SXSW Film Festival: ‘V/H/S’ (Movie Review)

Back when V/H/S (which, for brevity and sanity’s sake, we’re going to call VHS from here on out) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the word on the street was that directors Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence, David Bruckner, Adam Wingard, and Glenn McQuaid had crafted one helluva found-footage horror anthology:  reports had audience members vomiting in their seats, people fainting out of sheer terror, massive rounds of applause when the credits rolled, and so on.  And so, it was with great anticipation that I decided to check out one of the film’s midnight screenings during this year’s SXSW Film Festival.  Did the film live up to the hype?  Find out below, folks. 


While attending Fantastic Fest 2011, I caught the one and only screening of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next. Ever since that screening, I have ranted and raved the film to no less than two dozen people.  Usually I’ll say something like,  “You’re Next is an exceedingly excellent horror flick, one I’m convinced is destined to earn a sprawling contingent of fans when it opens in 2012”, but it’s true that I’ll sometimes just break down in joyous tears at the thought of Wingard’s film.  It’s really that good.

Then, when Sundance 2012 kicked off earlier this year, I was happily surprised to learn that Wingard was involved with another horror film that would be screening at that Festival, a found-footage horror anthology called V/H/S.  I also learned  that directors Ti West (House of The Devil), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell The Dead), David Bruckner (the underrated The Signal), Radio Silence (newcomers), and internet punching-bag Joe Swanberg were involved, and that each had crafted a short film for inclusion in VHS.  As it turned out, Wingard’s contribution was the wraparound segment that connects these shorts.  To my ears, all of this news was reason to celebrate.

And then, the screening took place.  We heard that people threw up after some of the film’s grislier images unfolded onscreen, that people had fainted (or were on the verge of fainting;  I’ve heard both versions), that the audience went absolutely apesh-t when the film wrapped, applauding and hollering, which is what the audience I’d seen You’re Next with did when that film came to an end.  Again, all of this sounded like good news to me.

Then again, how many horror films have inspired vomiting or fainting at film festivals over the past decade?  That seems to be the go-to marketing stunt (or is it?!) these days, a sure-fire way to get media coverage of your film while also implying that the movie-in-question is destined to be embraced by “real” horror fans.  There’s no way to know if these incidents are staged or the real deal, but after loving a big chunk of the work done by the directors behind VHS, I was inclined to buy into the hype.

“Besides”, I thought, “The critics—many of whom I tend to agree with when it comes to film—loved it.”

Well, as I learned with SXSW 2012’s John Dies at The End, it’s possible to disagree with anyone, even the guys who you agree with most of the time.  With Don Coscarelli’s John, I felt that the film wasn’t “bad”, but that it was the victim of an extreme case of overhype.  I walked outta that movie with an advanced case of disconnect, wondering if everyone else had seen the same flick I’d just seen.  I didn’t quite have that same feeling of disappointment with VHS—far from it, in fact—but I certainly think that a little expectation-curbing is in order.  If the reviews out of Sundance are to be believed, VHS is slated to be the year’s biggest horror film…and I simply don’t feel that this is the case.  It’s good, really good in spots, but—let’s be frank here—it’s no You’re Next.

And given the directors involved, I think it’s fair to make the comparison.  Joe Swanberg (a guy my buddy Chris just can’t get enough of), Ti West, Adam Wingard, and David Bruckner are all part of a new wave of horror filmmakers, and each seems to be involved in the others’ films in one capacity or another.  They appear to be a tight-knit little group of horror enthusiasts, and—for the most part—I’ve enjoyed their output thus far, particularly West’s House of The Devil, Wingard’s You’re Next, and Swanberg’s segment in VHS.  Their films carry a very specific aesthetic, and they’ve incorporated that aesthetic into every segment of VHS (one critic’s review called the film “mumblehorror”—a play on the oft-spoken but universally despised term “mumblecore”—but I think that’s more clever than it is correct).  And so, given the people involved, the timeframe in which the films were made, and the way both films feel, I don’t think it’s unfair to make the VHS/You’re Next comparison.  If only I could rave about both.

Anyway, VHS follows the typical horror anthology format:  you’ve got a “wraparound”/”bookend” segment that ties a number of other segments together, and—in-between those segments—we see the “wraparound” story progress.  Here, Wingard’s “bookends” tells the story of a group of hoodlums (imagine the Jackass guys on angel dust and with less morals) who we meet smashing windows in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse of some sort.  They then move on to a parking garage, where they forcibly drag a random woman in front of the camera and expose her breasts.  The point is made:  these aren’t good guys.

Soon enough, our band of heroes is tasked with tracking down a mysterious videotape, one that’s apparently locked inside an extremely creepy house somewhere on the other side of town.  Upon entering the house, they discover a dead old man in a recliner, a stack of videotapes, and a bank of TV monitors.  In an attempt to track down the tape they’ve come for, the guys start watching the dead guy’s tapes, and—perhaps as expected—it becomes clear that the recently deceased was a big fan of…well, in the film’s mythology, these are snuff films.

Each of the “tapes” that the guys watch is one of the film’s segments, a clever little device that I quite enjoyed (I wasn’t so fond of the wraparound story itself;  I just think the delivery system VHS uses to get us to these segments was very smart).  As with most anthology films, the segments themselves are a mixed bag, which means that you’re going to spend a lot of time after the film ends debating which one was “the best” with your friends.  Right now, the consensus seems to be that the “best” segment is—in typical anthology fashion—the last one, which oddly enough is the only segment directed by a newcomer.

That’d be the “haunted house” segment of the film, which was produced by a collective of short-filmmakers who go by the name Radio Silence.  As is the case with most of segments here, this installment is difficult to describe without spoiling things:  a quartet of dude-bros head out to a Halloween party, arrive at what they think is the correct house, and things go South from there.  There’s a twist here, but that’s also something that runs through each of the segments.  Clearly, this is an homage to the horror anthology work done by EC Comics, the sort of stuff that HBO used to mine to such wonderful effect on the dearly-departed Tales From The Crypt, and one can’t help but agree that the addition of a “twist” to each segment provides a little extra bang for the audience’s buck.

Here’s what happens in the other segments:  a trio of dude-bros go out for a night on the town, only to encounter more than they bargained for with a chick that—at first glance—appears to be nothing more than a garden-variety harlot (note:  I have been waiting to type the phrase “garden-variety harlot” for at least twenty years;  optional phrases included “bog-standard ho”, “everyday strumpet”, and “typical slut”, and—as an added bonus included with this review—all of those are yours to use as band names as you see fit);  a guy on a road trip with his girlfriend runs afoul of a drifter with a penchant for videotaping his (or is it a her?) crimes;  two guys and their lady-friends head into the woods and discover that the stated purpose of their hike was a flat-out lie;  and an out-of-town medical student chats on Skype with his girlfriend, who’s at home in her apparently haunted apartment (this was my personal favorite).

All of these segments contain a “twist”, but—far more importantly—all of these segments are shot in the found-footage style.  Some of the segments (particularly the Skype segment and the opener, with the garden-variety harlot)(that’s twice!!!) employ some pretty clever reasons for being found-footage in the first place, while others will give you that “Why is someone filming this instead of fleeing in terror?” feeling that many found-footage horror projects come pre-packaged with.  On the one hand, I thought that the found-footage format worked more than it didn’t in VHS.  On the other hand, I felt that some of the segments were almost too shaky, and I completely understood when a few friends who attended the screening told me that the film had given them motion-sickness.  I’m not prone to that while watching found-footage stuff, but if there was ever a film that could inspire that dreaded “seasickness” for me, it’d be this one.

I really, really liked VHS, but I didn’t feel like it was balls-out amazing.  It’s certainly gory, and it’s got some really effective moments that’ll stick with you long after you’ve seen it, but with You’re Next just a few months down the road, I can’t in good conscience slap VHS with the “year’s best horror film” label that some of my critical brethren are placing upon it.  Definitely be excited to see it, but definitely temper your expectations a bit.  Some of the reviews I’ve read have been hyperbolic, but it’s worth noting that I’ve yet to read a single review that’s dismissive of the film entirely.

By the way, I’d like to add this:  I saw VHS at midnight after standing in three two-hour lines throughout my festival-going day.  It’s entirely possible that I would’ve liked VHS more if I’d seen it at, say, three in the afternoon without having waited in a line dominated by loud-talkers and hygienically-challenged film geeks, and so I have every intention of seeing the film again when it hits theaters.  Also, see the hell out of Wingard’s You’re Next when it arrives:  you might just pee your pants with excitement.





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