Friday, October 26, 2012

Cult Movie Review: V/H/S (2012)

The home video revolution began approximately thirty years ago.  What that home video revolution entailed (and still entails today, though with different and updated equipment…) is the capacity to transform each and every person with a video camera into a journalist, a movie-maker, or even a porn star.  

Consider for just a moment all the people in the world equipped with video cameras (or today, phone cameras…) and then imagine thirty years’ worth of home movies, sex tapes, family holidays…and other stuff, all on tape or DVD, rattling around the periphery of the pop culture.

Where do these old forgotten tapes or discs go once discarded or forgotten?  To flea markets?  To yard sales?  To traders?

Whose hands do those recordings ultimately end up in, and for what, perhaps voyeuristic purpose?  What value do these personal “productions” have in the eyes of strangers?

These are just a few of the unsettling ideas that the new found-footage horror anthology V/H/S successfully explores. The film showcases five unsettling genre stories told from a first-person perspective, and the wraparound narrative device involves a group of not terribly-bright, small-time miscreants desperately searching for one particular video tape in the house of a (presumably) dead tape collector. 

As these crooks ransack the home, they watch one tape after another, and the audience witnesses some pretty disturbing and offbeat material after the VCR first lights up with the block word “PLAY” (seen over the ubiquitous blue VCR screen).

The first found-footage horror omnibus yet produced, V/H/S is an impressive horror production not merely because of the stimulating ideas I named above about three decades worth of consumer-recorded media existing around the edges of polite society, but because the stories featured here all seem joined by a common thematic thread: man’s cruelty to his fellow man, and his manipulation of his fellow man for his own ends. 

This is not a small thing. And V/H/S ably suggests that the “cognitive surplus” (to borrow a term from Clay Shirky) that permits us the time, technology and opportunity to make personal video recordings is being spent not on crafting art or even furthering commerce, but on hurting others.  It takes a special breed to hurt another human being in the ways we witness in V/H/S, but what order of supreme narcissism is required to hurt another person, and then record that pain and torment for posterity?

What does it say about a culture, the film seems to ask, when our “precious” moments recorded on tape are all about tricking, abusing, and even murdering other human beings, even ones we ostensibly love (as is the case in at least two of the five stories)? 

In some senses, this omnibus feels like an answer to the questions first raised by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989) some twenty-five years ago. 

In that film, a serial killer taped his own bloody and vicious acts, so he could enjoy them (with a beer…) at his leisure.  At the time, this act was seen as an especially atrocious, but also individual one.  Henry was a sicko, but also an outlier.  He didn’t represent the norm. 

By contrast, V/H/S suggests that, perhaps the reality-TV obsessed culture of the 2010s is as much about pain as it is about fame.  You might get your fifteen minutes of celebrity, but you’re going to suffer for it.

 “A new turns of events will soon come about…”

In V/H/S a gang of dumb crooks are hired to break into the house of a tape collector and steal an important video tape.  Unfortunately, the house is veritably filled with stacks of videotapes, and finding the right one is no easy task.  The crooks thus watch five different tapes, hoping to find their quarry.

The first tape (“Amateur Night”) involves three young men who hope to bring a young woman back to their motel from a local bar for purposes of group sex.  One of the boys, Clint, has been outfitted with a camera in his glasses, so he can tape the entire transaction.  Finally, after a long night at the bar, the boys bring two girls back to their motel room.  One woman, Lisa, passes out before she can put out.  But the strange, bug-eyed Lily (Hannah Fierman) has a few surprises in store for the guys...

The second tape, “Second Honeymoon,” follows a married couple -- Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) -- on a road trip out west.  Late one night, they are accosted by a stalker asking for a ride.  Sam refuses, but remains creeped-out by the incident.  But then, by night, the stalker breaks into the couple’s motel room and watches them sleep.  Over a few nights, the behavior escalates and becomes more and more dangerous..

In the third tape, “Tuesday the 17th,” a tortured young woman named Wendy (Norma C. Quinones) brings a group of friends back to the woods where she once faced a terrible trauma.  But this time, she’s ready to face whatever comes, even if the video camera can’t quite register the Bogeyman she fears.

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” involves a web-cam conversation between Emily (Helen Rogers) and her boyfriend as she explains a series of night terrors…and the bruises and wounds that keep appearing on her arm.

In the final, harrowing tale, “10/31/98,” a group of friends looking for a Halloween party instead find themselves in a real life house of horrors, one where some kind of occult ritual is occurring in the attic…

 “Amateur Night”

If I had to describe “Amateur Night” briefly, I would use this (admittedly trite) term: the hunters become the hunted.  

Here, three young men hope to lure a woman back to their motel room to taped sex acts. They believe that they are the predators, but in fact -- as they discover -- they are the prey.  

One extremely gory moment in the action sees the “monster” pull the penis off one of the boys, and toss it onto the motel carpet with a splat.  It’s a sight you don’t see in a horror movie every day, but the shot reflects the story’s purpose, and the idea of the (apparent) weak turning on the apparent strong.  Since sex is part of the “weaponry” used by the young men in the beginnings, it’s appropriate that sex should be part of the violence, as well.

“Amateur Night” works like gangbusters because the installment doesn’t hold back in terms of confronting the racy subject matter.  There’s not just the severed penis, for instance, but, relatively late in the game, we are treated to a moment when the (lonely?) Lily attempts to perform fellatio on one of the boys. 

But her feelings are hurt when the guy -- after witnessing the bloody demise of his friends, falling down a flight of stairs, and breaking his wrist -- can’t get it up for her ministrations. 

This valedictory moment is important because like the earlier scenes set in the motel room, the subject is sex, and how sex can be used by the strong to victimize the weak.  In this case, it turns out that the guy who wanted to have group sex so badly isn’t actually in the mood for sex when the tables are violently turned on him.  What a surprise.  Nobody likes to have control taken away, and in some sense that’s the lesson of this first tale.

Second Honeymoon”

The sophomore sortie in V/H/S comes from director Ti West.  I’m an avowed admirer of West because of his incredible films House of the Devil (2008) and The Innkeepers (2012).  His story here takes a decidedly different approach than you might expect after the “Amateur Night” gore-fest, and it concerns a young couple on a road trip.

All throughout the story, there are small signs that Sam and Stephanie aren’t really getting along, and aren’t particularly happy. But what I appreciate about this story is how little is actually revealed through dialogue or action.  Most of the frissons are unspoken, or uncommented upon. We just get little things to cue us in that things are not right, like a discussion in which Sam accuses Stephanie of stealing money from his wallet.

It’s not a portrait of marital bliss, but if you’re not paying attention, you won’t pick up the clues of discontent, either.  Like much of West’s work, there’s a high degree of nuance here.

“Second Honeymoon” is the probably the least overtly horrific of all the segments in V/H/S, but something about the human drama between Sam and Stephanie really resonates.  Like “Amateur Night,” the story involves how people set out to hurt other people, often with intricate strategies to do so.  The terror escalates from mischievous (a nasty gag involving a tooth brush) to bloody murder.

I can’t take sides in the dispute we see prosecuted in “Second Honeymoon,” but there are, of course, better ways to end a marriage.

“Tuesday the 17th

I imagine that if Cabin in the Woods (2012) hadn’t also premiered this year, many horror fans might be lauding this V/H/S segment for the way it catalogs and re-purposes horror movie clichés.  It plays roughly the same game as Whedon’s film but boasts the added benefit of actually being scary. 

In this case, a girl who was previously attacked by a Jason Voorhees-type slasher figure, returns to the woods where she was originally hunted (and escaped) and, once there, intentionally smokes weed and courts pre-marital sex to lure him out, essentially recognizing the old “vice-precedes slice-and-dice” scenario.

The only problem in her plan, of course, is that to lure the strange killer back into the open, Wendy needs human bait.  And thus she willingly offers up three friends -- or pseudo-friends, I suppose – as chum.   The story thus functions on a post-modern level, recognizing and mocking elements of the slasher movie lexicon while simultaneously offering a further variation on V/H/S’s theme about how people are cruel to one another for their own selfish purposes.

One of the elements that makes “Tuesday the 17th” an especially effective horror story is the visual presentation of the Jason-like killer.  For some reason, he never appears clearly on the video tape. 

Instead, he’s a creeping, darting, sometimes-invisible visual “distortion,” and this unusual appearance is genuinely fear-provoking.  This character might be worthy of a horror franchise all on his own…

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”

Punctuated by a number of jump scares, the fourth tale in V/H/S really seems to be a comment on domestic abuse and spousal exploitation.  

A kind, sweet girl named Emily faces night after night of confrontations with the ghost-like figures of malevolent children.  Her boyfriend thinks she is crazy, even when he sees evidence of the ghouls, and doesn’t come to her aid.

I don’t want to reveal the punch-line or surprise ending, but you may have guessed that all is not as it seems, and that there is a conspiracy (a la Rosemary’s Baby [1968]) to keep Emily firmly trapped in this cycle of nightly abuse.

Again, I don’t want to belabor the people-hurting-people-and-then-recording it aspect of these stories, but suffice it to say that “The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” fits in with the film’s leitmotif.  Visually, the story plays like a combination of the Paranormal Activity series and the Japanese water girl horror movement.

I should also add, perhaps, that my wife found this segment the most disturbing and frightening of the five stories. 

As for me, that honor goes to…


I can see why the filmmakers left this story for last.  It’s a harrowing, effects-heavy tale about lost trick-or-treaters who end up in a House of the Devil-type scenario, almost literally trying to outrun the Devil. 

I found this story absolutely spell-binding, in part because the protagonists violate the movie’s established character “type” up to that point.  They are not miscreants, exploiters or manipulators.  They are not murderers, either.  Instead, they are just average Joes who end up in the wrong house on the wrong night and are faced with a moral crisis. 

Should they rescue the girl they find in the attic, or just get the hell out?

What I enjoyed so much about this story is that it best gets at the idea of life unfolding around you spontaneously, and in front of the camera.  In other words, our characters walk headlong into situations they don’t understand, and have no frame of reference for any understanding.  Are the men torturing the girl upstairs actually devil worshippers? Or are they performing an exorcism?  Is the girl an innocent child being exploited (thus keeping with the people-hurting-people leitmotif) or possessed by a horrible demon?

The guys who blunder into this situation have no time to determine the truth.  But -- heroically -- they act on gut instincts and attempt to rescue the girl before getting the hell out of that damned house.

And damned house is an apt description. 

As the visitors attempt to flee, monstrous arms lunge out of walls, doorways reshape into solid walls, and other surreal terrors ensue.  In all my years reviewing horror movies, I’ve never seen a story more viscerally present a human vs. the Devil clash, with the Devil holding all the cards.  This story is, genuinely terrifying, a cinema-verite-styled nightmare.  Accordingly, “10/31/98” ends V/H/S on an adrenaline rush of anxiety, giggles, and outright terror.

As you probably remember, I’m a long-time admirer of the found footage approach to horror films, and here that approach does the seemingly impossible: it raises the moribund genre form of the anthology from the grave

Together, the stories all carry an umbrella of unity thanks to the theme I’ve mentioned, but also in terms of consistent visual approach.  This is quite an accomplishment, considering the diversity of the tales, from supernatural horror (“Amateur Night”), to psychological thriller and intrigue (“Second Honeymoon”) to post-modern meta-horror (“Tuesday the 17th.”)  A lot of ground gets covered in terms of the genre, and none of it feels like a stretch, or out of place.

In most anthologies there’s also stinker story or two weighting down the whole, but V/H/S is rock solid in that regard, and best of all ends on a high note of horror.

If you’re seeking a good, scary Halloween movie this year, look no further. V/H/S is America’s Scariest Home Videos.


  1. I like the layout change. Your web page is loading much faster. I am still having a little problem finding everything, but it may be because I am not used to the new layout. Thank you so much for such an interesting site.

  2. Thanks for the review of this one. I was on the fence about seeing it, because I've watched quite a few found footage flicks recently and found them mostly disappointing. But your review has convinced me to give it a shot. I didn't know Ti West was working on this one. In the last couple weeks I watched "The Innkeepers" and "House of the Devil" and enjoyed them both a great deal. I'm really looking forward to what he does next and hey, here it is.

  3. I do not recall ever reading such a glowing review for a film on this blog as the one you've just written. And I have read your 3 'Decade' books on horror and such a glowing review is usually the domain of the 'Halloween's' and the 'Blair Witch Projects'. Being a sucker for FF films, I had every intention of seeing this film, but if I was on the fence, you've certainly sold it.