Wednesday, October 10, 2012

V/H/S (2012)

Although they're seemingly nowhere near as common as they might have been in the past, there exists a type of movie called the "anthology film." If you're unfamiliar with the term, allow me to clue you in. An anthology film is what you get when you compile a number of short movies ― some by one director, some by a group of them ― into one feature-length movie, with scenes between each segment to serve as some kind of overarching theme to connect them. If you've seen Creepshow or Twilight Zone: The Movie, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Anthology films aren't exactly filling up the multiplexes at this point in time, but they do exist if you know where to find them. One that got a bit of attention in horror fan circles despite its tiny release was Chillerama, which brought four independent horror filmmakers together to give us a number of comedic tales of terror that lampooned drive-in creature features. I still haven't gotten around to watching Chillerama, but there was another recent anthology movie that I absolutely had to see as soon as I got the opportunity.

Titled V/H/S, the movie takes a turn away from Chillerama's humor and drives straight for the scares. And like almost all of the anthology movies that have preceded it, V/H/S also has its own gimmick: each segment is done in the "found footage" style. That particular type of filmmaking has its detractors, but I'm a fan when it's pulled off successfully. The "found footage" aspect is the big thing that drew me to V/H/S, and I'm really excited to see how it turned out. So join me as I fire up a dusty old VCR and give the movie a shot.

The overarching story, the one that connects all the other segments, is a simple one. A group of hooligans, dedicated to catching their random acts of vandalism and sexual assault on videotape, are hired by an anonymous benefactor to break into a house and steal a VHS tape with some particularly lurid footage on it. But when the gang gains entry into the house, they discover the body of the house's owner, who seemingly died watching a wall of TVs. And just their luck, he's surrounded by a huge stack of unlabelled VHS tapes. If they're going to fine the video they've been sent to retrieve, they'll need to hunker down and watch all of them first.

The first of these tapes (titled "Amateur Night") introduces us to Shane (Mike Donlan), Patrick (Joe Sykes), and Clint (Drew Sawyer), a trio of irresponsible frat boys who just want to get laid and record the whole thing on the miniature spy camera hidden in Clint's glasses. They think they've hit the jackpot when they convince two lovely young women, Lily (Hannah Fierman) and Lisa (Jas Sams), to follow them to their motel room. But the three drunken horndogs are not aware, however, that one of the girls is more predator than prey.

The next tape is "Second Honeymoon," which follows a young married couple named Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) as they embark on, as you can expect from the segment's title, their second honeymoon. Their cross-country road trip takes them to an Old West themed tourist destination, where they're shadowed by a mysterious stalker (Kate Lyn Sheil). This stalker follows their every move, even breaking into their motel room as they sleep. At first the stalker plays a few mean-spirited pranks on them, and then moves on to stealing their things. This mysterious figure quickly grows tired of its games and escalates things to a much more dangerous and violent level.

The tape after that ("Thursday the 17th") sees a group of friends venturing out into the woods to have a little fun. Things get a little weird, though, when the camera starts capturing quick images of dead, mutilated bodies that aren't there from one second to the next. And then one of the friends, an odd young woman named Wendy (Norma C. Quinones), starts making bizarre comments about how they're all going to die. She's actually onto something, as a supernatural killer disguised within a patch of blurry technical glitches in the camera's viewfinder begins taking them out one by one. It soon comes down to Wendy versus the killer in a battle for survival.

Tape number four is "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," a mouthful of a title if I ever heard one. It focuses on James (Daniel Kaufman) and the titular Emily (Helen Rogers), a couple in a long-distance relationship who bridge the distance between them via online video chats. Emily's recently moved into a new apartment, one that she is convinced is haunted. She sees odd visions of children running from room to room, and a strange bump has appeared on her arm. Of course, James is skeptical. Emily's webcam begins capturing some of the bizarre events that have been plaguing her, making it harder and harder to deny that something might be out to get her.

The movie's final tape ("10/31/98") sees a quartet of friends heading for a Halloween party. They arrive at what they think is the house hosting the party, but find it deserted. Letting themselves in through the back door, the four would-be partiers enter what they're initially led to believe is just a haunted house attraction that's closed for the evening. But when ghostly figures and strange noises lead them to the attic, they find some sort of cult in the process of performing some kind of ritual on a tied-up woman (Nicole Erb). But when they accidentally interrupt the ritual, the four men realize that something malevolent is in the house and all hell is about to break loose.

I was initially really excited to see V/H/S. The concept alone sounded awesome, and I thought the trailers looked tremendous. After reading some lukewarm reviews and opinions of the movie online, however, the enthusiasm I had going in was dulled somewhat. But after having finally sat down and watched it, I can honestly tell you that V/H/S is totally worth watching. It's not without its flaws, as there's plenty of room for improvement in some of the segments. But I'd still call it a must-see for fans of low-budget horror and the found footage genre.

Having never reviewed an anthology movie before, I was a little unsure of how I should handle it at first. But I figure it would be easier if I just broke it down segment by segment. Let's start with the wraparound story, a batch of segments titled "Tape 53" in the closing credits. Directed by Adam Wingard, "Tape 53" doesn't really add a lot to the movie beyond setting up the basic premise and concept. These interstitial segments are well-made and well-acted with the occasional spooky moment, but they end up becoming repetitive after a while. A lot of these bits just grow predictable, with nothing new added until the last one.

But "Tape 53" is only a small piece of the bigger puzzle. Things pick up in "Amateur Night," a fine piece of business directed by David Bruckner. Bruckner does a fantastic job setting things up, building a creepy, unsettling feeling as each second passes. It helps that Bruckner is working with some good actors as well, particularly Drew Sawyer and Hannah Fierman. Sawyer does a rather understated job, trying to develop a character that wasn't given much development in the script. You can tell his character is a decent enough guy who is really uncomfortable partaking in the evening's debauchery with his friends, and Sawyer makes it work.

But "Amateur Night" is totally stolen by Fierman, who is really creepy, really off-putting, and fascinating to watch. Her body language and great big doe eyes are expressive enough on their own, which allows Fierman say a ton with just a few words. It makes her transition from shy, weird girl to man-eating monster that much more scary.

Let's move along to "Second Honeymoon," written and directed by up-and-coming horror filmmaker Ti West. West made a name for himself with his critically acclaimed The House of the Devil in 2009, a movie that I have yet to actually watch despite it sitting in my DVD collection for a couple of years. I keep hearing West is a super-talented filmmaker, but "Second Honeymoon" doesn't show it. It takes a while to get rolling, and by the time it does, it's already over. It's dull, boring, and just a chore to watch. There are also the uninspired, unengaging performances from its two primary actors. I probably would have liked them a lot more had West given them more to do, but all they have is just some random couple's dull travelogue. "Second Honeymoon" is not scary, not suspenseful, and I wish it had just been edited out of V/H/S altogether.

The worst segment of V/H/S is oddly enough followed up by my favorite, writer/director Glenn McQuaid's "Tuesday the 17th." It's obviously a takeoff of Friday the 13th, but done in such a way that it's its own beast. It's one of the best throwbacks to '80s slasher movies I've ever seen, with an excellent twist on the style by McQuaid. It's not only unique, but scary, suspenseful, and downright entertaining. And when combined with the great performances from Norma C. Quinones and Jason Yachanin, "Tuesday the 17th" is definitely worth the price of admission.

I wish Tales from the Crypt or Masters of Horror were still around, because I'd have loved to see "Tuesday the 17th" expanded into something longer than this short little snippet of an anthology movie. A feature-length movie might have been too much, but had it been 45 minutes or an hour long, I wouldn't have complained at all.

And really, it's all downhill from here, even though the remaining segments are still really good. "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," the segment contributed by director Joe Swanberg, is a really neat idea for a found footage movie. In a movie (and genre) full of stuff shot with high-end camcorders, something that takes place online with webcams is a neat spin on the style. It also helps make things really spooky to watch (and there are some definite scares to be had here), but it helps that the segment's actors are putting forth their best efforts. Daniel Kaufman does a fine job, but Helen Rogers ends up running laps around him. She's cute, likable, and very charming. She plays the role with an earnest believability that really sells the whole thing.

And this brings us to our final segment. Written and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella (a team of filmmakers collectively known as "Radio Silence"), "10/31/98" is a lot of fun with an intense climax. This is another segment that I could have lived with being longer. I wanted to see more of this madness. I haven't seen a really good haunted house movie in a while, and while "10/31/98" is great, I would have liked it even more had it been more fleshed out.

But to their credit, Radio Silence still did an amazing job building up to their big climax, the anticipation building to a payoff that is surprisingly well put together. The climax, which I don't want to spoil beyond what's in my plot synopsis, is both scary as hell and very entertaining. It's a payoff that's totally worth it, making the buildup just as good as what it's building to.

I enjoyed a lot of V/H/S, but the movie as a whole was not without its flaws. One problem is that none of the segments ever even make that first attempt to explain anything that's going on. Why is anything happening to anybody in V/H/S? I understand that none of the segments are really long enough to delve into the whys and hows of what's going on, but couldn't at least one of them throw the viewers a bone and explain something without us having to piece it together ourselves? And I'm cool with the whole "found footage anthology" concept, but who the hell collected all this footage onto a stack of VHS tapes? Screw "suspension of disbelief," I want to know!

It also falls victim to the classic found footage quandary, "Why does everyone keep filming when they should just drop the camera and run away?" Some of the segments can justify the constant filming, as the cameras are sewn into the clothing of characters in both "Amateur Night" and "10/31/98," and at least the cameraman in "Amateur Night" has the wise idea to try and get the hell out of there. But the fact that the characters in the other segments have practically no survival instinct whatsoever is baffling. It's especially bad in "Thursday the 17th," when the final character left alive pretty much shoves the camera right in the killer's face and bemoans her inability to capture a clear picture of him on tape. Because instead of making an escape attempt or trying to kill the monster, she gets worried about what he looks like on camera and gives him the opportunity to snatch said camera from her and bop her on the head with it.

But regardless, I'll still totally recommend V/H/S as a great way to spend Halloween. Put it on as a double feature with something like Trick 'r Treat, and sit back and have a blast. Yeah, it's got a few problems, but the good far, far outweighs the bad. V/H/S is definitely worth the time and effort, because it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Final Rating: ***

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