I've complained in the past about the found footage format often being the last refuge for filmmakers who don't like to set up a shot, writers uninterested in crafting dialog (all while trying to convince us that the person holding the camera would absolutely, never put it down), and actors not all that into delivering dialog beyond meandering "um's" and "like's." The horror anthology "V/H/S" mostly puts lie to that complaint with a series of clever (if not always fully-formed) horror shorts by a group of indie directors which makes use of the this particular style of feature and finds a way to draw horror from the low-resolution formats.
The wraparound sequence, "Tape 56" (dir. Adam Wingard) gets things rolling as a group of camera-toting, crime-documenting crooks break into a dark and decrepit house to steal a tape for a mysterious buyer. What they find instead is a dead man in a lounge chair in front of a bank of monitors and stacks of unlabeled cassettes. A clever setup, it still requires each of the crooks to be kind of dumb (and they are pretty dumb) for each to meet their fate.
Director David Bruckner serves up the first short, "Amateur Night," involving a trio of friends on the prowl for girls, with one of them wearing a pair of glasses with an attached spycam. Ideally it's for these knuckleheads to record a night of hot sex with some willing-ish ladies, but instead ends up capturing a meeting with a strange girl named Lily who really, really likes our cameraman.
Ti West's "Second Honeymoon" follows a married couple's deteriorating relationship during a cross-country road trip and the mysterious stalker they pick up along the way. West's is the most emotionally plausible and interesting short, but its ending is so abrupt that it doesn't quite work ultimately.
Glenn McQuaid's "Tuesday the 17th" sees a group of obnoxious teens being stalked by a supernatural killer in one of the most clever uses of the format among all of the shorts. The camera is essential here to the conceit although the sheer unpleasantness of three of the four leads nearly undoes any good will we've built up for the premise.
In Joe Swanberg's "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," the titular character (Helen Rogers) is stalked by a spectral menace as her boyfriend watches over via webcam. Writer Simon Barrett creates a perplexing ending here that opens up the door for even more story, but I don't think it would have hurt this segment to elaborate a little more on the nature of the things stalking Emily.
Finally, in "10/31/98" by the four-man directing-writing team known as Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, and Chad Villella), four buddies head to what they think is a Halloween party, only to encounter a haunted house. This is maybe the least successful of the entries despite being perhaps the most technologically ambitious--seriously, the haunted house plot comes smashing into an out of left field second threat about two-thirds of the way in and lacking background on what the malevolent spirits want, the ending and fate of our heroes is similarly baffling.
You get the feeling that "V/H/S" is something of an extended experiment for everyone involved--here are the limitations, and here's a film we can make with them. But with a little more room to breathe (it clocks in at 116 minutes), "V/H/S" could have been really, really good instead of just really, really interesting. As it stands, it's worth watching just to see the seeds of several very clever ideas emerge.
Special features and presentation
Sticklers might be put off by the format cheat of presenting the movie in 16X9 in its entirety (at the very least, "10/31/98" would have been in the boxy 4:3 format), but visually you won't find any real complaints about "V/H/S" here, especially since most of the features are shown in intentionally low-resolution formats. Likewise, the sound--5.1 DTS HD--is effective in providing a surround experience to intentionally downgraded, old-school audio (there's just something so eerie about a person's distorted scream coming in through a consumer-grade HD camera and then coming out in surround).
The disc authoring could have used a little more time, particularly with the oddly-spaced chapter breaks for the feature (some jump from the middle of one sequence to another).
- Audio Commentary: With the exception of directors Glenn McQuaid ("Tuesday the 14th") and Ti West ("Second Honeymoon"), the gang's all here for the "V/H/S" commentary track, including the four-man team comprising Radio Silence, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, and Adam Wingard along with "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" writer Simon Barrett and actress Helen Rogers along with producer Roxanne Benjamin. It's a lively conversation, not just about the making of the movie but some of each creative team's philosophy and vision for their specific shorts.
- Radio Silence's "10/31/98" gets a more upbeat, alternate ending (01:32, HD), that kind of packs a little less punch but pays off some of the characters' behavior in the house more effectively.
- "More Tuesday the 17th" (02:38, HD) is a mix of throwaway scenes from that segment as well as some behind-the-scenes footage.
- "Amateur Night: Balloon Night" (03:33, HD) goes behind the scenes of that segment's prep for their camera-mounted balloon launch for the climax of "Amateur Night."
- "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" writer Simon Barrett and and star Helen Rogers are featured in a pair of webcam interviews (13:34, SD) with director Joe Swanberg on the origins of the characters and effectiveness of the webcam format.
- Six cast and crew interviews (28:42, SD) spotlight some of the creators of each sequence. While Glenn McQuaid and Ti West were absent for the commentary track, they're on-camera here breaking down their individual shorts.
- "AXS TV: A Look at 'V/H/S'" (04:51, HD) is a short promo piece for the film featuring clips from the feature spliced with bits from the cast and crew interviews.
- A behind-the-scenes photo gallery offers just that...
- "Conceptual Design Gallery: Lily" unveils some of the sketches and prosthetic work that went into Hannah Fierman's character in "Amateur Night," along with notes (there's no information on the disc about whose notes these are--presumably someone from The Creature Company responsible for the effects work here).
"V/H/S" is available on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray now from Magnet Releasing.