V/H/S

Director - Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West

Cast - Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes

Country of Origin - U.S.

Discs - 1

Distributor - Magnolia Home Entertainment

Reviewer - Bobby Morgan

Date - 03/12/13

The Film: 3/5

 

In the wraparound segment "Tape 56" directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, gang of miscreants led by Gary (Calvin Reeder) is hired by an unknown third party to break into a house in the countryside and steal a certain VHS tape, the contents of which are also unknown to them. Once inside they discover an old man slumped over dead in front of a bank of televisions and a large library of videotapes. As Gary searches the house for the one they were paid to steal other members of the gang sit down before the TVs and begin watching the tapes. Each video tells a horrifying story and when they are finished the thieves watching them seemingly vanish.

 

"Amateur Night", directed by David Bruckner from a script he wrote with Nicholas Tecosky, tells the story  of alpha male hard-ons Shane (Mike Donlan) and Patrick (Joe Sykes) taking their geeky friend Clint (Drew Sawyer) out for an evening of ribald pleasure with willing female sexual partners. Clint, whose glasses conceal a hidden camera to capture all of the night's action, catches the eye of Lily (Hannah Fierman), a doe-eyed young lady who repeatedly whispers to him, "I like you." She comes back with the guys to their hotel room with another woman named Lisa (Jas Sams), and as they prepare for a hot and wild evening Lily reveals her true nature and that her lust for Clint goes beyond mere sexual gratification.

 

In Ti West's "The Second Honeymoon" young lovers Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) take a road trip through the Arizona desert to visit the sights and enjoy some rest and relaxation. But one evening they receive a visit from a strange, unseen woman asking various guests at their motel for a ride. The visit unnerves the couple but as they continue on with their vacation someone starts breaking into their room every night while they sleep to steal their money, befoul their hygiene products, and much worse.

 

"Tuesday the 17th", written and directed by Glenn McQuaid, follows a group of friends taking a day trip to a lake in the country where Wendy (Norma C. Quinones) spent part of her childhood and had some traumatic experiences. Along for the ride are her boyfriend Joey (Drew Moerlein), best friend Samantha (Jeannine Elizabeth Yoder), and Joey's nerdish friend Spider (Jason Yachanin). Their fun in the sun soon takes on disturbing overtones when Wendy tells the others the story of a serial killer who slaughtered people in the area before apparently vanishing for years. Even worse, she begins to act strange, telling her friends that they are all going to die there.

 

"The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger", written by Barrett and directed by Joe Swanberg, takes the form of a web chat between college student Emily (Helen Rogers) and her medical student boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman). Emily brings up a strange bump on her arm that she has had since a childhood accident and shows James around her new apartment, where she admits to having heard odd noises at night since moving in. At one point James catches a glimpse of what appears to be the ghost of a little boy, though Emily can't see it for herself. They attempt to get the spectral image on video to prove its existence to her skeptical landlord, but it soon becomes clear that there is far more going on here than just a simple haunting.

 

In the final story "10/31/98", written and directed by the filmmaking quartet Radio Silence Productions, four friends get together for a Halloween costume party. Once arriving at the party's location they discover the house to be empty and some strange phenomena occurring, including hands coming out of the walls and weird figures walking about. The guys think it all to be part of the Halloween festivities until they come across a small religious sect terrorizing a captive woman in the attic of the house. They may have come for an evening of drunken debauchery, but these unfortunate souls will be lucky if they can escape this house of horrors with their lives.

 

Found footage movies, like any sub-genre of cinema, will endure for as long as they possibly can but only if certain films come along that offer fresh and unique takes on what became years before anyone really started to noticed. Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust and its internet age, media savvy spiritual counterpart The Blair Witch Project set the standard for "found footage" films, while Cloverfield and most recently Chronicle applied the POV-heavy filmmaking style to other genres with mostly positive results. V/H/S makes a valiant attempt to provide some much-needed juice to both the found footage and horror anthology movies by fusing them together in one ambitious and on occasion genuinely frightening package. The result is mostly successful, but a confusion in alternating tones and an appalling streak of misogyny running throughout each story almost flushes the meager goodwill the movie had earned right down the proverbial crapper. The running theme of V/H/S seems to basically boil down to four words: woman is the devil. The female characters in this movie are either monstrous villains, deceitful traitors, insipid victims, or once again monstrous villains. Rush Limbaugh would probably think it was the best horror movie he had ever seen. Granted the men folk don't necessarily fare much better as they are alternately portrayed as vulgar lowlife thugs, sexed-up Neanderthals, and fundamentalist psychopaths. Now that I think about it, no gender gets away clean in this movie. It's very mean-spirited and nihilistic. But as I said before, it has moments when it becomes a real gem of horror moviemaking.

 

The first story "Amateur Night" has an interesting hook and builds up to a very gruesome and suspenseful finale, with the make-up effects used to transform Lily from a demure young lady to a razor-toothed demon are beautifully executed. The final twist is a real lulu that anyone with a love of 1980's horror cinema would appreciate. It's only when the second story "The Second Honeymoon" comes around that the tone and pacing of V/H/S falters and never seems to recover from that setback. The plot of the young couple on a road trip in the lonely and isolated desert is a classic that has been done to death and by better filmmakers, but that doesn't mean the old wine can't taste somewhat better in a newer bottle, as the saying supposedly goes. But the story goes nowhere and the twist ending is more like a bad punch line to a very mediocre joke. It's all the more sad that this segment was directed by the most talented of the movie's ensemble of filmmakers, Ti West (House of the Devil). "Tuesday the 17th" recovers the fumbled ball for a while with another standard slasher movie premise that is made memorable with some gushing gore effects and an ingenious way of concealing the killer's identity through the video camera lens, cleverly subverting that time-honored reassuring ideal that "video tells the truth". But once again a lesser story enters the fray to torpedo the scary momentum of the previous tale in the form of "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger", which starts as a sly goof on the Paranormal Activity movies and then takes a bizarre hard left turn in its finale that I'm still not sure what the hell exactly happened. I had to look at the plot synopsis on Wikipedia to find out and I hate doing that. Not at all surprising, the fifth and final story "10/31/98" makes up admirably for the complete failure of "Sick Thing" with an old-fashioned haunted house story solidly executed whose only flaw is an ending that feels like yet another betrayal of the material. The wraparound segments are fine but since they are only here to set up each story each one feels like an extended introduction that could have been edited down to almost complete non-existence seeing as none of the characters serve any real purpose to the narrative and are done away with before the final story even begins.

 

The gore effects are plentiful and the blood flows in cups rather than gallons, but you will get to see male genitalia getting ripped off, multiple throat slashings and disembowelments, and some pretty gruesome stabbings. The quality of the acting varies from story to story but I thought the majority of the cast did just fine in their roles, though no one was a standout. At least the attempts at achieving realism are helped by most of the actors being relative unknowns, except for Jason Yachanin in the "Tuesday the 17th" story who I recognized as the bespectacled hero of Troma's Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Though only three of the stories are worth watching, each one features solid direction and the first person POV camera work is kept stable enough so as to not induce nausea in the viewers. Given that most found footage flicks tend to overdo the energetic cinematography in order to reinforce the appearance of naturalism, the camera stability of V/H/S is a virtue that cannot be dismissed.

 

Audio/Video: 4/5

 

Magnolia Home Entertainment presents V/H/S in a 16 x 9 enhanced high definition 1.78:1 widescreen transfer in 1080p. Image clarity is sharp and even the amount of grain is low despite this being a found footage movie, but not so much that the effect of watching a collection of rough-looking videotapes is ruined. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track also helps to preserve the VHS footage illusion while delivering some very clear-sounding music and dialogue. English subtitles are also provided and believe me they do come in very handy.

 

Extras: 4/5

 

Ten of the parties involved with the making of V/H/S got together for one mother of a crowded audio commentary track: Simon Barrett, Joe Swanberg, Helen Rogers, Adam Wingard, Brad Miska, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella, and David Bruckner. As expected this track is a lot of fun to listen to though the many participants often run rampant over each other's observations in the quest to be heard themselves. Since most of the people on that commentary wore several hats during the production it's interesting to hear their perspectives on working in front of an behind the camera. This is a solid commentary but it would have been much better had the group been split into two or three smaller groups.

 

The "10/31/98" segment gets a brief but more optimistic alternate ending, and three minutes of deleted scenes from "Tuesday the 17th" are also included. "Amateur Night-Balloon Night" (4 minutes) takes a quick look at how an aerial shot was achieved for the ending of the first story using a crude, ingenious method. Barrett and Rogers sit down for "Webcam Interviews" (14 minutes) and several of the directors, writers, and actors participate in a series of interviews (29 minutes) as well, going over a lot of the material that was covered in the commentary but also offering up some new information about the production of V/H/S. "AXS TV: A Look at V/H/S/" (5 minutes) is a very brief behind-the-scenes featurette whose presence here is meaningless when judged alongside the commentary and meatier interviews, so it is only included here for the sake of completion. Two still galleries are present, the first a series of conceptual art pieces for the Lily character in "Amateur Night" and the other a collection of behind-the-scenes photos.

 

The extras close out with green and red band trailers for V/H/S, previews for Nature Calls, The Good Doctor, Compliance, and Jack & Diane, and a superfluous ad for AXS TV.

 

Overall: 4/5

 

V/H/S is a spectacularly uneven horror flick that gives a much-needed creative jolt to the found footage movie sub-genre. But its unforgiving mean-spirited tone, lack of narrative focus in several of the stories, and the ugly and rampant misogyny almost derail what could have been a new classic in horror cinema. It still stands as a better-than-average entry in the genre with a top-quality Blu-ray presentation featuring some entertaining and informative extra features to back it up. I look forward to watching the sequel which is already finished and playing the film festival circuit. That one's supposed to be much better than V/H/S.