An anthology of five videotaped tales of terror, V/H/S provides an uneven but chilling evening’s entertainment, Ryan writes...
A little like German children's book Struwwelpeter, V/H/S is a collection of cautionary tales, each demonstrating what happens to 20-something boys and girls when they do something naughty. In its anthology of five stories, all tied together by a sixth framing narrative, we're shown the dangers of entering strange houses, wandering into the woods, chatting up strangers in bars, and other youthful and deadly pursuits.
The collective effort of several directors, including Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg and Ti West, V/H/S (which possibly stands for Various Horror Stories) is a new take on the kinds of portmanteau horror features we seldom see any more - Asylum, The House That Dripped Blood or Tales From The Crypt are a few great examples.
V/H/S is topped and tailed with an over-arching story, in which a group of unpleasant young men, who specialise in making videos of their crimes of vandalism and assault, break into a house to find an unnamed VHS tape. The movie then cuts between the gang rummaging through the house and the footage contained on the tapes they find - those tapes containing the five individual horror stories mentioned earlier. It’s an intriguing idea, and ties the disparate films together in a fresh, unusual manner.
It helps, too, that the entire film is shot on grainy, lo-fi videotape. This not only gives V/H/S a visual coherence, but also lends the movie a sleazy sense of the forbidden you may remember from renting movies from a video library, or borrowing second-generation copies of banned horror flicks from friends. V/H/S looks and feels like something nasty you might find in a skip, and is all the better for it.
The individual stories themselves are well executed. There are some decent special effects woven into Amateur Night, director David Bruckner’s opening short film, and the same can be said for the concluding chapter, 10/31/98, directed by the filmmaking Radio Silence, which ends the anthology in an explosion of paranormal activities. Ti West’s Second Honeymoon, about a couple’s misfortunes while travelling around the western region of America, has an ominous build-up leading to a disappointingly abrupt pay-off. This is something which also applies to Tuesday The 17th (director Glenn McQuaid’s knowing horror-in-the-woods tale) and The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger (Joe Swanberg) - a spooky story with an unusual twist, and one of the film’s few memorable and sympathetic performances courtesy of Helen Rogers.
While there are twists and sinister moments to savour in all of them, it has to be said that none of these stories are perfect. For one thing, the sorts of characters we meet are all broadly the same - the guys are all braying jock types who fawn and letch over women, and for the most part, deserve the horrifying fates most of them receive. The use of women either as things to be ogled or monsters to be feared is also so prevalent that I thought for one moment that V/H/S was making some unifying comment about the way females are typically treated in horror movies - but as the lengthy 116-minute duration winds on, it gradually seems more likely that its all-male makers are simply cleaving to a depressing genre trapping rather than playing around with it in an intelligent or unusual way.
There’s a problem, too, with stuffing five stories into an anthology instead of, say, two or three; every time we cut to a different story, we’re starting a new narrative from scratch, which means setting another scene, introducing some new characters, and explaining how and why they’re filming everything. If you were to draw a curve of the tension, it would rise and fall rather than gradually build, because each story effectively resets our anxiety meter back to zero.
In its most effective moments, though, V/H/S is gripping - quite rightly, its filmmakers have placed the best segments at the beginning and end. While we’ll let you discover their finer points for yourselves, they contain a few welcome twists on familiar horror settings and themes.
Horror watchers who like plenty of gore will be pleased to note that V/H/S doesn’t skimp on the fountains of blood, either, and at least two of the stories provide some proper jolts of visceral nastiness. V/H/S isn’t quite as satisfying as it could have been, but as a generously-sized grazing platter of grainy delights, it’s certainly worth a watch - probably from between quivering fingers.
V/H/S is out in UK cinemas now, and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on the 28th January.
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