Had V/H/S been made in the late seventies or early eighties, it would have been classed as a video nasty. This five-story found-footage omnibus, embedded within a sixth, the framing narrative (“Tape 56”, directed by Adam Wingard, A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next), is a brutal and frequently gory movie with plenty of female flesh on show.
In “Tape 56”, four thieves are tasked with breaking into a house to steal an unidentified video tape. When they find the occupant slumped dead in an armchair surrounded by dozens of cassettes, each of them settles in to watch one after another. What they see are…
“Amateur Night” (directed by David Bruckner, The Signal) deals nicely with the implausibility of most found-footage horror by replacing the hand-held with a pair of camera-glasses a lá Mission:Impossible. The nicest of three spoiled frat boys dons the specs before a night out in a bar, where one of them picks up a pretty girl while our point-of-view kid gathers a very strange young woman, Lily (Hannah Fierman). When girl A passes out, her beau settles for girl B and gets a great deal more than he’d bargained for. Some excellent effects and a star performance by the leading lady make this a thrilling if slightly predictable starter. On the downside, it’s not easy to sympathise with the victims, most of whom are irredeemably foul to begin with.
“Second Honeymoon” (directed by Ti West, The Inkeepers) is unfortunately the weakest of the entries. A couple on a road trip are stalked by a mysterious woman. While there are a few chills to be had in one scene, for the most part this narrative is a bit of a snooze with a not-terribly-surprising twist and characters who fail to wake even with a torch shone full in their faces.
“Tuesday the 17th” (director: Irishman Glenn McQuaid, writer/director of I Sell the Dead and visual effects artist on Stake Land) is rather more promising. What appears to be a standard cabin-in-the-woodser turns into something quite different when it transpires that said woods were recently the scene of a brutal multiple murder, of which the girl who has arranged this trip was the sole survivor. Some nice twists, but let down somewhat by the just-too-messy camerawork.
“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She was Younger” is an arresting (ostensible) ghost story starring one-to-watch Helen Rogers as a young woman haunted by insomnia and a sense that she is not alone in her apartment, directed by Joe Swanberg (Autoerotic, The Zone). In a welcome twist-take on the found footage formula, her tale is told through the medium of internet video-chat. Unable to sleep, and concerned about a weird bump growing in her arm, Emily calls her boyfriend at all hours of the night to keep her company as she roams her flat in search of the ghost of a child she believes is there. Its weird and needlessly complicated ending aside, “Emily” is classic ghost storytelling.
“10/31/98” (directed by the Radio Silence collective) sees four young men heading out to a Hallowe’en party. When they find what they believe to be the right house, no one seems to be home until a hidden door leads them to the attic. Here, four men are holding a woman prisoner and appear to be in the process of summoning a demon…
As a way to pass a couple of hours, V/H/S is entertaining enough. But this cheap and nasty video horror will never enter the pantheon of admirable gore as did, say, The Evil Dead. Sometimes it tries too hard; at other times it seems not to be trying at all. The too-many-cooks approach only serves to highlight the shortcomings of what is rapidly becoming a tired and over-bloated sub-genre.
It is impossible to entirely suspend disbelief and buy into the narrative because one is too busy asking questions. Why is the VHS format inherently scarier than DVD? Is it the lack of seamlessness between home-edited segments? Why do all these baddies still use video instead of DVD? Why, by all things holy, would anyone transfer a digitally recorded video chat to VHS? And what is it with all the bosoms? Seriously.
Most annoying of all, of course, is that lie into which the audience must buy; the found-footage conceit’s implausible implication that someone fighting (or running) for his or her life will not only not drop the camera but continue to hold it horizontal and right way up. The first and third segments of the film get around this problem (just) by building into the narrative some other means of giving a plausible POV, but in the rest of the film, as in so many found footage horrors, people never, ever drop the camera unless they are stone cold dead.