Written by David Bruckner, Ti West, Radio Silence, Simon Barrett, Nicholas Tecosky and Glenn McQuaid
Directed by Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Chad Villella)
A collaborative anthology feature, V/H/S is essentially five short films in the “found footage” style by several established names in low budget horror, framed by narrative segments also shot in the same style. The film follows a group of misfits who go around filming wanton sexual harassment and desecration, all while filming their antics. Hired, for a measly fifty dollar reward, to burglarise a house to find a rare VHS tape, the group discover a seemingly dead man sat in front of an assortment of televisions and videos. While members of the group explore the remainder of the house, one is tasked with checking the tapes in the room with the corpse. When a tape is watched, we see the footage in the form of one of the shorts. As each tape concludes, we reconvene with the burglars as events get progressively stranger on their end.
Portmanteau films like this are inherently inconsistent stylistically but also predominantly inconsistent on a quality level; V/H/S certainly does not buck the latter trend. There exists no narrative connection between the stories, but the themes of power, deception and, naturally, voyeurism are present in all of the shorts. Additionally, bar film collective Radio Silence’s concluding segment, there is a hefty dose of voyeurism related to sex, be it a man wanting to film his girlfriend undressing, a woman unknowingly being recorded as she flashes her long-distance lover via a Skype-like program, the framing device’s burglars grabbing and exposing women’s breasts to sell footage to online porn sites, a group of guys with spy-camera glasses wanting to secretly film sexual encounters, or a camera wielder lingering on a friend’s body as she walks ahead of him, referring to her as a “golden crack whore”. Radio Silence and Ti West’s are the least questionable in regards to sexual politics, and in David Bruckner’s segment in particular there is a suggestion of deliberate subversion of the male predatory gaze through the characters’ comeuppance. However, despite recurring instances of misogynist characters being the punished, sometimes at the hands of abused women, on-screen evidence with the frequent, uncomfortable leering in the other shorts feels less like any sort of deliberate commentary on the portrayal of women in horror.
Bruckner’s segment, Amateur Night, is the first of the tapes, following three guys who use the aforementioned spy-camera glasses to scope out women in a bar. They bring two back to a motel, one of whom has a fascination with the cameraman and two giant piercing eyes; all she seems able to say is “I like you”, but only to that guy with the glasses. As the other girl passes out, one of the guys makes sexual advances towards the strange one. She initially seems receptive, but soon turns out to be a deadly force. Taking a turn into monster mode, The Signal director Bruckner’s segment has a strong sense of dread and its horror is especially effective in a sequence that comes across as being filmed in one single unbroken take, especially impressive considering plentiful (seemingly) practical effects gore involved. With a memorable, scary ending, this gets the film off to a good start following the beginning of the quickly tiresome and ultimately poor framing device, directed by Adam Wingard.
The contribution of Ti West (The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil), Second Honeymoon, is up next, and also proves strong with a much more simple, less fantastical tale of terror. A young couple take a trip to the Grand Canyon and a nearby motel, and briefly encounter a strange woman looking for a ride. Using a more high-def camera as opposed to Bruckner’s and Wingard’s efforts, West’s film may not have the most frightening imagery of the project but has perhaps the most dread-inducing and effective scene: the traditional pan to reveal something unexpected takes on a gut-wrenching twist through the fright not relating to what the camera captures, but the realisation of who is filming.
What rides on an initial high must seemingly come down, and Tuesday the 17th from director Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), is absolutely awful. A woods-set slasher film, it is lacking in atmosphere and revels in painful comedy. Its only inspired aspect is using the fuzz of the video medium itself to portray a killer that can seemingly move unbeknownst through that fuzz. Joe Swanberg’s segment also has some attempts at humour – including wound-fiddling body horror comedy – and is at least a bit better than McQuaid’s, but is ultimately very flat even when it introduces conspiracy absurdities into its Skype call based story. As a side note, the section’s visual qualities can’t help but be distracting when placed within the framing device of found VHS tapes.
The final story, from the Radio Silence collective, never establishes any real creepy atmosphere, but there is some enjoyment to be had in its effective CGI-laden madness as a group of guys on Halloween stumble upon a cult sacrifice within a haunted house. It is nowhere near as good as Bruckner and West’s efforts, but it ends the film on an extravagant note after two flaccid segments and a poor resolution to the framing device. Piquing very early, V/H/S, like most portmanteau films even outside of the horror genre, does not completely work. While it has some interesting execution in regards to the increasingly tiresome “found footage” method of shooting, too much of the content here is bothersome to consider the whole project an especially positive success.