Wednesday, September 12, 2012

V/H/S Review

Ah old school...


I was a bit hesitant with V/H/S, not because I didn't think it would be good but rather the opposite. The teasers looked so eerie that I feared my black little heart would be broken if it did not live up to my expectations, especially as Halloween rapidly approaches.

It was an interesting project, to say the least: six short films by up and coming directors in the horror field all play to the medium of VHS-style filming. The wrap around story is fairly simplistic-- a group of anarchists who apparently make money off of selling videos of their destructive behaviour learn of a potentially lucrative job. The job is simple enough-- collect a VHS tape, bring it back, and collect the reward. What the group doesn't know is that the house they collect the tape from-- and the videos they have to rifle through-- all have a sinister underbelly.

The film's cinematography will be familiar to anyone who has been around horror the last decade or so-- which is the film's strength and weakness, depending on the audience. The camera whips around, colours are washed out, and, whether intentional or not, all directors seem to play with distortion in one way or another as either a way to mask edits or, in one case, as a plot device. The reason I say this is the film's strength as well as a weakness is because, as a weakness, this style of cinematography has begun to annoy some fans of the horror genre, who point out that it is a bit too much, and in some cases, can even cause motion sickness. The reason I would actually argue this as the film's strength is because it creates a hyper-realism; the washed out colours, lack of elaborate lighting, and obvious quirks of handheld film-making make the whole movie legitimately feel like found footage.

That is not to say that my suspension of disbelief didn't pop from time to time. The most noteworthy of these instances is the segment titled “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” which takes the style of a skype conversation over a computer .This is an interesting idea, but is very much at odds with the fact that we are supposed to be literally watching a VHS tape. While other segments give us a glimpse of devices that are probably (to definitely) not recording on VHS, this was the most far-fetched. It's gratuitous nudity is... well... it is what it is.

"I like you."
Which brings up something I wondered while watching the film as a whole: Many times as I watched, I wondered if the filmmakers discussed their ideas with each other. Ideas either get 'recycled'-- if they did indeed discuss their ideas before executing them-- or come up again and again due to the medium they are filming in, and it would be interesting to learn which one of these two possibilities is the case. For example, as stated, all segments seem to play with the idea of distortion, things being taped over and coming back for a glimpse, or digital artifacting  (as part of the conversion to VHS?). Also, more than one segment played with the idea of amateur video cameras as a voyeuristic device, sometimes playing this angle for slight humour, other times as part of the direct plot.

The other segment not mentioned already, namely “Second Honeymoon”, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I quite enjoyed getting to know the characters, and again, the concept of video voyeurism comes up, although Ti West, the director, comments on it a bit differently here, and much less exploitative than the other segments. The eerie fortune teller that acts as a precursor to the horrific events was a nice touch, and absolutely worked to heighten the creepiness involved. Also, where the other films comment on voyeurism through nudity, this film offers a very chilling exposition of violence that still feels very voyeuristic, and because of it being violence instead of nudity, the voyeurism is much more disturbing. However, for me, the pacing for this film, which came directly after the high-octane opening, “Amateur Night”, just felt jarringly different than its predecessor. This is less a comment on any weakness of Mr West-- who still remains one of my favourite directors-- and more a comment on its placement in the film as a whole-- there were probably better places to put the film, but in retrospect, “Amateur Night” was a hard act to follow in terms of its hyperactive pacing. After watching the film as a whole, though, I feel that the pacing might have been difficult to progress in any other way than what it did.

The effects, for the most part, are well done, with one possible exception: the segment Tuesday, the 17th, in which a group of teenagers go swimming in the woods. Not all of the effects in this segment are bad-- some of the distortion effects were actually very well done, and some obvious cuts are incredibly well hidden-- but the gore in this one, for the most part, is too clean and digital, especially considering the format it is filmed in. Also, this is probably the segment where we learn the least about the people we watch-- very little is offered in the way of back-story with the exception of the main character, and all other characters feel almost cartoonish, as the only thing they really expose about their character is that they are goofy (or childish, depending on whether or not  you like the characters-- personally I didn't really want to like them, but found their goofiness endearing).

There are some effects that actually had me dropping my jaw, especially considering the format. Without spoiling too much, the first and last segment were the strongest visual showcases, titled “Amateur Night” and “10/31/98” respectively. The effects in these are incredibly well-done and the filmmakers expressed obvious control of their medium, with the effects getting more and more elaborate as their chilling tale careened across the screen.

Although not all of the segments are as strong as the short films they sit beside, overall, V/H/S is a strong example of how powerful creative minds can be even on a relatively shoe-string budget. None of the effects struck me as being necessarily expensive inasmuch as done with intense care and consideration (with the possible exception of the short already mentioned for having weaker visual effects-- although, to be fair to segment-- Tuesday, the 17th-- the effects were not weak by themselves, inasmuch as somewhat lacking compared to the other powerhouse visuals in other segments).

There is one effect I really want to discuss, but cannot without risking spoiling it, but suffice to say, the ending of “Amateur Night” still chills me when I think about it, and I honestly felt, after going to the other segments, that this film should have perhaps been kept until the last, as the imagery in this one absolutely worked above and beyond what its medium should have allowed.

Which speaks of the film as a whole. It is a relatively tired format-- and one that is being abused in the film marketplace to a great extent (Paranormal Activity anyone?) but here, the creativity behind the people involved brings this much higher than the sum of its predictable parts-- and this film is less something that operates on a cliched format, but more an absolute love-song to independent filmmaking.

"Run! I just... you just don't... want to be
here anymore it might smell in a second..."
Forget Paranormal Activity, THIS film is the true successor to The Blair Witch Project, and in many ways, is actually far superior to its obvious inspiration. Perhaps its the fact that all the different styles play well with each other here-- there is no “too many cooks in the kitchen” here, but a surprising synchronicity between different creative teams-- or perhaps it is because the simple but interesting ideas brought out in the scripts gives enough limitation to really focus the creepy aspect of home video, but all in all, the film absolutely shines.


The only reason I don't give the film a perfect 100% is some very minor flaws in the visuals and logic of the film, especially when it comes to the VHS format absolutely being required to be a segment, and some obvious cheats in this regard. Although one could argue that footage has been converted to VHS, I suppose but... really... who would even bother to do so, even for the sake of such a macabre library? Or did I just answer my own question? All in all, this stands as a new personal favourite in the horror anthology format, which is saying a lot as it is my all-time favourite style of filmmaking.

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