V/H/S sounds like something that's becoming all the more common these days: a found-footage horror film. Yes, one-hundred percent of the film comes from tapes that were made by people who had something horrible happen to them. Yes, there is a lot of shaky cam, and yes it is presented as a bunch of people going through these tapes as the frame of the story. But V/H/S just uses the idea of some guys looking through tapes to give you an anthology of a number of different short horror films. It's less a film and more a collection of these short films. They're all created by different crews and different directors so it's a real assortment meaning there's bound to be at least one film that even the most cynical horror fan can at least appreciate.
The plot's built around the idea that a bunch of awful guys who make money by filming, frankly, things that are clearly minor sexual assaults on women and selling them as weird porn voyeuristic. They're then offered by an unseen partner an opportunity to make some "real money" by continuing their scumbaggery by breaking into the house of an old man. Their mission is to retrieve an old VHS tape, and they'll "know it when they see it". The only trouble being, when they arrive at the house the old guy is dead in his chair and there are mounds of unlabelled VHS tapes littering the house, so obviously they have to watch them to find what they're looking for and BAM! we have our movie.
The tapes that they manage to get through, before whatever killed the dead guy gets to work on them too, are:
If you don't mind bloody violence with sexual overtones (i.e. it's not "sexual-violence" but it is very violent and a lot of flesh on show), then this short should entertain. In keeping with the rest of the film the effects are slick while obviously low budget. Despite the main body of the short being done in am apparently seamless one take, the make up and effects are naturalisticly applied and it makes for a very visceral and genuinely frightening fate for these three scumbags.
'Tuesday the 17th'Cabin in the Woods style.
If you've ever watched the webseries Marble Hornets, this short makes use of a lot of the same techniques and style to create its suspense. Camera distortion caused by the villain plays a big part in crafting the "monster" of this short. Playing on the idea of only showing glimpses of the villain and never the full form, using the camera malfunctions allows it to be fully in frame but still largely unseen. Throw that up with the handheld camera and a lot of running through the woods and there's a general sense of unease about just what these kids are up against that only really works in short bouts of exposure, which is why it works so well here.
'The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger'Paranormal Activity meets Skype. A woman and her long distance, doctor-in-training boyfriend have a series of recorded webchats that document her worries about her apartment being haunted. Some tense moments that aren't justly reward with real scares. The conclusion comes right out of left field. I don't mean that in the sense of "Wow! What a twist!" but more of an "Erm... okay?" sort of reaction.
The concept could have lead to something pretty great, but I'm pretty sure the director of this one thought he had to go with the off-the-wall and totally unsolicited twist just to differentiate it from something like Paranormal Activity. I'd say he was wrong to do so as well, some of the best results in film come from a new person echoing someone else's work and just doing a better job of it.
(Or what should be called 31/10/98, but whatever.)
The haunted house flick. A group of friends set off to a Halloween party at a house none of them have ever been to before. After arriving early to find nobody there, they go to have a look around and discover that maybe they've not gone to the right place after all.
Nowhere near as out there as the others, but well executed nonetheless. the amount of effort obviously poured into the effects especially shines through. The house is constantly shifting, if only slightly, and perceptions are messed with the minute the gang step across the threshold. The story continues past the boundaries of the normal haunted house fare and rounds the film off with an ending that, while not totally unexpected, wasn't the sort I thought I was going to get.
The weakest part of V/H/S is easily the framing story. The reason we get to see all these shorts doesn't really matter, and although it is it's own little horror story spread across the gaps between tapes, I found myself just not caring what happened in it at all, I just wanted the next tape. It night be down to the characters being complete arseholes, but even then I should have at least been entertained by their ultimate fate but I just wasn't. This could've worked just as effectively if it was, say, some kids at a sleepover who found this really old box of tapes in the loft or something.
But regardless, the rest of the movie is fantastic. There really is something for everyone here. Each film fits into a "type" of horror movie, but that's not to say they're just paint-by-numbers pieces where you know exactly what's going to happen. One thing that seems to run through all the films is a refreshing take on who gets "punished" by the horror genre. Particularly in reference to women: in traditional horror films, the girl who is stereotyped as promiscuous, or "the slut", is killed just for being that, a fact that betrays the misogyny hidden in a lot of (particularly older) horror films. But here, women aren't punished for being sexualised or for being chaste. In fact it's usually (although there's a notable exception) those who try to exploit women sexually who get punished. Hell, in one film unwanted sexual contact prompts the victim to turn into a blood thirsty beast. That particular point may not be the best example, but on a whole the collection seems to have much more healthy attitudes to what is deserving of punishment by horror film staples (again, with that one notable exception) than most films in the genre.
Surprisingly too, the films all feel very coherent. They're all made by different directors, tackling different sub-genres but they all fit together in an eclectic sort of way. Whoever was running the whole show (the credits list is quite difficult to decipher, with so many names) must have been very careful to let the directors have free reign over what it was they were making, but to keep it consistent with the whole feel of the production.
V/H/S is a great compilation piece. Although the found-footage genre of horror films is definitely starting to wear thin these days, the short bursts and different approaches to it make the film feel fresh throughout. Compilation movies can tend to go either way and either be very impressive or complete failures, much like Movie 43 is being tried as at the moment. V/H/S is certainly the former, and something any fan of horror should check out. If they have the stomach for a lot of gore. It's not excessive or gratuitous, but there is a lot of blood and guts.