For a generation of horror fans, true shocks will always come with that fuzzy glow of an old rented tape. So horror anthology V/H/S, by name alone, will evoke memories of late nights and secret showings.
The micro-budget chapter film deals in found footage terror. It makes sense. "We are all camera operators," as Helen Rogers (the titular victim from ghostly segment 'The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger') explains in her Skype Q&A conversation with director Joe Swanberg. Between cell phones, CCTV, and embedded cameras in everything, the found footage genre has never made more sense. Still, the directors of the five segments and the wraparound sequence provide logical reasons why their subjects are filming themselves: Arrogance, horniness, sentimentality, greed.
Can we just cut to the chase and say that, whatever the whinging and whining, the two strongest genres in horror at the moment are probably anthologies and found footage. Gore fans can bash them as much as they want, but they are the perfect door-openers for indie film makers. While the collective sometimes nicknamed as the mumblecore scene, occasionally mumblegore, are well known in these parts, they're still really genre faves. Of course, scream-a-long responses for their latest release at Sundance and SXSW. The sequel, S-VHS, is already in production, and the core of the crew – Swanberg, Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and consistent collaborators Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die) – will be getting the big release boost when Lionsgate finally (finally!) unleashes their long-awaited collaboration You're Next. (West, Barrett and Wingard also crop up in the upcoming Drafthouse Films anthology The ABCs of Death.) So V/H/S provides a well-timed teaser for their house style.
Wingard and Barrett bind V/H/S together with a tale of a Missouri gang out on a mission to find a mysterious video tape in an abandoned house. What they find is a stack of tapes, a crackly TV, and the the corpse of cult cartoonist Frank Stack rotting on a chair. When they start playing the tapes, that's when everything falls apart for them, and gets gruesome for the viewers.
The top and tail are the most creepshow fun and have most in common. David Bruckner's opener, 'Amateur Night', proves that he should have got a lot more work after the seriously under-rated The Signal, as three frat douchebags looking to shoot a spring break porno get a nasty surprise. Yet it's really Hannah Fierman as Lily, the unnerving woman they pick up, who owns the segment.
Meanwhile shorts collective Radio Silence kicks down the doors to close the show. They've established a stellar micro-budget YouTube horror short reputation, and '10/31/98' gets a similar group of young men, and dumps them in an equally supernatural setting, but to very different, even heroic, effect.
Even at its weakest, V/H/S is above the grade. It's become accepted critical wisdom that Glenn McQuaid's 'Tuesday the 17th' is the not the strongest segment, and I'm not going to say the consensus is wrong. However, it's still solid, and the core idea – a slasher who attacks like tape static – adds to the film's mythology. It's a smart change of pace, too, especially in contrast to Ti West's giallo-tinged 'Second Honeymoon'. Swanberg steps in front of the camera with Sophia Takal (Gayby) as a couple attempting to put some spark in their relationship, and instead end up with an unwelcome intruder.
But the most subtly effective may be 'Emily'. Written by Barrett and directed by Swanberg, it's the taut little shocker that the Paranormal Activity series, and most especially the fourth installment in the juggernaut franchise, wishes it was. Swanberg flirted with horror in Silver Bullets, but by sticking to his strengths of portraying queasy intimacy he extends easily into shock territory. 'Emily' delivers both jump scares and an unnerving pay-off, made more effective for the fact that the whole thing was shot using Skype.
There's some kind of poetic justice or dramatic irony to the way that the ubiquitous lenses V/H/S depends upon make it easy for even a small production like this to create a pretty loaded selection of extras, like the very meta Skype chat between Swanberg and Rogers. Any rising film maker looking for cheap and effective ways to create POV footage need the disc just for the commentary: And, yes, normally "what did you shoot this on" is one of the momentum-killing conversations in any film festival Q&A. But the innovative solutions they found for keeping the first person gimmick – from spy glasses to some handy helium balloons – makes for a useful film lesson.
Also on release this week:
King Kelly: SXSW's other POV innovator hits VOD today. If V/H/S is about the male gaze, then Andrew Neel's iPhone-shot feature puts women behind the lens.
The Dark Knight Rises: So the big question: Do you lay down the cash for the limited edition Blu-ray combo pack with the statue of Batman's broken cowl, or do you just wait for the inevitable trilogy box set?
Finding Nemo: Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. The scheduled re-release of Pixar's watery family classic comes with a five disc 3D Blu-ray edition.
Silent Night: 1984's Christmas slaughter wonderland gets a respectful 2012 revamp on Blu-ray and DVD combo pack.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: The magical, fantastical metaphor for Louisiana's resilience in the age of hurricanes arrives on DVD and Blu-ray.
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