V/H/S could very well represent the pinnacle of found footage horror cinema. Actually, it may be fairer to think of the film a “do this, not that” instructional presentation to other aspiring horror filmmakers. In turns, V/H/S demonstrates both how to do found footage well and how to fail miserably maneuvering within the sub-genre’s cinematic mode; in fits and spurts, the film is tense and incredibly scary, but when it doesn’t work, it really, truly does not work in the most embarrassing and chagrin-inducing ways possible. That’s a risk of omnibus/anthology filmmaking. Assemble a ragtag team of five different directors—David Bruckner, Adam Wingard, Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Glenn McQuaid, and direction quartet Radio Silence–have them operate in a specific mien (particularly one as rigid as found footage), and the results are bound to be uneven.
The premise of V/H/S is elegantly simple: a group of young men who spend their free time graphically sexually harassing young women in public, taping the incidents, and selling them online, are hired by an unknown party to break into an abandoned house and steal a rare VHS tape. They accept, and when they enter the home, they find a nearly inexhaustible collection of tapes and begin watching them at random in an attempt to find their bounty; each tape they watch documents events that are inexplicable, violent, horrific, bizarre, or a combination of the four.
So, in a nutshell, V/H/S links together five micro-found footage films using found footage as the connective tissue holding the entire project together. In other words, the film comprises the ultimate in horror cinema for fans and ardent admirers of the sub-genre. For the rest of us ,V/H/S isn’t exactly a successful experiment—three of the two vignettes are quite good, while the other two, as well as the wraparound device, fail on numerous levels—but that might not be a strictly bad thing in retrospect. It just means that the movie gains more value by synthesizing found footage done well and done poorly; by doing so, it illustrates the limitations of and problems with the filmmaking approach (which, frankly, is much more of a gimmick than anything else).
At its core, found footage is a fine idea—paint the film with a veneer of realism and the terror at the core of every picture becomes heightened and more unsettling. Giving credit where credit’s due, V/H/S may do that better than any movie of its kind released to date. There are no big name stars here, just a lot of amateur and perhaps even unprofessional actors, and the basic conceit of the film lets it get away with being grimier, grittier, and more authentic in appearance. For most movies, it’s not especially complimentary to describe them as looking low-rent and home-made, but that’s what V/H/S is going for, and largely it works.
But from segment to segment, things get problematic. Found footage lives and dies based on whether or not the filmmaker can establish a good reason for the footage to be filmed in the first place; if the person holding the camera is rolling instead of running screaming into the night, you’re just cheating tension. And, again, speaking of credit where it’s due, some of the directors—notably Bruckner, Swanberg, and Radio Silence, who respectively directed the first, fourth, and final bits—engineer some pretty clever excuses for the action to be shot in the first place, from spy glasses to Skype conversations.
Everything else, though, has no good, plausible reason to have ever been captured on tape. Why is the mute psychopath tormenting Ti West’s road-tripping couple filming his intrusion? Why does the final girl of the third segment insist on carrying a camera with her while the slasher (maybe?) cutting up her friends chases after her through densely packed woods? Come to that, why is any of the footage in the empty house being recorded at all? There’s never a really good, concrete need for any of that stuff to be caught on film in the first place, and so ultimately these pieces of V/H/S just feel deceptive and disingenuous; the filmmakers want to scare us by cutting corners.
When V/H/S scores, though, it’s a gem. Bruckner and Swanberg get really creative with their answers to the core question of “why”, but they also work the hardest to go the distance with their concepts; the former brings us the most frightening clip of the bunch, while the latter serves up a spooky, quirky tale loaded with dark, disturbing humor. It’s the final “tape” that proves to be the most successful, though, which is nothing short of impressive given that the members of Radio Silence are untested behind the camera. (In fact, they’re the only newcomers involved in the film’s direction.) Sending a group of rowdy frat boys into a creepy house on a lark isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, but what they do with it is refreshingly hair-raising, and ought to send most audiences out of the theater perfectly freaked out of their minds.
There’s more to tie V/H/S together than just a joint adherence to a filmmaking aesthetic—they each climax on one flavor of a twist or another, and all of them revolve around duplicitous women who are either blatantly evil or just not what they seem on the surface. For some that might color V/H/S with a fairly misogynistic brush, except that they’re preying on men who frankly have it coming; if the sexual politics of the V/H/S appear to lean in one direction more than the other, at the very least the filmmakers don’t stack morality against the feminine side of the equation. But gender matters represent the last of the movie’s problems. The real issue holding V/H/S back is inconsistency, shown in the form of how the individuals behind the film answer the pressing query that’s so central to making found footage click. There’s no doubt that V/H/S has all the tools needed to set is audience affright, but unreliably so– it’s a horror film that cannot ultimately stick the landing.