If the title of V/H/S evokes a video format prevalent in the 1980s, then its extraneous ‘slashes’ point in two opposite directions, suggesting both the horror subgenre most closely associated with the Reagan era, and the conventional punctuation of a URL.
The film itself, an anthology of short pieces by different filmmakers, similarly marries the clashing sensibilities of Generations X and Z – for while each of its episodes is shot in a first-person POV style that is voguishly contemporary, and shows characters using hidden minicams, smartphones, Skype and other signifiers of our post-millennial age, at the same time all this material purports, without explanation or apology, to have been preserved on now redundant VHS cassettes.
Of course, the independent horror directors contributing to this portmanteau film would all have been weaned on the genre back in the VHS era, and so the artificial incorporation of tracking problems, poor resolution, stretched tape and in-camcorder crash edits reflects a formative way of seeing horror, dripping with nostalgia, that ironically brings new, postmodern life to the otherwise increasingly moribund trope of ‘found footage’.
The sheer variety of the stories on offer here is part of their appeal. In ‘Amateur Night’, directed by David Bruckner (The Signal), three young men hoping to make their own covert pornography via a tiny camera hidden in a pair of glasses bite off more than they can chew when they pick up wide-eyed Lily (Hannah Fierman) in a club and take her back to their motel room for a midnight feast of flesh.
There is similar feminist table-turning in ‘Second Honeymoon’ (Ti West, The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), albeit without even a hint of the supernatural, as cleanfreak couple Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal), on a road trip to the Grand Canyon to revitalise their flagging relationship, are filmed as they sleep by a knife-wielding stalker with an agenda that you are unlikely to see coming.
‘Tuesday the 17th‘ (Glenn McQuaid, I Sell the Dead) introduces an evil avatar of VHS glitchiness to the classic ‘co-eds in the woods’ formula, ambiguously negotiating a lakeside path between paranormal phenomena and schizoid murderousness, where, as in Lovely Molly, the camera is either recording an uncanny reality or merely reflecting a fractured psyche.
‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’ (Swanberg, director of Silver Bullets plus a host of mumblecore movies) plays a similarly schizophrenic game with its form, as self-harming student Emily (Helen Rogers) skypes her long-distance boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman) in the hope of getting him to witness the strange goings-on in her apartment at night. Merging the webcam alienation of The Collingswood Story and the spectral invasions of Paranormal Activity, before deviating in a different direction entirely, this is the film’s creepiest, slipperiest episode.
’10/31/98′, made by the four-director collective Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villela), manages to combine a haunted house, cultish torture porn, ghostly witchery and ‘Owl Creek Bridge’ motifs into a Halloween cracker, with some hauntingly surreal imagery.
Each of these short films has something striking and twisted to offer, yet unfortunately they are all linked together by a frame story – ‘Tape 56’ by Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next) – that fails either to satisfy in itself, or to provide a satisfying shape, leaving the overall film with a flawed, artificial structure. So in the end, the bloody parts of V/H/S are better than the whole – but still, with the many talents at work here, this may just be the retro-future of horror.
Originally published in Little White Lies as part of coverage for The Film4 FrightFest 2012.