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Be kind, rewind: “V/H/S”

October 4, 2012

Okay, this will be a short one, since V/H/S hasn’t properly opened yet, and I don’t want to spoil anything. If you hadn’t heard the buzz coming out of Sundance, V/H/S is a horror anthology movie, which is kind of cool, since that’s not done all that often. Although, when it has been done, the movies have usually  sunk faster than a Russian submarine, but V/H/S hedges its bets by comprising the film and its vignettes solely of found-footage, so the production values are pretty low. Like all anthologies, it’s a mixed bag, but what the hell. So is a sack of Halloween candy, right? Okay, let’s check ‘em out.

The framing device of V/H/S –and the story that comprises the story arc that plays out between chapters—concerns a bunch of sociopaths who basically run around taping their various acts of vandalism, hooliganism, and sexual assault. Spliced into this footage is an offer one of their number brings them from a mysterious client who wants them to break into a house and steal a certain videotape. Naturally they do it because, hey, a little burglary is really on the venial side of their activities. Once inside the spooky house, they find a corpse and a fuck-ton of tapes. Throughout the story arc, they explore the house, and, as I’m sure you guessed, things happen with that corpse (not sex stuff, though, that would be gross).

Amateur Night: This segment is directed by David Bruckner, and concerns a bunch of douchebag 20-somethings who set out to pick up some chicks at a bar and seduce/date-rape them. To preserve this night for posterity they equip one of their guys with a micro-camera hidden in a pair of dork glasses. With the aid of a lot of alcohol and some lines of coke, they succeed in bringing a couple of girls back to their hotel room, including one particularly creepy number who stares vacantly and keeps repeating the mantra, “I like you.” Wackiness ensues. And by wackiness, I mean lots of female nudity and copious amounts of stage blood. Bruckner previously directed part of The Signal, and he keeps things moving quickly and coherently, but he makes his characters such loathsome scumbags that their comeuppance isn’t so much karmic retribution as it seems the Universe righting itself. The heavy-handed moral seems to be “don’t date-rape women and film it, or you’ll end up a pile of entrails.” Really everything after the “or” is kind of unnecessary if you happen to have a functioning moral center.

Second Honeymoon:  This one is a bit of a trifle, following a young couple on a road trip out West. Stuff happens, but there’s not much more I can say without giving away too much. It’s a compact story that’s mostly a quick buildup to an ironic ending. Watch it closely—or re-watch it if you can—and you’ll catch the little clues West has scattered innocuously throughout the story in dialogue and the edge of the frame. West’s two feature-length movies, House of the Devil and The Innkeepers (I’m not counting Cabin Fever 2, since it was taken out of his hands) traded on his use of slow, steady pacing to build to the horror—something he’s pretty much entirely eschewed here. There’s not much to it, but it works on its own terms as a low-impact chiller.

Tuesday the 17th: This segment is more involved, concerning a group of friends who tape their camping trip in the woods (yeah, that always turns out well). Now, if you’re thinking that something hiding in the woods stalks and kills them, then yay! You win no points for original thinking. But there’s a wrinkle, as one of the girls knows more than she’s telling, and seems fully cognizant of the thing that hunts them. The conclusion is also a bit of a letdown, though, making you wonder what exactly the point was.

The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger: Really, dude, you couldn’t have come up with a shorter title? I gotta type all this. Okay, well, this one is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. A couple of college-aged long-distance lovebirds communicate via Skype, and over the Internet connection we see the girlfriend (Emily, duh) gradually slipping towards an emotional breakdown. They talk around some problems she had when she was younger, but that doesn’t explain the events the Skype connection catches, like the spectral children. If you think you know where this is going, you don’t.  This segment was directed by Joe Swanberg, who directed such mumblecore staples as LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, and he brings the same ramshackle approach to his direction here, which, works well within the parameters he’s established for himself. He’s also the only director who, along with West, wrote a story that fits the anthologized nature of the project.

10/31/98: Here we get a nicely-mounted haunted house story about a bunch of guys who decide to crash a Halloween party (filming it with a nanny-cam they installed in one of the costumes for god-knows-what-reason). Naturally, the party isn’t so much a “party” per se as it is, well, a pagan ritual. And it only gets weirder from there. This segment also ends somewhat weakly, but wins points for having the most imaginative visuals, managing to credibly put some truly freaky stuff onscreen that genuinely looks like it was captured on videotape (no blurry tracking or shaky-cam disguises it). The segment was directed by four guys who go by the title Radio Silence. Make of that what you will.

So, that’s V/H/S. It’s uneven, sure, but it’s one of the better found-footage movies out there, made by some people who tailored their stories to fit the medium. Of course, the main problem is the one that maddeningly bets seemingly all found-footage movies. Namely, that almost all the characters are complete douchtards. What is it about cameras that make people so unlikeable? Well, maybe the next installment (if this does indeed spawn annual installments) will have some more interesting protagonists.

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