SXSW 2012 Movie Review: 'V/H/S'


Seems we're in the midst of a sort of horror anthology renaissance these days, and I'm not complaining. We recently got an omnibus gore-fest called Chillerama which is 75% good and 25% horrible, coming soon is an international mega-collection called The ABCs of Death, and right now we have a rather enticing piece of portmanteau from a pretty cool collection of filmmakers.

The title is V/H/S; the premise is simple; and -- best of all -- it finds plenty of interesting ways to present "found footage" (or first-person) visual tricks that other filmmakers haven't. Yes, we've been inundated with the found footage stuff like crazy in recent years, but when the hook is done right, I'm a big fan of this perspective. V/H/S not only does it right; it finds five or six different ways to do it right. The gimmicky yet completely creepy V/H/S comes from an eclectic bunch of filmmakers -- Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett of A Horrible Way to Die and You're Next; slow-burn indie horror wizard Ti "House of the Devil" West; the perpetually affable Joe Swanberg, of more indie films than I can name; Glenn McQuaid, director of the unfairly overlooked I Sell the Dead; David Bruckner, one of the three madmen who gave us The Signal; and a four-man filmmaking collective known simply as "Radio Silence." These folks, along with numerous writers, producers, and actors, present an "all found-footage horror anthology," which is sort of two gimmicks in one if you think about it.

Good thing both of them work.

One of the coolest things about the finest horror anthologies is the element of surprise. Not only do you not know what the current story holds, but you don't even know how long it will be. A simple subversion of the standard three-act structure can push a viewer off-balance, plus there's also the simple factor of variety. The best horror anthologies, like Dead of Night, Asylum, Creepshow, and Trick 'r Treat, are able to be fast-paced, because the stories are slick and quick, are able to keep audiences guessing (for a variety of reasons), and are able to strike a balance by telling a variety of different tales. Only time will tell if V/H/S will earn a spot on that list, but it certainly qualifies, going only by the criteria mentioned above.

I'll keep the plot synopses vague, but here's what we got:

We open with a disturbing wrap-around framework in which a gang of sleazy criminals break into a creepy house to retrieve an important video cassette. Their wanderings lead to various "Play" buttons being pushed around the house, and this is how we get to each of the five stories:

A. Some horny young men out for a night of partying push a particular girl just a little too far, and pay for it dearly. (Visual hook: the action is presented by way of a secret camera hidden in the eyeglasses of one guy. It sounds chintzy, I know, but this is one of the film's best segments, regardless of where the camera is.)

B. A plain young couple are on a road trip to the Grand Canyon, and let's just say it doesn't end well. It comes as no surprise that Ti West is the director behind the longest and quietest of the five segments, but (as usual) the guy knows how to anticipate what the savvy horror viewer is expecting, and how to use that knowledge well. It's like waiting for that second shoe to drop, and since I'm a patient guy, I just dig Mr. West's style. Also Joe Swanberg is the lead here, and I believe we already covered how damn likable he is.

C. I call this one the "meta-slasher" story. Arguably the weirdest and scrappiest of the five stories, but there's still a knowing twist on basic slasher conventions that works quite well. It also boasts some heavy-distortion special effects that could be a bit too much for some viewers, but I found that the aggressive audio/visual approach adds a nice layer of dread to a potentially familiar tale.

D. A pretty girl and her distant boyfriend do the "Skype video chat" thing, and that's the visual hook that runs throughout this section. Again, it doesn't really sound like something that'd be all that appealing to the eye (especially on a big screen), but all of these filmmakers are dead-set intent on adhering to the "rules" of V/H/S, and I found this scratchy, stuttery, and resoundingly weird little segment to be a real treat. 

E. Four party-hungry friends head out to a Halloween shindig and show up at ... I can't do it. Even the simplest of plot synopses would rob this fantastic horror short of a dash of its impact. I will say that all of the other V/H/S directors agreed that this is the best segment in the whole film. (I said it during a post-screening Q&A, and they all agreed.) Virtually everyone involved with V/H/S -- and that's a lot of people -- just freakin' love this story directed by "Radio Silence," and while I certainly dig the 115-minute film as a whole ... yeah, this last terror tale is something pretty special.

Taken separately, each of these five stories would make for a fine and memorable horror short, but taken as a whole, and glued together by the simple but very effective wrap-around sequences, V/H/S is a damn fine piece of satisfying indie horror. If you need something "spooky" for family night, or if all you really want is a generic piece of Hollywood horror, you might not dig V/H/S all that much -- but if the idea of several grass-roots filmmakers getting together to jam on five (and a half) low-budget, high-creativity campfire tales sounds like fun to you, I'm betting you'll dig V/H/S a whole lot.