytelling style that feels realistic to convey supernatural horror, in particular, seems like a match made in heaven, or more accurately hell I suppose, since the juxtaposition makes the existence of ghosts, witches and demons seem all the more plausible.
What seems to trip film critics up, however, is the incredible level of artifice necessary to make a found footage horror movie seem work. Cameras have to be on for most of the story, at all the important dramatic, thematic and expositional moments at the very least, and the odds of recording all of those events in such a way that they can be edited into a feature-length film are very, very slim in the supposedly “real” world. Take a look at how many found footage films feel the need to include a scene in which the cameraperson explains why they need to keep filming, even while their life is in danger, or when the situation is so emotional that recording it in the first place makes them seem callous or unsympathetic.
The “reality” of found footage horror seems diminished with every passing film in the genre. The novelty is supposedly the selling point, but now that the genre has become familiar, with its own storytelling tropes and recurring frailties, that novelty is diminishing. They’re just movies now, movies that just happen to be shot in a particular fashion. Nowhere does this genre fatigue seem more evident than in V/H/S, a movie that calls even more attention to the artificiality of the genre by jamming multiple found footage horror movies into a single anthology film. If you weren’t tired of found footage horror movies already, V/H/S could very easily change that.
The premise of V/H/S is that a group of antisocial jerkbags who videotape their shenanigans and sell them on the internet – acts of vandalism and sexual assault, to be specific – are hired by an unseen party to steal a VHS tape from the house of an old man. When they get there, the old man is already dead, and they have to watch all the various tapes that he owned to figure out which one they need. Each tape contains a self-contained found footage horror film, films which, in reality, were directed by David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and a filmmaking team calling themselves “Radio Silence.” The framing device comes courtesy of director Adam Wingard. A lonely old corpse whose only defining characteristic was a fetish for found footage horror. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but I think I’m too lazy to find it, especially with a deadline looming.
Like most anthology films, the results are varied, with Joe Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger and Radio Silence’s 10/31/98 representing the best installments (and also the last two shorts in the film, ending V/H/S on a positive note), and Glen McQuaid’s Tuesday the 17th and Ti West’s Second Honeymoon bringing up the rear in terms of quality. Second Honeymoon winds up being the film’s biggest disappointment, since West’s last two feature films, House of the Devil and The Innkeepers were, respectively, a modern horror classic and a solid, thoughtful supernatural drama.
The first short, David Bruckner’s Amateur Night, is a decent morality play about a group of young men who plan to secretly film a drunken fling. The short film ends memorably but the events are infinitely more unsettling before the predictable twist ending. Amateur Night is followed by Second Honeymoon, a lackadaisical horror story about a couple on the road who are possibly being stalked. The couple in question isn’t particularly interesting, either in their happiness or their subtle discord, and the ending is both abrupt and dissatisfying, although it does feature some effectively creepy practical effects.
The third short, Tuesday the 17th, feels like it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek but instead just feels arch and unbelievable, particularly in context with the rest of V/H/S’s offerings. The story centers around a group of kids camping out on the same place where grisly murders occurred years before. The film’s twist is actually very clever, and could have been adapted into a pretty engaging feature film, but the overall effect is rushed and cloying. Friday the 17th does deserve credit for taking advantage of the VHS aesthetic, using familiar recording issues (to those of us who actually remember VHS in the first place) for supernatural effect.
In contrast, The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger isn’t even on VHS at all. Joe Swanberg’s film takes place entirely on Skype, where a young college girl tries to convince her long-distance boyfriend that her apartment is haunted. The Sick Thing is more than a clever gimmick, it’s also a disturbing film on many levels, and actually managed to frighten me in the theater (a rare feat). I won’t elaborate any further, since I encourage you to discover it for yourself.
Radio Silence’s 10/31/98 doesn’t elicit the same dread as the film that precedes it, but it’s a different kind of horror movie altogether. A group of young men on their way to a Halloween party accidentally wind up in a haunted house that they think is a tourist attraction, only to discover that’s very real. Radio Silence keeps the tension ratcheted and whip out some truly impressive special effects on what had to have been a limited budget. It’s not un-scary, but its focus seems to be on thrills more than abject terror, and indeed, it is thrilling.
The balance is off in V/H/S, or should I say the tracking is, but the quality of the final two installments in particular is probably enough to make it worth watching for horror enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the premise is just muddy and confusing, since half the short films aren’t even shot on VHS, and the other half have a contemporary setting that makes the use of VHS implausible. The main characters, the hooligans watching the tapes in the first place, shoot on VHS and then convert it to digital to put it on the internet? Why don’t they spring for a $40 digital camera and save themselves the time? Or just steal? And who put the rest of these videos – particularly the Skype installment – on VHS in the first place? What was the point?
I suppose the point was to just exploit a momentarily popular horror convention. As such, V/H/S feels more like a gimmick than a real film. In that respect, I suppose it deserves credit for embodying the whole found footage horror genre: there’s a few highlights, most of it doesn’t work at all, and after a while the “reality” feels especially artificial.