Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2012


Amateur hour

Anthology film 'V/H/S' is a poorly thought-out exercise in low-budget horror'

Magnet Releasing
Director: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and Radio Silence
Screenplay: Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Nicholas Tecosky, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella
Rated R / 1 hour, 56 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

If V/H/S were a collection of shorts made by your film-school buddies and given a grand unveiling in the student union, you'd respond with a hearty applause and pat your friends on the back.

More to the point, if you or I saw V/H/S and someone told us that it was a collection of student films, we would probably believe it. Well, OK, maybe we'd scratch our heads at the professional-looking special effects. But the filmmaking quality as a whole is more reminiscent of something you'd slap together over a weekend with a borrowed video camera.

This is an omnibus film from a team of indie-film pros (among them the likes of the very talented Ti West and the very prolific Joe Swanberg) who wind up combining for far less than the sum of their parts. Mostly we get a series of half-baked ideas punctuated by bad acting and annoying camerawork. The annoying camerawork is intentional, of course, because as you may have guessed from the title, the segments in V/H/S are of the "found footage" variety.

I'll leave aside my usual complaints about that style, because this movie offers a smorgasbord of new, unique complaints. Let's start with its structure. There are six segments, one of which serves as the framing device for the other five. The whole videotape conceit rests on this frame story, which involves a group of petty thieves who break into a house looking for a particular tape. Two of them go into the basement looking for it, while a third stays in the living room and watches horrifying home video after horrifying home video. The horrifying videos he watches are, you guessed it, the five other segments.

Aside from being a flimsy conceit to begin with, the idea never really pays off because this particular segment (called Tape 56 and directed by Adam Wingard) is entirely uninvolving on its own. Anthology films like this don't need to be connected by a framing narrative, so without any sense of purpose of its own, Tape 56 plays like nothing more than an excuse for its own existence.

Not to mention the fact that the segment ends before the sixth and final segments begins, completely undermining the whole narrative point of Tape 56. But nevermind. What's even more glaring is the filmmakers' inability to commit to their general conceit as a whole. Consider: Each segment, per the framing device, appears on a VHS tape - despite the fact that much of the footage was captured on more modern recording devices like webcams.

Or how about the fact that even the older footage recorded on home camcorders - footage dating back to the '90s (and maybe even the '80s at one point, though I can't remember for sure) - is still presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, despite the fact that such a ratio would almost definitely not have been used by anyone operating a camcorder back then, much less when it was later converted to a VHS tape?

Am I nitpicking? Yes. Yes I am. My point is only that the makers of this movie are only half-heartedly committed to their own idea. The apparent concept was to build horror using old footage found on videotapes, but no one thought to actually make those tapes fully convincing on any technical level. Doesn't that reek of laziness?

The best segment in V/H/S is the final one, 10/31/98, directed by Radio Silence (separately: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella), about a group of four guys headed to a Halloween party only to find themselves in a genuine haunted house. The segment isn't particularly scary, but there's some real inventiveness to it as it gradually turns into an amusing funhouse flick. The special effects and art direction are first-class, and in moments even reminded me (deliberately, I assume) of Polanski's Repulsion.

The big disappointment, to me at least, was Ti West, director of the skillfully made House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. Going in, I knew he had directed one of the shorts, though I wasn't sure which one. When the film concluded, I assumed it was 10/31/98 just because of the production value - or perhaps Amateur Night, which has similarly strong effects and is one of the only segments to really execute a full narrative.

But imagine my surprise when West's contribution turned out to be the utterly tedious Second Honeymoon, which offers absolutely nothing of interest until a late plot twist, one which is hardly interesting enough to justify the 20 minutes we had to sit through to get there.

I don't doubt that each of these filmmakers could do much better work than they do here, and in many cases already have. V/H/S is an odd mixture of failures - some of the ideas need feature length to really flesh out. Others hardly have enough material to warrant five minutes. In any case, none of the sequences work completely, and piled all together, they work even less.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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