The Blair Witch Project and thrust into the big time by 2008's Cloverfield, burned itself out rather quickly, as will happen to a genre so cheap that you need neither a good idea nor talent to whip together something which enough damn fools will trudge out to see to turn a profit on it. Even after just a few years, it seems like all the ideas that the subgenre had to offer had been used up (and, in fairness, it didn't take even a few year for that to become obvious), but the 2012 Sundance festival bore witness to a movie proving otherwise, a certain V/H/S, which introduced an entirely new element to the moribund found footage picture: recursion.
For V/H/S, bless it, does something brand new: it is a found footage horror movie about finding found footage horror movies. This has only happened once, in the arbitrary and quickly abandoned framework narrative of Paranormal Activity 3, which I'm inclined to say doesn't count, given that the filmmakers don't seem to care about it any more than the viewer does. But V/H/S takes the concept and runs with it, documenting a group of antisocial hooligans who fancy themselves performance art entrepreneurs, filming themselves robbing a house in which there is a large collection of VHS tapes, all of them containing a short length of footage in which something horrible happens. And of course they watch them, for how else do we in the audience get to see them? The result is an anthology film purporting to come from the minds of indie horror's most exciting new directors, which really means Ti West, several people who've made horror movies that nobody really talks about, and non-horror director Joe Swanberg, with the idea originating from Bloody Disgusting co-founder Brad Miska.
Like any anthology film, V/H/S has its highs and lows, though the margin between the two is not severe, and the phrase "highs" is rather significantly overestimating how good the best of the sequences (which is, pretty unambiguously, the last one) is. It also suffers, to a fairly extreme degree, from a virtually non-stop parade of conceptually impossible stories, but we'll get there as we quickly spin through the shorts, one at a time.
The opening sequence, and the framework narrative, is "Tape 56", written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, in which a gang of young thugs whose identities I absolutely could not keep straight delight in film themselves perpetrating crimes from rape to recording a girl during sex without her knowledge, thus setting up a certain problem with women that plays out through pretty much the whole movie in one form or another. They call this "reality porn", and sell the videos on the black market, somehow; it comes to pass that they are hired by Someone Unnamed to steal a very specific VHS tape from a very specific house, and they decided to record the housebreaking, to expand their market share. Upon arriving, they find a dead body in front of a TV, and in attempting to find out what happened to him, one of the criminals pops a tape into the television, which turns out to be the first of the shorts proper. We cut back to this every so often, to find the heroes disappearing one at a time, as the dead body appears and disappears, and new people put in new tapes. Incidentally, we never do find out, in even the vaguest terms, what the heck is going on, which is surely for the best; it's clearly paranormal though, and the tape collection is not gathered by a human psycho, but by a malevolent force that gathers them through unspecified means for unspecified reasons.
"Tape 56" very nearly threatens to be interesting, for one and one reason only, which is that the thugs are filming themselves on a previously used tape, and the old footage keeps crackling through the new material; there are a couple moments where this is almost used in an interesting way, but it never adds up to much, and turns out to be the first of many examples throughout the feature where technological glitches get thrown into the movie for, like, realism, man. Serving only to aggravate and annoy and look trendy for the sake of it, like all the directors loved Grindhouse so much that they wanted one of their very own. Also, though it's obviously the case that we're not meant to "like" these crude, rapey housebreakers, "Tape 56" also sets up a line to go through the rest of the movie, in which nobody onscreen is even remotely appealing. Still, the creepy atmosphere is foreboding enough, even through a haze of digital mud, to put this near the top of a very shabby pile.
The first tape: "Amateur Night", directed by David Bruckner, who co-writes with Nicholas Tecosky. Shane (Mike Donlan), Patrick (Joe Sykes), and Clint (Drew Sawyer) are three young men who are planning to go to a club, pick up women, and then have sex with them, all while being filmed by the webcam hiding in Clint's glasses. Yes, they're basically the same as the reality pornsters of "Tape 56", and no, it's not clear why webcam footage would find its way onto a VHS tape. Paranormal happenings, you know. Still, this was the point where I realised that V/H/S was going to have some problems with conceptual rigor.
The three boys pick up two women, the anonymous, very drunk Lisa (Jas Sams) and the mysterious Lily (Hannah Fierman), with gigantic eyes that stare right through, like a human tarsier. Or, a non-human tarsier, for as it turns out, Lily is the real hunter here, and she quickly turns the tables on the boys once they get her and Lisa back to their hotel room. It was probably designed as "boys with sexual assault on their minds had best watch out", in the way that men who think that they're feminists might come up with, but it plays as "look out men, because all women are devouring vampires", what with the leering, "oh my good, boobies!" tone to much of the middle and all (V/H/S as a whole is wildly enthusiastic about topless women, in the most unthinkingly sleazy way). It's obnoxious - once again, there's not a single appealing character - and far too long for its own good, maybe the most bloated of all the sequences. But the make-up on Lily once she comes out as a monster is far and away the best thing in the whole movie, and if this were, say, eight minutes instead of 20, I might even feel something positive about it.
The second tape: "Second Honeymoon", by the much-beloved Ti West. It's the other candidate for the sequence that most desperately needs to be shorter than it is: Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) are traveling west on vacation, and the video takes the form of their home movies; also the footage somebody records late at night stalking through their hotel room and generally behaving uncomfortably towards Sam. It is a maddeningly long, tedious sequence anchored by Swanberg's all-time champion Most Punchable Douchebag Face, and it only exists for the sake of its twist ending, which makes every single beat of the story and even the sequence's title suddenly ambiguous and tricky; like most films hinging on a twist, all this really does is to make shitty, generic material suddenly seem awesome! by virtue of now being confusing. Given that it's basically a single gag, it might have been tolerable at a quarter the length, but all stretched out, it's miserable, doesn't even start to be creepy until two-thirds through, and is not worth the talents of a figure with West's prominence. Particularly since it's the second sequence in a row to sum itself up as "boys, women will kill you if they get half a chance".
And here's as good a point as any to mention one of the overriding problems with V/H/S: you know how a lot of cheap horror doesn't start building up steam until halfway through? Take that and multiply it by six, since every new short has to start raising tension from scratch. It was at this point that I realised what a chore the movie was going to be, and how much it was never going to actually end up being scary (though, in fact, there's one scary-ish moment in the very next sequence).
The third tape: "Tuesday the 17th", written and directed by Glenn McQuaid. And yes, if you do the math, that means that Friday was on the 13th, and this is thus a slasher movie riff: Joey (Drew Moerlein), Samantha (Jeannine Yoder), Spider (Jason Yachanin), and Wendy (Norma C. Quinones) are traveling to the woods for a camping trip; something in the woods wants them dead. This might actually be my favorite of them all as far as its concept goes, for it actually finds a way to base its frequently video glitching - which has been an omnipresent, unwelcome feature of the movie so far - in the narrative. The execution, however, is a disaster: the gore effects look cheap across the board, and the acting is a howling nightmare, ending in yet another set of characters who are impossible to like, whose only value is that we know they're going to die soon.
There's one good scene that involves a character not being aware that the killer - who can only be seen through the camera viewfinder - is sneaking up behind him, and the person recording is deliberately not saying anything; it is genuinely tense. And it's actually a nice, fast-paced, short sequence, which is a godsend at this point.
Wanna guess the overriding theme? Did you guess, "women are untrustworthy, and want you dead"? Good guess.
The fourth tape: "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger", written by Barrett again, and directed by Swanberg, who actually makes a good fit: consisting entirely of footage of Emily (Helen Rogers) and James (Daniel Kaufman) talking on FaceTime (or at least, a non-branded FaceTime replacement, since it's plainly an Apple that they're using), the sequence at least ties in with Swanberg's noted fascination with how young people interact with one another using computer technology, and is thus the only one of the shorts in V/H/S that comes even close to having a sociological perspective, unless you count the "reality porn" thread in "Tape 56". Also tying in: Swanberg's noted fascination with making his actresses strip down, which is done here in a completely superfluous, even counter-narrative way.
It's easily the least-scary of the sequences, is the downside, as Emily blithely chats about the strange things happening to her body, in such a casual, unconcerned way (Rogers might very well give the single worst performance in the whole feature) that it's hard to care about her even a little, even once the body horror kicks in. It's another sequence that depends entirely on its twist ending for any sort of impact at all, except that where "Second Honeymoon" at least had an "aha!" moment, "The Sick Thing" is just dumb as a box of rocks that dropped out of rock high school, playing like somebody's asinine X-Files fan fiction. On the other hand, it's the only short to actively indict the male gaze and fail to include some variation of the theme that women are going to result in your death, so that's a plus.
The fifth and last tape, and easily the best: "10/31/98", made by the group collectively known as Radio Silence. As the date implies, it is set during a time frame when VHS tapes were actually still being used at least semi-regularly to record home videos, making it the only one of the six shorts that actually seems to be taking the film's overriding concept at all seriously. The scenario is, all things considered, pretty musty: four twentysomething men (played by the members of Radio Silence) are on their way to a Halloween party, end up in the wrong house by mistake, and think they've ended up in a particularly cool haunted house attraction, when they are in fact interrupting an exorcism, and misreading the situation, take the possessed girl from the building with disastrous consequences. So not exactly a "women are out to kill" you story, though if they'd just stayed away from her, nothing bad would have happened.
There's still a lot of padding, and the characters are totally interchangeable, but credit where it's due: the last few minutes are fantastic. The men carry the possessed women out of the house as everything goes indescribably crazy, with a litany of genuinely terrific practical effects exploding in every single direction. It's not really scary, more manic (and the film-ending shock scare is too openly telegraphed), but it's more than enough to be the highlight of V/H/S as a whole, and it takes up enough of the sequence's total running time to make it the only one that left me feeling like I was pleased to have spent time with it. Not much to go on, but V/H/S isn't much of a movie: a sturdy attempt to inject something new and interesting into a played-out genre, doing so with neither panache nor meaningful skill. It might well be a brand-new different kind of found footage movie, but it's no better a work of horror cinema as a result.