The abomination of criticism that is Cinemaglob and my maniacal obsession to see films no one else has is borne from a lifetime spent with a dense lineup of highly diverse movies on almost constant rotation. It begins at the end of the VHS era. Once upon a time, my family had a four channel television set with no cable, and I watched whatever they happened to pick up from the video rental (which subsequently got me into horror films, because some genius put the NES rentals in between the goriest box art ever, and the 18+ aisle), usually a revolving lineup of action films and Hollywood comedies. Then one day, everything changed. I got off of the school bus to see a large black satellite dish in the yard. Like the monolith in Kubrick’s 2010, the unveiling of this monstrosity was life-changing, and I still have boxes on boxes of 6-hour Polaroid video cassettes loaded with all manner of obscure C-band programming to prove it. So imagine my surprise when I learned of a horror anthology comprised of so called “found footage” bearing the title V/H/S.
My curiosity was instantly piqued. I admit a little wariness at first, due to the fact that I’m not big on the found-footage format, but the blatant declaration of love for obsolete media via the title of the movie gave me the spark of hope needed to push past the bad memories of Blair Witches and Cloverfield mishaps which include watching the entirety of Paranormal Activity in fast forward because it bored me to tears. Thankfully, this was not the case, not by a long shot. The premise of V/H/S may be similar to other films, but after the first few moments it becomes clear that V/H/S is in a class all its own, and it’s like no other anthology, “shaky cam” movie, or modern horror film I’ve seen.
What’s great about V/H/S is that there is a level of familiarity to the archetypical stories on display, but the kool thing is that they either take these tropes to new levels, offer up meta-commentary, or just flat out stand them on their heads. First and foremost, we have the wrap-around story that connects these vignettes. It’s a weird one, but adds to the endearment, as the wraparound segues seamlessly, giving the proceedings a stream of consciousness effect, which in turn unifies the film. It doesn’t serve cohesion as much, as a lot of the charm lies in a seemingly neverending array of WTF moments (which is Cinemaglob’s entire will to live), but it sets up the main story well. The plot: A group of adult juvenile delinquents use film to document random acts of vandalism, harassment, perversity, and other dangerously stupid activities. Think of it as the version of Jackass that goes on between the MTV-sanctioned idiocy. At one point, one of the group lets the boys in on their next score: a random assignment to break into a house to retrieve a videotape that will fetch big bucks upon return. The catch: they don’t know what tape they’re looking for. All they have to go on is the cryptic advice that they’ll know it when they see it. This leads to a startling discovery, and the tales unfold as they’re being screened in the search for an underground video payday soaked in grime, sleaze, grue, and fear.
Here’s the rub, what I found to be one of the strongest points of the film is that this is found footage as it’s meant to be. As unfortunately obvious as this will sound, you really do feel like you’re watching something unearthed from some miscreant’s beneath the bed collection of scratched and worn cassette tapes. Aside from the end title sequence (which in turn recalled skateboard videos, another bastion of the tape-trading heyday), not much happens to pull us out of the stylized concept. The other excellent part of the deal is that we’re witnessing the work of some indie-horror powerhouses. Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, and film collective Radio Silence direct, each coming together with sly videotape art direction as collective architecture, ensuring the ensuing mayhem fit together as a whole. Usually with anthologies, it’s a hit or miss affair solely dependent on the strength and affection for the filmmakers behind each separate segment. There is no separation in this film. Much like my scores of Polaroids, there’s an ebb and flow here that makes for some disjointed mania. It sounds contradictory, but revealed in the analog distortion is another treat, the random degradation and warped glitchiness recall the oft dealt with tactic of dubbing and redubbing – the viewer may be experiencing the film itself as an artifacted off-product. It’s slightly unclear, but the tape the gang is searching for may be their own, and the enigma of exactly where the final tape comes from, and how many times it’s been dubbed over, and exactly what it’s been dubbed over adds another layer to the mythology.
If you like your anthologies a little neater and orderly, you could always watch The Theatre Bizarre, but that one was hit and miss, and didn’t display as much tenacity visually (though it did boast one of the most nauseating sequences I’ve ever seen, with enough vomit inducing gluttony to keep Tosh.0 rolling for the next decade). For those that need things meticulously picked apart, the fragments of tape do stand up on their own. The stories in V/H/S benefit from featuring mostly unknown actors in cleverly twisted scenarios, and as we all know, one of the advantages of not having to deal with screen stars’ egomania is that anything can happen to the players at any time. You may think you know what’s coming, but the plots don’t twist so much as violently jerk back and forth, creating tension, disorientation, and a gleeful sense of morbid discovery. They seem voyeuristic, but in the better sense of the term – we feel like we’re in the midst of the action watching things unfold, as opposed to spying and viewing some taboo, icky basement tape culled from a creepy relative’s box of so-called “Xmas Decorations”. Let me be clear – there is an unsettling feeling of viewing something secretive that’s potentially damning and meant to document the sick, dark, and degenerate, but I’m glad they reigned in the sleaze, otherwise we could have been in for another tun of ill-thought torture porn. I’m all for the unconventional as well; We plunge straight into the stories without warning, and this conversational tone lends to the horror. These could’ve been tightened up, done formally, and swapped into nearly any anthology film and work perfectly. That’s the beauty of the beast – what you see is what you get, and the sketchiness lends a heady dose of mind-fuckery to the proceedings. That said, V/H/S almost makes me want to descend into the tape-trading underworld, braving squeam and sanity to see what turns up. My luck, whatever I got ahold of would instantly have to be handed over to the police, so maybe I’ll just stick with this one.
V/H/S is an edgy love letter to guerrilla filmmaking and recalls why so many of us fell in love with horror in the first place, without being sentimental in the least. It’s fun, art-damaged via media distortion, and most importantly, SCARY. I jumped. I haven’t jumped in YEARS. I jumped, and let out a noise somewhere between imbecile and animal. V/H/S erased years of jaded build up, and made me long for my VCR in a way I hadn’t since it devoured my copy of Altered States. Be Kind, Rewind, and watch this movie until you wear out the tape head.