Sometimes, it’s late at night and you’re browsing the suggested movies on Netflix and you pick one at random based only on the title. That’s how I found V/H/S – a found-footage style horror movie that surprised me by how much it didn’t suck! I’m not saying it was good… But it didn’t suck. Hit the jump for a spoiler-free review and some:
Alright… Confessional time. I loved The Blair Witch Project… Let me put that in perspective. Blair Witch came out in 1999. I graduated from High School in 1999. I was young, and although, as a bit of a tech nerd, I was already a pretty heavy internet user, the way films were marketed was a bit different back then, so you didn’t have as much of an opportunity to hear about these things while they were in production.
Now, I can’t prove any of this, but according to Wikipedia, The Blair Witch Project was made in 1997, and I believe the producers shopped it around in comic conventions and the film festival circuit. Why do I believe this? Because in 1998 (a full year before the film was released) I remember a friend of mine at the time telling me about this crazy documentary he saw about this real ghost called ‘The Blair Witch!’ (Hey, JD Salisbury! If you’re out there, get in touch!). This was pre-internet viral marketing! The word was spreading! And they had us tricked! It was being presented as a documentary, and I bought into it. It was awesome. Right up until the moment the three kids from it appeared on Letterman about a month or two before the movie came out.
Anyway, it was very cool, and even with the secret spoiled, Blair Witch was well-represented, very suspenseful and I think the ‘found-footage’ technique is a very effective way to suspend the viewers’ disbelief.
Fast forward to the present. As I said above, my Netflix browsing brought me the movie V/H/S. It’s more found-footage horror, so that was promising to me. Plus the title. I loved the idea of a horror movie about a legacy video format. But it only goes downhill from there.
The entire thing is presented as a V/H/S tape, including tracking artifacts and low-resolution. It begins with footage of some hooligans trashing an abandoned building and then sinks to a low point of them assaulting a woman in a parking garage. All they do is grab her and lift her shirt. Apparently the characters are selling the footage as amateur porn. It’s not quite rape, but it’s not necessary either. Big mark against it there.
Anyway, these hooligans then are charged with the task of breaking in to an old guy’s house to steal a particular tape. They do so and it’s creepy and (of course) the old guy is dead in a chair in front of a pile of TVs and tapes. This sets up the anthology part of the film. One of the kids starts watching one of the tapes. The rest of the movie, which goes for an excruciatingly long two hours, gives us five horror vignettes, with the main thread of the hooligans in between. The main thread, by the way, is incredibly weak and unnecessary, so that’s the last you’ll hear about it from me.
Film 1: Amateur Night
After the first bit of rape-ish-ness (is that a word? Also – let this be your potential trigger-warning for this movie) the first film is in extreme poor taste, goes on far too long, and is just plain uncomfortable to watch (not only for the content but for the extreme shaky-cam). A group of Dude-Bros set out to get some girls drunk and bring them back to a motel room to have sex with them and film it as an amateur porn. Not cool to watch. I almost turned it off, because I had seen nothing entertaining for nearly twenty minutes. But then they introduce Lily. She’s very pretty, but strange-looking and has almost unnaturally large eyes.. She’s awkward, she doesn’t really say anything but she goes along for the ride. Just when you think things are going to get even worse, they reveal that Lily’s not quite human. In fact, I’m pretty sure you could call her a succubus. It turns supernatural and violent, but at least it’s better than the Dude-Bros. It doesn’t really save the short, but it’s enough to get me curious about the next one.
Film 2: Second Honeymoon
This is much better! This one is about a couple out on a trip in Arizona. It only gets a little creepy, and keeps the suspense up through the sheer fact that almost nothing actually happens, other than the pretty standard vacation footage. Of course, this is a horror film, and eventually it does turn around into something particularly gruesome. There’s even a surprise twist, à la M. Night Shyamalan! Definitely enough to keep going.
Film 3: Tuesday the 17th
It’s a generic cabin in the woods horror story, yay! Four teenagers are on their way to camp out in the middle of nowhere! Actually, I would love to know where this was shot. It was a beautiful location! As the story progresses, they tell of some murders that happened out in this same place last year. You can guess where it goes from there.
The story is obvious and predictable, but I actually really liked this one for other reasons. This was a very effective use of the found-footage technique! Every now and then the camera shows artifacts that appear to be violence and dead bodies. It’s quick and it serves to build the tensions. The killer itself (spoiler! oops!) even appears to be made of old VHS tracking artifacts! Very cool. Thumbs up for editing and visual technique!
Film 4: The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger
OK… I was willing to forgive a few technical flaws up until this point. I loved the idea that the movie was called V/H/S, and I was really looking forward to how the producers were going to use this old technology. They failed pretty quickly by using modern spy cams and obvious digital or DV recorders… But whatever, it’s still fun. The fourth short in this anthology, however, uses Skype (or an unnamed Skyp-like clone) to tell the story. It’s very effective. In fact, it might be the best story in the film! But, why is it on a VHS tape?! One of the characters says he’s specifically NOT recording the conversations! And why would it be on a VHS tape?! Fail! Good day, sir!
OK, now that I’ve ranted about that… This was a great story about a couple who are continuing their relationship long-distance via Skype. The woman, Emily, has recently moved into an apartment that she believes is haunted. The whole story is told through her webcam. It is suspenseful, creepy, uncanny and very well made! It has some great ‘jump-moments,’ too! Nothing is as it seems and I will not spoil it. Well done!
Film 5: 10/31/98
The fifth and final film of the anthology takes place from the point of view of someone who is dressed for Halloween as a teddy bear with a Nanny cam installed in it. Clever. It’s Halloween night in 1998 and four male friends are out to find a party. They find the house where the party is supposed to be happening and it’s empty.
If you know me, than I have probably made you watch a Youtube short called Chad Hates Aliens. This segment was made by the same people. They are excellent at what they do!
Now, I don’t know where this house was, but it was huge! The house was very large and sprawling and had a dizzying layout. I could not tell where anything was in relation to anything else. It was mostly empty, but clearly well-kept and clean. As they explore the house we find oddly placed furniture and the hint that there may be a ghostly child lurking… The tension builds and builds and the house gets creepier and creepier until they find some people who are preparing to kill a woman. It may be a sacrifice, she might be a ‘witch…’
The finale of this segment is surprising special effects rich and very fun to watch. I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’re a fan of horror, this might be the most fun film in the whole anthology.
I was ready to love this film. Then I hated it and wanted to turn it off! Then I slowly began to appreciate it again. So here’s what you do, but only if you like horror:
Look it up on Netflix, start the movie and IMMEDIATELY fast-forward to about 30 minutes in. That effectively skips the rapey stuff and the succubus short. Then watch the next 90 minutes and enjoy a fun Blair Witch-style horror anthology, with some annoying stuff in between. That experience is worth 4 out of 5 stars!
If you feel you must see the whole thing to judge for yourself, then go ahead, but it becomes only a 2.5 out of 5 star experience.