V/H/S (2012)

*. A shaky-cam anthology-horror flick. I don’t think the combination had been done before. So that’s one thing it has going for it.
*. And that’s about it.
*. The frame story (it’s called “Tape 56”) . . . they didn’t try very hard on this one, did they? Who are these clowns? This is how they make their living? They got hired to do a job by someone who’s seen their videos? Told to get a VHS tape from a house that’s filled with VHS tapes, but that they’ll “know it [the right one] when they see it”? What does that even mean? They break into the house by walking straight up to the front door, with all their flashlights on, and just letting themselves in?
*. And why VHS? Something to do with ironic, retro cool? Or just so the poor production values could be concealed behind the tracking errors and other glitches those of us old enough will have not-so-fond memories of?
*. I could go on, but why bother? None of this makes a moment of sense.
*. As far as frames go, it’s not even a very convincing way of introducing the various stories. Separate characters simply pop cassettes into the machine and watch them. Why are they doing this? Surely they don’t plan on watching them all (there must be thousands of hours of viewing), and you’d think they’d have other things to keep them occupied.
*. One point about the frame did strike me as different, though I’m not sure what the point of it was (or if there was a point). The frame doesn’t actually frame all of the stories since it ends before the final story begins. This is something I don’t recall ever seeing in an anthology horror film before. So it’s different, but I’m not sure if there was any reason for it. Doesn’t it just underline how pointless the frame was in the first place, since we’re going to be stuck watching these movies regardless of what’s going on in the house?
*. Here are some thoughts on the individual stories, in order.
*. “Amateur Night”: most people seem to rate the first story as the best. I thought it was OK, but it seemed very predictable and generic to me.
*. “Second Honeymoon”: had a bit of a twist that I should have seen coming, but I didn’t. There didn’t seem to be much to the story, and I think it went on too long without much of a payoff, but at least I had the sense that it had been written. Or had an outline. Most of these shaky-cam movies seem entirely driven by improvisation.
*. “Tuesday the 17th”: I didn’t understand much of what was going on here, and in addition to the jerky editing the film was also breaking down so I couldn’t see what was going on either. Apparently this was a special power that the killer/creature/ghost in the machine has (he’s even called “Glitch”). Anyway, there didn’t seem to be any point to it at all, and in terms of its production I wouldn’t even call it a good student film.
*. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”: at least there’s an interesting concept here, that concept being that the story is told entirely in the form of a split-screen chat session. Indeed, this is the only one of the segments with an interesting or semi-original concept behind it. But I’d also want to rush to add that it makes no sense. Somebody made a videotape of a Skype session? Or . . . did they? To be honest, I had no idea what the hell was going on. I’ve heard it described as having something to do with aliens, but if they’re aliens then I don’t know why they’d need James. In any event, since there’s simply not enough information provided to come to any determination about matters like this there’s not much point thinking about them. Next!
*. “10/31/98”: the story, about a bunch of goofs who are going to a Hallowe’en party and end up at the wrong address, is nothing special, but the climactic run through the house is the only moment in the entire film that impressed me. That was fun.
*. I’ll close with a couple of general reflections.
*. In the first place, the idea here was to showcase the work of younger directors in a format made for sampling. It’s the same idea as that behind the ABCs of Death series, and the results disappointed me in much the same way. Why would young creative types, given a wide latitude to do whatever they wanted (albeit on a micro budget), choose to churn out such derivative genre work? Why use what had become by 2012 a tired if not exhausted form (the shaky-cam or found-footage film) to present the new faces of horror? And are they that new? Even given the limitations of working in such a format, none of the directors here do anything to revive it. In fact, the drawbacks of this style of filmmaking seem even more pronounced in their hands.
*. Perhaps the genesis of the project, with the horror website Bloody Disgusting, had a role to play. This is a horror film produced by horror fans, and the thing about fans is that they aren’t jaded. Fans want more of what they already know, and what they already know they like. So that’s what they got.
*. The second general reflection I want to make has to do with the intensely dislikeable characters. I mean, even if they were nice people they’d still be meeting sticky ends. The slaughter of the innocents is a hallmark of twenty-first century horror that I’ve discussed many times before (my notes on The Human Centipede are as good a place as any to start). But in this movie nearly everybody is a jerk. And given the hostility felt toward them by other reviewers, I’m thinking this is not just a case of me being a cranky old man who doesn’t like criminal hooligans and moronic frat boys.
*. But if V/H/S is a movie that hates men, it really hates women. It starts right with the opening scene, which has the gratuitous (and highly improbable) stalking and rape of a young woman in a parking garage. Within the individual stories women are almost always portrayed as wicked demons who turn the tables on lecherous, boorish, or just not-very-bright men. The succubus in “Amateur Night,” the murderous (and lesbian) bitch wife in “Second Honeymoon,” Wendy in “Tuesday the 17th” using her friends as bait to try to catch a monster . . . by the time we get to the final story you know damn well the mistake the guys are making.
*. I don’t make this observation in any attempt to be politically correct, but rather just to register some surprise at how difficult it has proven for the horror genre to get over its fear of women and in particular female sexuality. I was reminded of this most recently while watching the first season of the Masters of Horror series.
*. Of course all the Masters are male. Which I don’t have a problem with. But you want men threatened by female sexuality? Almost every episode featured some kind of succubus: the girl coming out of movie screen all bloody, the naked witch, the deer woman, the cock-chomping “Jenifer,” the chocolate siren, the zombie stripper dancers in “Dance of the Dead,” the zombie-fucker Elise in “Haeckel’s Tale,” whatever that crazy prostitute is in “Imprint” . . .
*. All these “Masters” of an age when I guess this was the big social anxiety horror had to deal with. And I think they’re all aware of how prevalent such a theme is in their work (some of them even reference it directly in the supplementary materials included with the DVDs of the series).
*. But the thing is, the directors of V/H/S aren’t a bunch of old men. They are young men, today’s up-and-comers. And they seem to have exactly the same attitudes as the Masters, whom John Carpenter refers to as the “Masters of Old Men Who Like to Watch Young Girls.” Maybe this is just the result of their being steeped in the work of a previous generation of filmmakers (hence the VHS tapes), but if so it shows more of that same lack of original thinking that I noted before. Shouldn’t we have moved beyond the paradigms of sex = death or the “seductive evil woman who kills when she mates” by now? I mean, I have nothing against this as an abiding theme, but any theme that hangs around this long, being repeated so often, gets stale.
*. So that’s my problem with V/H/S, in a nutshell. An independent showcase of new young talent turns out to be mainly just a re-working of the usual horror tropes and themes, made confusing by crappy looking film and incoherent storylines.
*. This may sound too negative, so I’ll walk it back. The fact is, horror anthology movies are rarely classics. Perhaps only Dead of Night deserves that label. These movies have always been cheap, sensationalist quickies. V/H/S is no different. I’m disappointed it didn’t try to do something more original, but it certainly has its moments. And that’s all you can really expect.

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