For a film with 10 directors, 10 writers, and five unique segments, you’d think V/H/S would be able to do something innovative. Unfortunately, for all its moving parts it’s just a giant mishmash of genre cliches and jiggly, low-fi camerawork. Its few transcendent moments don’t even come close to making up for the rest of it; the whole, in this case, is dramatically less than the sum of its parts.
The film’s background story into which the five vignettes are inserted follows a group of stupid young men always on the lookout for easy money, and vulnerable women whose tops they can yank down on camera for fun. Are we supposed to hate these characters, or find them vaguely amusing? It’s unclear. The film certainly leans toward the latter, but I, for one, was instantly turned off by this suggestion that sexual assault can be, you know, not a big deal and sort of funny. If the directors were seeking an easy way to get their audience interested in the story and the main characters, they definitely failed on that count. At any rate, the group of losers soon catches wind of an abandoned house that contains a massive VHS collection, a dead guy (or is he?!) in a chair, and a single tape that someone, somewhere, is willing to pay them serious money to retrieve. The rest of the film is set up as them watching various tapes they find in the house to try and find the one they’re looking for.
The first vignette tries hard to dispel the misogynist tinge already firmly in place by having a demonic female character wreak bloody revenge on a group of almost-rapists (problem solved, right?!). The rest of the pieces feature a faltering married couple trying to rekindle their connection while being stalked by a murderous first-person cameraman, a group of friends chasing a demon in the woods, a mentally ill girl being gaslighted by her boyfriend via Skype, and yet another group of young frat boy types who head to a halloween house party only to interrupt something that looks like a lost outtake from Rosemary’s Baby. Again, in this final segment, a ham-handed attempt is made to counter the sleaziness of the film’s reliance on naked ladies, voyeurism, and general boy’s-club mentality by having the characters rescue a damsel in distress. I honestly don’t remember the ending terribly well, because by then I had already half gotten up to walk out three times, and was drowsy from the absurdly overlong running time (the film clocks in at a self-indulgent 116 minutes). Everybody dies, of course, but I don’t think I was alone by that point in totally not caring.
Here’s the problem with this film: the writers and directors (who are mostly, but not entirely, the same group of people) are all 30-something men who have achieved enough success in the world of low-budget mumblecore films that they seem to feel they no longer have to try. There are some truly talented people in this group, chief among them Ti West, whose 2009 The House of the Devil was a study in how to effectively reappropriate the classic genre markers of 70s/80s horror cycles for a modern audience. His follow-up (politely overlooking his Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever) was 2011’s The Innkeepers, a film that started nearly as promisingly as House but that crashed and burned with an unforgivably botched ending.
Unfortunately, West’s increasing reliance on gimmicks and mindless clichés over actual suspense and character development seems representative of this group of up-and-coming filmmakers in general. Nowhere in V/H/S is the same level of attention given to any character as it is to the star (Jocelin Donahue) of West’s House even in that film’s first ten minutes. Well, you might argue, how could there be? The film is an anthology, not a straight, single narrative. My point exactly: the filmmakers have chosen to make a choppy, half-assed film that tries to cover its shortcomings by stuffing itself full of different bodies and different gimmicks every twenty minutes, rather than actually collaborating on a story that is well-thought-out and sustained enough to display any of the group’s talent.
Pointing out V/H/S’s shortcomings will surely get me labeled a malcontent, an angry feminist (guilty), or just someone who just doesn’t understand how AWESOME it truly is. These filmmakers certainly have a devoted coterie of like-minded and similarly-aged fans, mostly male, who seem to enjoy their work more for its in-jokes and clubby informality than its actual craftsmanship (did I mention the entire thing is shot, nauseatingly, in what looks like hand-held mini DV?). But giving kudos to this film (as many are also doing to P.T. Anderson’s The Master, I believe for the same reasons) purely because of who’s involved in it, and in spite of how bad it actually is, is not only dishonest from a critical perspective, but just bad form for the serious horror aficionado. I, for one, sincerely hope V/H/S isn’t a harbinger of where the horror genre at large is headed.
By Lita Robinson