VHYes is a terrible title for a very cool and misleadingly smart and innovative movie. The film was directed by Jack Henry Robbins, the son of Susan Sarandon and Tim Roberts, both cult movie icons. Sarandon for her turns in Pretty Baby and the absolute pinnacle of midnight movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Roberts, to me for his Jacob in the dread film masterpiece Jacob’s Ladder, but at the very least for Tapeheads, a film about the video industry itself, or Howard the Duck. VHYes is an exciting return to the true cult films of decades ago. But you have to get past the title. That could also be a point.
The film is a comedy anthology, like Groove Tube, Kentucky Fried Movie, and Tunnel Vision. But it is also very creepy, mixing the surreal nastiness which is under the surface of Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video with the prophetic madness of Videodrome. David Cronenberg’s 1983 masterpiece is frighteningly prescient if you replace the VHS aspect with the dark web. VHYes was shot entirely on VHS tape, and there is even a plug to invest in Betamax cameras, its competitor which some say was the superior model. Before the internet, strangely personal celluloid was created on Betamax and video tapes. By the 90s, whole films were being shot on Betamax and VHS camcorders.
Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, VHYes opens at a wedding, before we quickly get the gist of the premise. Twelve-year-old Ralph’s (Mason McNulty) introductory “I just got this camera” is beyond exuberant. This is the happiest preteen on the planet. It is infectious, and viewers soon realize we may also be infected by something far more insidious than what we signed up for. Not only can Ralph tape his family and friends, but also his favorite shows by plugging the camera directly into the television. And not just his usual weekly series, but the ones on late night cable programming. At the 16 minute mark we are shown a pundit who warns the audience about the dangers of camcorder community and the future it portends.
The seventies were known as the “me generation.” We are watching the beginning of the next phase of an egotistical evolution. Rita Sternwig (Mona Lee Wylde), tells cable series host Todd Plotz (Raymond Lee) about the “tape narcissism” which comes from “VHS culture.” Camcorder community members ultimately will become more shut off from the world around them, losing interest in socializing in real time, and ultimately will become one with the camera.
The cameras will become smaller. They will go with us everywhere. The pundit, who says this is the beginning of the end of society, predicts body cams and nutmeg challenges. Taped documentation leads to “lack of sexual desire, headaches, and in rare instances, a complete psychotic break:” schizophrenic disorders, a breakdown of perception, and the blurring of reality with video fantasia. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and she minds. The life events people choose to record ultimately changes the very reality of what is being taped. This is where the comparison to Videodrome is strongest. This is the new flesh. Maybe the best aspect of the film is that we get the feeling we shouldn’t be watching.
This is not to imply that the film isn’t funny. It is, some of it so very unexpectedly. I am a fan of most of Tim Roberts works, but his Sir Roger Handley III character may be his funniest ever. The director completely commits, over the top works so well. A global-warming segment reminds me of The Boob Tube from 1975, a pornographic spoof of daytime soap operas with parody commercials running through it. The premise of this segment is that it is a late-night showing of a porn film in which the main character is a brilliant scientist in the middle of a very hot winter, but all the sex scenes have been edited out for television. What the kids are watching is being promoted as an environmental film.
VHYes is a horror film about a kid taping over his parents’ wedding tape. Much of the movie appears to be the Ralph flipping channels through stranger and stranger territory. Late night local news reports run stories about protests against photographer provocateur Robert Mapplethorpe. The first full commercial we see is about a security system so efficient it traumatizes a young girl worse than a burglar ever would. “I’ll sleep well tonight,” she smiles, covered with Mr. Nightmare’s blood. A workout show called “Blast Off!” shows the dangers of too much exertion.
It gets more fun when Ralph’s best friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw) is in the house. The first thing they do when they bring the camcorder outside is blow things up. This gives the director the chance to perfectly recreate an old joke which could only happen in the modern age. The film is derivative, very much so because it wears its influences like badges, but it is also very original. There is a subliminal possibility the break between reality and video reality is actually a coping mechanism for the marital discord Ralph’s mom (Christian Drerup) and dad (Jake Head) are traversing. The fears are real, from the global warming warning through the cold war subterfuge and into The Blair Witch territory. Years ago, local sorority sisters believed a simple magic trick, not even performed well, is proof enough of satanic witchcraft. The deadpan belief of the college students is simply amazing in its subtle zealotry. Ralph and Josh can’t resist visiting the scene of the crime and even warn whoever might be watching the tape that the kids who made it are probably dead.
The acting is perfectly appropriate. The porn stars are terrible actors, as they should be. The guests are realistically awkward. VHYes also stars Charlyne Yi, Kerri Kenney, and Mark Proksch, the psychic vampire on the series What We Do in the Shadows. He hosts a cable show where people bring in objects and he has to tell them what they really are. He ultimate gets shown a thing or two from home shopping host “Tony V” (Thomas Lennon) who spends more of his time either selling drug friendly luggage or indulging in passive aggressive sexual humiliation with his wife and co-host Cindy (Courtney Pauroso.)
Mason McNulty and Rahm Braslaw are completely natural as Ralph and Josh. This is their reality and we’re just interlopers. I want to see more Ralph and Josh movies. I want this so badly to be a thing, and yet, not to be so it won’t be spoiled by the inevitable repetition. One sequel, maybe, give them a show like Talking Dead or something, or a subversive podcast. Ralph and Josh are our future. I saw it in the past.
The film ends on a tightly budgeted free for all. Everyone contained within the tape is interacting with each other like they’re in the 60s camp classic Casino Royale, with a creepy Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In vibe thrown in. Ralph’s parents are in the same room as the home shopping hosts, porn actors and even a Bob Ross-type artist whose message is more toxic than the paints she mixes. VHYes is not for mainstream tastes, there really are no production values to speak of, but the aesthetic is sublime. It is exactly the film this reviewer has been waiting for. It is strange, more so because the video quality makes it hyper real to the point of surreal, but remains oddly familiar.
VHYes opens in theaters on January 17.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.
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