Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
I was hoping to be terrified. I was hoping that I'd barely make it home with my sanity intact out of every shadowy alleyway I'd be expecting doom and death and some sort of dark hellish creature to leap forth. Unfortunately, that was not to be the result of watching V/H/S.
At no point did I feel like I was on the verge of chundering up my pre-movie dumplings as a result of the pure, undiluted terror onscreen. While that's probably a good thing for those sitting around me, I found that fact to be a bit of a downer. A far more accurate description would be this: that V/H/S is at times genuinely, at times darkly hilarious, quite often very suspenseful, and while at times uneven, is definitely a welcome breath of fresh air to an increasingly stale genre.
V/H/S is an anthology of five short stories of horror, realised by as many directors, and held together by a flimsy premise about a bunch of petty criminals being hired to steal a VHS tape. "When you see it, you'll know" they're told, and so the obnoxious group of guys begin to rummage around a run-down old house. The creepy location also houses a dead guy seated in front of a bunch of TV screens, as well as (of course) a creepy-as-hell basement. They watch the tapes, stories unfold, we get terrified.
Given that V/H/S is of the increasingly popular "found footage" horror sub-genre, it's all a hand-held, shaky, dizzying affair. The opening ("Amateur Night") proves to be especially difficult to decipher, although it is true to the antics of a group of obnoxious creeps in their twenties. While the hand-held style will no doubt infuriate some, for the most part it's used pretty effectively within the shorts.
The content of the short stories themselves range from vampires to Halloween rituals to a cabin-in-the-woods massacre and a haunting captured entirely via Skype. They all feature stock-standard characters, and conventions of the horror genre. The guys out on the town, the honeymooning couple, four friends at a cabin, a Halloween turned sour. Conventions they may be, but each vignette manages to bring a refreshing spin to the well-worn characters and locations. A mood-shift, or a dark moment of wicked humour, or an intriguing use of the hand-held POV form; the directors involved all obviously know their horror, and what works.
A film comprising of six stories will inevitably be home to a couple of weaker links to sit alongside the gems. Happily, even those that inhabit the lesser positions of terror and effectiveness still manage to be entertaining, and bring something refreshing or inventive to the table. In an age where the horror genre is so prone to mediocrity and stupidity (not in the good way), that in itself is surely worth the price of admission. Hell, all six of the films did actually contain moments of real suspense. At times I even found myself peeking at the screen from within fingers while laughing at what was going on.
Even if I was able to get to sleep that night without a care in the world, I'd be lying if I said V/H/S was devoid of scares and the ol' sense of dread/impending doom. Particular standouts included the Radio Silence collective's spectacular Halloween haunted house romp 10/31/98, as well as Second Honeymoon, which manages to be equal parts suspenseful, surprisingly graphic, and darkly amusing. In addition to that, I found myself rather surprised at how unsettled I was by the deceptively simple Skype romp, That Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.
V/H/S isn't likely to send hardened horror fans home with The Fear. It's also slightly too long. That being said though, it does give hope to lovers of the genre. It's inventive, refreshing, entertaining and smart. Even when it's not so great, it's pretty damn enjoyable, and better than much of what else is going in the horror world at the moment. It also made me hide behind my hands and put my knees up to my face a couple of times, something that certainly warrants consideration.