After a fallow period dominated by increasingly tired torture porn antics, American horror movies are starting to bounce back in a big way, thanks to clever, fun and genuinely scary titles like Silent House (minus the last ten minutes), The Innkeepers and even Paranormal Activity 3. One thing the genre's fans have still been waiting for, though, is the return of those great horror anthologies that were churned out with regularity during the '70s, '80s and early '90s -- think films like Trilogy of Terror, Creepshow or my personal favorite, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie. Well, the wait is finally over. Last Thursday, the omnibus production V/H/S arrived on VOD (it opens in theaters on October 5) and instantly establishes itself as 2012's finest horror movie so far and one of the best of the past few years. With V/H/S literally at your fingertips, there's no reason to throw your money away on recent theatrical horror releases like The Apparition and The Possession.
Beyond being a top-notch scary movie, V/H/S -- which consists of five found-footage features, plus a wraparound segment -- is also one of the rare anthology films where each individual short is quality work. Generally speaking, you're lucky if half of them are any good; V/H/S bats five for five... although it goes without saying that some of the films stand out more than others. The weakest section may actually be the framing device, which follows a crew of young punks filming themselves as they break into a house in order to retrieve a VHS tape that's of vital import to their unseen employer. Once inside, they find a room that's lined with old video tapes, as well as a snowy television in front of which sits a body that looks and smells dead. While some of the guys poke around the house, others plot down in front of the boob tube and feed tapes into an ancient VCR (a technology that many younger horror fans who watch this movie may have never encountered in the wild). There is a payoff to this sequence eventually, but it's not especially memorable and wraparound segment director Adam Wingard may have outsmarted himself somewhat by playing around too much with which level of reality these scenes are meant to be taking place in. (In an effort to mimic the effect of a VHS "mix tape," Wingard occasionally interrupts the guys-in-the-house stuff with quick cutaways to scenes from other home movies, suggesting that this tape has passed through the hands of a few owners. It's an idea that works better in theory than in practice.)
If the framing device doesn't completely work, the meat of the movie -- the five VHS tapes that the robbers (and us) watch -- certainly does. It's worth noting that while all of the shorts are made in the found footage style, no two of them are the same kind of horror movie. The minds behind V/H/S have done an excellent job curating shorts that represent different subgenres within horror, from a psychosexual thriller to an old-fashioned haunted house story told in a radically new way. Here are mini-reviews of each film in chronological order.
Directed by: David Bruckner
Thumbnail Synopsis: A group of obnoxious frat boy-types hit the town looking for a lady to lure back to their hotel room and star in their homemade porno.
Female vengeance against crimes perpetrated by men has long been a standard horror movie trope and it's a theme that runs through several of V/H/S's shorts, most blatantly (and effectively) in this film from David Bruckner. (Which brings up the one major caveat I have with the movie; as much as I enjoyed V/H/S, I do wish they producers had found a female director to include in the mix so it would seem like less of a boys' club and also potentially make a short that approaches this theme from a different angle.) It's also the movie that put me most strongly in mind of Tales from the Darkside, specifically the final entry in that anthology in which an artist marries a mysterious woman who turns out to be a killer gargoyle. (It's much better than my brief recap sounds, trust me.) In this case, after trolling singles' bars for easy targets, the sex-crazed guys pick up a quiet, mousy girl to participate in their porn-movie theatrics. When their intentions become clear, she transforms into a monster right in front of their eyes. It's a simple, straightforward premise that's elevated by Bruckner's deft execution, from the relaxed, natural joshing of the a-hole pals to the big reveal of the she-demon, which is achieved with a near-seamless mixture of practical and digital effects.
Best Scene: The climactic confrontation between the last man standing (who also happens to be the virgin of the bunch, in a nice twist on the usual "female virgin" stereotype) and the monster soars to great heights of tension.
Overall Grade: A-
Directed by: Ti West
Thumbnail Synopsis: Married couple Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) celebrate their second honeymoon with a road trip through the American Southwest. Unbeknownst to them, there's another traveler along for the ride...
The lone entry in V/H/S to lack a supernatural tinge, Second Honeymoon makes up for its absence of ghosts and/or goblins by fostering a sustained aura of dread and making provocative use of the first-person perspective, something that's rarely addressed in found footage features. Initially, Sam and Stephanie seem like your average happy couple, but the longer we observe them, the more obvious it becomes that there are serious cracks in their relationship, with a tangible rage simmering just below the surface. The emerging battle of wills plays out in part by who gets to wield the camera, When Sam holds it, it's often to buttonhole Stephanie into being more affectionate (as in Amateur Night, the idea of recording a sex tape is floated) while she uses it more as an interrogation tool to get him to open up about his plans for their future... specifically for the road trip, but one senses beyond that as well. Director Ti West -- who previously made both The Innkeepers and the superb The House of the Devil -- deliberately keeps the tension in a low gear at first but Second Honeymoon hits maximum velocity when a third hand suddenly picks up the camera, setting the plot on a course for a finale that upends everything you thought you knew. The other shorts in V/H/S may be more conventionally "scary," but this is the most formally and narratively challenging of the bunch.
Best Scene: In the dead of night, the camera is switched on and films Sam and Stephanie while they sleep. Whoever is holding it then proceeds into the bathroom where we see... well, you'll have to watch it to find out.
Overall Grade: A
Tuesday the 17th
Directed by: Glenn McQuaid
Thumbnail Synopsis: A quartet of buddies -- two guys and two girls (one of whom is the requisite busty blonde) -- head off for a relaxing getaway at a cabin in the woods. Needless to say, spooky shit starts to go down soon after their arrival.
Although Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods seemed to render the whole cabin-in-the-woods horror subgenre null and void, Glenn McQuaid gives it the old college try with Tuesday the 17th, where inventive special effects help make up for the overwhelming familiarity of the premise. For better or for worse, Whedon and Goddard were out to make both a horror movie and a thesis statement; McQuaid is just interested in straight-up scares, which means there's none of the self-aware commentary that made Cabin such a clever (if sometimes antiseptic) ride. On the other hand, there is a lot more gore here, as each of the kids are offed in gruesome ways by a mysterious figure of enormous power, who only registers on their camera as a tracking glitch. At one point, McQuaid half-heartedly offers up some backstory for this killer and why he's stalking these kids (one in particular), but frankly it doesn't make a lot of sense and it doesn't affect the final outcome one iota. It's best to enjoy Tuesday as an extended homage to the bloodsoaked slasher movies of old (like, say, Friday the 13th) and not go looking for any deeper meaning in it.
Best Scene: The sole survivor lays a series of traps for the killer Home Alone-style and appears to triumph... for a moment, anyway.
Overall Grade: B
The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Thumbnail Synopsis: While Skyping with his long-distance girlfriend Emily (Helen Rogers), James (Daniel Kaufman) comes to realize that her fears that her apartment is haunted may, in fact, be true.
If the set-up sounds a little too close to Paranormal Activity for comfort, mumblecore darling Joe Swanberg's use of Skype -- as well as a killer final twist that would make Rod Serling proud -- sets The Sick Thing... apart from that more famous found footage franchise about strange goings-on in someone's home. Because of the intimate nature of the video chat format (our field of vision is almost exclusively limited to the edges of the frame just around the characters) the success of the film rests largely on the shoulders of the two actors and both Rogers and Kaufman do a nice job making this fantastical situation believable and delivering pertinent information in a way that doesn't just resemble rote recitation of exposition. Although one of the shorter entries in V/H/S, the movie's pace does flag at times and some of the big "Boo!" moments aren't executed as effectively as they might have been by a more experienced horror director. But kudos to Swanberg for pulling off a moment of body horror that even David Cronenberg might blanch at.
Best Moment: The Twilight Zone twist that closes out the movie.
Overall Grade: B+
Directed by: Radio Silence
Thumbnail Synopsis: Four friends turn up at an isolated house expecting to find the Halloween party to end all Halloween parties, but are completely unprepared for what they actually encounter.
10/31/98 marks the feature film debut of Radio Silence, a four-man filmmaking team who have become something of an Internet sensation through made-for-the-Web shorts, which are viewable at their official site. And if this is the kind of filmmaking they're capable of on the big screen, then expect to be seeing a lot more from them real soon. Because in terms of sheer scares-per-second no film in V/H/S (or, for that matter, no horror movie within the past year) matches this pulse-pounding variation on the traditional haunted house scenario. From the moment the guys enter the house, 10/31/98 doesn't let up, starting off with subtle signs that things just aren't right about this place (like objects moving about in the background or hallways that seem to twist and turn for an eternity) before erupting into a cavalcade of craziness, with an exorcism happening in the attic and arms extending out of the walls, in an obvious nod to the Roman Polanski horror classic Repulsion. The directors make terrific use of their location, turning the house into a living, breathing character that has a wicked personality of its own. (If Hollywood ever gets around to making a movie version of House of Leaves, these are the guys to do it.) Of all the great movies included in V/H/S, this is the one I could see myself watching over and over again the most.
Best Moment: It's hard to single out just one moment, the guys' dawning horror about what they find in the attic is priceless.
Overall Grade: A
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