Oh, no! Found footage?! Why?! Whyyyyyyyyy??!!!!!
All histrionics aside, do filmmakers still make horror flicks that don’t use the found footage method? Because it feels like it’s been awhile since I’ve seen one. Is it really too much to ask that filmmakers show skill as storytellers rather than resort to gimmicks? It may be. But what happens when gimmick is combined with good storytelling? That’s just crazy talk, right?
V/H/S is an anthology horror film that made a splash at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s the work of no less than ten credited directors and twelve writers. Wow. Needless to say, it takes a while to get through the end credits.
The film uses a frame narrative, sort of like Creepshow or Heavy Metal, where one short film is broken into pieces and has the responsibility of tying together all the others. Think of it as a master of ceremonies, whose job is not only to introduce the next film, but also take some part in the shenanigans.
Consisting of six different segments, V/H/S consists entirely of found footage stories. These stories feature young, attractive people who, for some reason or other, can’t stop recording their friends being butchered. Why these recordings exist is never explained, but they all have found their way into a collection of VHS tapes that an old man keeps in an otherwise empty house.
Most of these segments aren’t for the squeamish. The filmmakers in V/H/S came of age in the era of Saw and Hostel, and while all of the shorts in this film show a much more significant amount of depth than those earlier films, they don’t shy away from some brutal violence. The most disturbing, for me, was a character getting stabbed in the throat with a switchblade while he slept. To give you an idea how hard that was to watch, SECOND place in the most disturbing death category went to the guy who had his genitals ripped off by a human/bat monster.
All of the short films in V/H/S have found footage in common, but the stories themselves are widely disparate, which is a good thing. There’s a monster story, a slasher story, an alien story, a haunted house…the films run the gamut of horror subgenres, paying both homage to what came before, and bringing something new to each. Oh, there aren’t any zombies, though. Tough.
A couple of the segments cleverly break away from the gimmicky nature of found footage, but for all of them, the nature of the frame narrative means that all the segments require it. In this film, at least, found footage works.
The film is absolutely peppered with actors and actresses that will be completely new for the viewer. This is the type of film that must have gotten bartenders and waitresses all over New York City excited in 2011. In other words, there are plenty of fresh faces. I can’t single out any of them for giving great performances, particularly when so much of the film consists of drunken college-aged antics, but there also weren’t any Robbi Morgans in the flick (thank God).
The segments can be hit or miss, depending on what the viewer is in the mood for. My personal favorites were The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, written by Simon Barrett and directed by Joe Swanberg, and 10/31/98, written, directed by, and starring filmmaking collective Radio Silence. The first of the two is presented as a series of live video chats where an absentee boyfriend, James (Daniel Kaufman), tries to comfort his girlfriend Emily (Helen Rogers) at night while ghosts are seemingly running loose in her apartment. It’s a wily little segment. The second follows a group of friends back in the salad days of 1998 as they head off to a Halloween party somewhere in Los Angeles. They get lost, and, thinking they have the right house, just barge in to a place that happens to be haunted. At first, they think they are seeing Halloween trickery, but then things get out of hand. This segment has more funhouse trickery than the others, and it sure is hokey, but the Radio Silence guys seemed to have a lot of fun.
Overall, V/H/S is an imaginative and energetic film. I’m not sure that twenty years down the road a whole lot of people will be calling it a classic horror film, but some of the people who made it might have one or two classics underneath their names on IMDb by then.