Review: 'V/H/S'

By: Heather Seebach

Just when we thought horror was reaching maximum capacity for documentary-style films (Apollo 18, The Devil Inside, etc.), along comes V/H/S to restore our faith in the subgenre. Despite the hype, it does not "redefine horror." Rather, it captures what we fans love about the genre and delivers it in an inventive way. The found footage format is combined with an anthology layout. While that layout has made a recent comeback (see: Chillerama), this one is not just a cheap homage (see: Chillerama) but rather a creative use of anthology horror.

Producer Brad Miska (of originally conceived of V/H/S as a television series, but it ultimately evolved into this feature comprised of five vignettes and a wrap-around story. Behind the camera are some of today's best indie and horror filmmakers, including Ti West (House of the Devil), Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die), Joe Swanberg (Silver Bullets), David Bruckner (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), and newcomers Radio Silence.

In the film, a group of low-lifes are hired by a mysterious third party to break into an old man's home and steal a VHS tape. As they are looking for the right cassette, we see a couple of the recordings - five to be exact, each helmed by one of the aforementioned filmmakers. They touch on numerous horror subgenres, including ghosts, demons, psychos, and more. To go further into the specifics of each plot line would spoil the fun. Each segment is very different, and each will keep you wondering where the hell it is going.

This is absolutely the kind of film you want to see in a theater, as it is the epitome of a "midnight movie." It provides that classic in-theater horror experience - jump, scream, laugh - while still being unsettling, thought-provoking, and boundary-pushing. There are gore and boobs aplenty, but do not underestimate the film's ability to get into your head.  

All the segments make interesting short films, and none would really work alone as a full-length feature, so they are aptly suited to this unique movie. As a whole, V/H/S runs a bit long and probably would have benefited from shaving off one of its shorts.  But even the weakest of the bunch  - McQuaid's psycho killer story - is still intriguing, albeit flawed. It is a bit too avant-garde for its own good, but the villain is an interesting one.

Bruckner and Radio Silence, whose respective segments bookend V/H/S, are the best entries. Both are creepy as hell, surprisingly funny, and have impressive FX. West's eerie vignette (starring Swanberg) plays out more like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries rather than, say, Twilight Zone. Look out for a clever new take on the "pan-and-scare." Meanwhile, Swanberg's short feels like Paranormal Activity only better, and puts a surprising twist on the idea of "found footage."

The wrap-around segments, directed by Wingard, are occasionally very creepy but mostly serve to connect the otherwise-unrelated shorts. The basic concept of burglars watching creepy old VHS tapes allows all five entries to be completely separate from the others, which works out well. Each segment was created individually, connected only by vague thematic elements and a common goal - to be as scary as possible.

Each short utilizes the POV style creatively and differently, though not all make total sense. Clever and useful as it may be to use spy camera glasses, it is not like somebody actually ripped that footage to an old VHS.  So the lesson here is: don't over-think it. Besides, the logic is not nearly as weak as the majority of documentary-style horror flicks ("why are they still filming?").

V/H/S is not the messiah of contemporary horror some make it out to be, but it is a lot of fun and a breath of fresh air among all the stagnant films of this ilk. It is not without its flaws, but it has all it really needs - scares, a healthy sense of humor, and just the right amount of cleverness.

V/H/S hits Video-On-Demand on August 30th and then plays in theaters starting October 5th. 

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