V/H/S is an example of how horror can live comfortably outside the usual narrative structures. This is an anthology, but it’s also a cool variation on the found footage concept. The idea is that a single tape has accumulated and sometimes overlapped footage of various horrific events, starting with a Halloween fun house (?) in 1998 and working its way in reverse order to a wraparound device involving the tape itself, which starts the movie. Cloverfield played briefly with this idea of a reused tape where you learn something when the old footage bleeds through. V/H/S is based entirely on it. And given how everyone uses digital storage these days, it’s a concept with a limited shelf life, like phone booths and television snow.
These stories are mostly morality plays that would be right at home in an R-rated splatter version of Twilight Zone, but with a latter day YouTube aesthetic, where the video artifacts, poor resolution, blurred lights, and bad sound are an asset. The best segment is “Amateur Night”, contributed by David Bruckner, one of the three directors of the brutal and brutally funny The Signal. “Amateur Night” unfolds like some sort of Girls Gone Wild gonzo porn segment, rolling along during a night of partying, accumulating hangers on, and eventually winding up in a motel hell of overthrown sexual power. It’s a nearly perfect example of how horror can combine nudity, gore, and shocks. Amateur Night, I like you. I like you.
A Horrible Way to Die director Adam Wingard contributes a lot of the movie’s connective tissue. Ti West’s segment, “Second Honeymoon”, has one of V/H/S’s strongest single moments, but it doesn’t have much payoff. Joe Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” applies the found footage concept to people connected over videochat, an extra layer that ironically makes it even more intimate. And if you’re going to slaughter a bunch of teenagers in the woods, “Tuesday the 17th” (get it?) has just the video trick to do it.
These are mostly well written vignettes, and the directors are good enough to know they need good actors. Hence Hannah Fierman’s bird-like succubus, Helen Rogers’ frail girl-alone-in-a-dark-house, and an assortment of believable victims. Found footage like this is the new cinema verite, and it gives horror a distinctly relatable touch. This isn’t just a movie. This is people going about the business of taping their daily lives. And you’re gazing into the mundane, waiting to glimpse something fantastic and terrible. V/H/S will oblige you.
V/H/S is currently available on video on demand.