Of the ten credited directors of V/H/S, a combination of a found footage mockumentary and an anthology horror film, nine of them have prior filmmaking experience with either feature length movies, shorts, television episodes, or some combination thereof. On the basis of the final product, you’d swear they’ve only just learned what a camcorder is; in their efforts to make each segment look like an authentic amateur home movie, they rely on gimmicks that make the footage all but unwatchable, including camera glitches, instantaneous pans, extreme close-ups, static, bad tracking, digital signal losses, and shakiness so severe that it puts the infamous Queasy Cam to shame. This is the only movie I know of that might actually require a dose of Dramamine beforehand.
It contains five individual short films and one wraparound segment, the latter about a gang of young hoodlums who break into an old man’s home at the behest of an unknown third party. Their mission, I think, is to steal a VHS tape. They find the old man, seemingly dead on a recliner in front of several TV sets showing nothing but snow. The four intruders repeatedly split up while one stays behind to pop a cassette tape into the VCR and watch the footage – hence, the other short films. As each segment ends, we find that whoever was in the room watching it has disappeared. Occasionally, so too does the old man. The upshot of this wraparound is not at all clear to me, although you can bet your boots it will involve a lot of running, a lot of swearing, some blood, and the sudden appearance of … something that could only appear in a horror movie.
The five shorts all depict an ordinary event transitioning into a frightening ordeal. This would be fine, expect that each transition is so arbitrary and logistically implausible that it’s more confusing than thrilling. Consider the first short, David Bruckner’s Amateur Night, which tells the story of three sex-obsessed, crude, drunken, inarticulate college boys picking up two girls from a bar, only to quickly discover that one of them is a feral and wide-eyed demonic creature and a literal man eater. The second short, Ti West’s Second Honeymoon, tells of a young married couple visiting a desert tourist trap and subsequently being stalked by a girl claiming to need a ride. This segment does feature an effectively unnerving sequence in which the girl uses the couple’s camera to film them as they sleep in their motel room.
But given West’s success with his latest feature-length films, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, I’m surprised he couldn’t come up with a better way to end this segment. The twist, which supposedly ties into a novelty fortune one of the characters receives, is so unexpected and inconsistent with everything leading up to it that it truly does seem as if it was tacked on at the last minute. The same can be said for the fourth segment, Joe Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger; shot as a streaming internet chat between a man and a woman, we’re led to believe that it’s about a haunted apartment unit but is in fact about something else entirely. The problem is that I have no idea what that something else is. We see a rather disgusting surgical procedure performed on an unconscious woman, although I’m at a loss to explain what was being revealed and how it related to the characters. I must have missed something.
The third and fifth shorts are the film’s strongest, but even then they fall victim to severe gaps in logic, specifically in regards to how the supposedly dead old man in the recliner could have procured the footage. This is especially true of the fifth short; given the way it ends, it would have been impossible for the footage to be found at all. In the third, Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday the 17th, a group of college kids are stalked in the woods by a figure that, through the lens of the handheld camera, looks like a blurred, pixilated computer glitch. The fifth, Radio Silence’s 10/31/98, is about four guys who make a horrifying discovery in an old house on Halloween night, 1998. Although there’s no adequate explanation for what’s going on or why, we are treated to some good visuals, among them hands reaching from the walls, windows that change shape, and ghostly figures that appear and disappear in mirrors.
Let’s assume for a moment that you don’t care the slightest about the random storylines, the one-note characters, or the awful dialogue, most of which sounds adlibbed. I should think you would still be interested in actually seeing what’s happening onscreen. The directors have seen to it that V/H/S is as difficult to watch as it is to understand; the footage is so raw, so unprofessional, so nauseatingly bumpy and jerky that it might be better suited for a motion simulator ride, and even then it would probably be too much for most people to handle. What were the filmmakers trying to prove here? That a horror anthology should look like a second-tier home movie from hell? And what are we to make of the opening sequence, during which footage of the four hoodlums is intercut with clips of a voyeur unsuccessfully attempting to produce a sex tape? The more I try to work through the logic, the more frustrated I become.