This review was originally published on January 29, 2012, as part of Film.com's Sundance Film Festival coverage.
We've reached the point where there are so many "found footage" horror films that we have to cram several of them into one package to avoid glutting the marketplace. The result, "V/H/S," includes six segments by nine directors, and like most anthologies, it's a mixed bag. The nice thing about anthologies is that if one of the stories isn't very good, you only have to wait a few minutes before another one starts.
The conceit in "V/H/S" is that a bunch of vulgar hipsters are being paid to break into a house and steal a particular videotape for reasons unknown to them or us. They're filming themselves in the act, so we're able to see what befalls them. We also see the videotapes they watch while trying to find the right one, and each tape has its own ghastly story to tell.
Genre fans will find the scenarios familiar, though not unimaginatively so. One segment is a twist on the classic "horny teens at a lake," and another is about a haunted house. Most of the tales have men being awful to women, with the women getting varying degrees of revenge. There is no shortage of boobs 'n' blood, nor of hip, raucous humor.
None of that will surprise you if you've seen the contributing directors' previous work, which includes "The Signal," "A Horrible Way to Die," "The House of the Devil," and "I Sell the Dead." The new generation of indie horror has moved past the self-referential "Scream" style and gone back to the gory, don't-go-in-the-basement basics. "V/H/S" shows the directors adapting well to the constraints of the found footage conceit and finding ingenious ways to avoid the sub-genre's recurring "Why is that idiot still holding the video camera?!" problem. One segment consists entirely of two people's webcam chats. Another has a character wearing eyeglasses fitted with a tiny camera so that he can film his buddies having sex with girls without the girls knowing they're being filmed. In the lake segment, the video camera plays an important role in the story itself.
The best segments are the first and the last. David Bruckner's contribution, about the date rapists and their special eyeglasses, has some deliciously satisfying twists. The haunted house entry, by four-man collective Radio Silence, is just good old-fashioned, armrest-clutching fun. In between are the aforementioned video chat (directed by Joe Swanberg, written by him and Simon Barrett), whose ideas are better than the execution; a story about a young couple on a road trip (by Ti West) that offers a few moments of suspense but doesn't add up to much; and Glenn McQuaid's teens-at-the-lake chapter, which plays its tricks admirably well. The wrap-around story, directed by Adam Wingard, about the dudes looking for a videotape, is functional but very slight on its own.
Could any of these be expanded into a full-length film? No! And nobody's trying to make that happen! Let us admire the restraint. Though the individual segments are hit or miss, the technical aspects are uniformly terrific. The "Paranormal Activity" series has reminded us how much can be done with "live" effects -- sleight of hand rather than CGI -- and "V/H/S" takes it even further in a variety of clever ways (although it uses some computers, too). Cinema's first found-footage horror anthology suggests that there's still some life left in these old tropes.