V/H/S (US - BD RA)
Gabe is sent a random box of old VHS tapes and decides to review them...
V/H/S came into the post-premiere fray with massive positive buzz, but, soon after its wider release, the buzz was measured by some exceedingly negative responses. In the case of a major blockbuster release, this would be cause for concern, but horror movies are different. A lot of critics and audiences just don’t like them. So I tried to keep an open mind and concerned myself with overcoming my growing hatred of the found footage genre. My hope is that my love of horror anthology features, even bad horror anthology will override my found footage fatigue. At the very least, an anthology, approach guarantees no particularly bad entry will go on too long and, until that final short, there’s always the promise of something better.
Things start with Tape 56, the wrap-around feature directed by Adam Wingard. Wingard broke onto the scene with Home Sick, an extremely low-budget and un-focused pseudo-black comedy/gore flick starring a cast of surprisingly recognizable actors, like Tiffany Shepis (who’s actually quite good), Tom Towels, and Bill Mosley. That same year (2007), Wingard got his first taste of acclaim with his so-called ‘psychedelic-horror-romance’ Pop Skull, then, in 2010, he scored some award nominations at Fantastic Fest with A Horrible Way to Die (I haven’t seen either of these movies). Tape 56 is a chaotic mishmash that uses multiple cameras and the illusion of taping over previous events to create an impressionistic version of real events through the chosen format. There’s no reason given for these thugs to be filming their thuggish actions, but Wingard captures these flashes of ‘plot’ in an organic way that makes just enough narrative sense to act as a proper wraparound. The cast is convincingly thuggish as well.
The first video our wrap-around characters discover is entitled Amateur Night and follows a group of horrible, twenty-something douche-bags as they troll for chicks while one of them wears glasses with a hidden camera. This segment is directed by David Bruckner, who makes a day job living as an editor for television, but he has a couple of short films, including one of the three parts of technology-horror anthology The Signal (the other two were directed by Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry). The Signal is a mixed bag and Bruckner’s section is the weakest of the three, but it’s still well-made and especially well-edited (via Bruckner, himself). Amateur Night is feels like an authentically depressing amateur porno movie and benefits from a shorter runtime, simply because the characters are so deplorable that I’m not sure I could’ve taken them much longer. Bruckner scores points for realism and disturbing imagery (the modest special effects are very impressive), but not for originality or solid scares. Still, it’s surprising that V/H/S managed to score an R-rating based on the goopy gore in this piece alone.
The next section is Second Honeymoon, directed by Ti West, who is currently battling Rob Zombie for the title of ‘Obviously Talented Genre Filmmaker That Sabotages Himself with Vintage Homage.’ West makes good-looking movies that appropriately mimic the look and feel of ‘70s and ‘80s horror and that’s about it. The only more notable thing about his movies, like House of the Devil and Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, is how boring they are (I haven’t seen The Innkeepers yet, it may very well be awesome). As the title signifies, the story here follows a young couple on their second honeymoon. In true Ti West fashion, Second Honeymoon is a slow burn, which is a bit silly in reference to something this short. After a bit of nothing happening, the twenty-something douche-bag husband demands his wife makes a sex video with him (I’m smelling a trend), only to have his plans rebuked when another mysterious girl knocks on their hotel door (more trends!). Events finally pick up when an unseen third party picks up the camera and watches the couple sleeping with a switchblade in hand. West pulls some suspense out of his short and uses his picturesque Arizona locations efficiently, but mostly wastes time exploring the deteriorating relationship of his uninteresting characters. Then, just like every other Ti West movie I’ve ever seen, the short just ends.
Up next is Tuesday the 17th, which follows more douche-bag twenty-somethings on a road trip to a family cabin. If the title isn’t any clue, we’re talking a sort of slasher movie satire here. Tuesday the 17th is directed by Glenn McQuaid, a talented title designer for a eclectic range of films, including Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s Kissing Jessica Stein and Ti West’s The Innkeepers. More importantly, he directed a punchy, oddball independent pseudo-anthology called I Sell the Dead, staring Dominic Monaghan, Larry Fessender, Ron Perlman, and Angus Scrimm. I Sell the Dead is no must-see, but it’s creative and great fun. For Tuesday the 17th, McQuaid’s unlikable white people are generally easier to be around than the unlikable white people seen in the previous shorts. They feel a bit more natural, even if they can’t act very well. McQuaid uses his brief runtime effectively and gets good mileage out of inter-splicing gory images into the listless forest wanderings in a lead up to the cool reveal of his killer. Again, this isn’t a particularly scary short, but it’s probably the most creative and entertaining in the film, including cool, simple special effects and some good gore.
The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger is directed by a filmmaker I know absolutely nothing about – one Joe Swanberg. Swanberg is, apparently, a major figure in the ‘mumblecore’ film movement. Mumblecore, which has nothing in common with the heavy metal music style, is defined by heavy improvisation and naturalistic dialogue. It’s sort of like Dogme 95, if Dogme 95 didn’t have cool arthouse filmmakers like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg behind it, as I understand it. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger falls under the newly dubbed mumble gore subgenre, which, I suppose, sets it more in my wheelhouse. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger takes a different approach to the found footage thing – it’s a series of recorded Skype-like conversations. This was also apparently used in Paranormal Activity 4, but, at the time, I believe it was a truly original concept to tell a traditional ‘scary phone conversation’ scary story via video conferencing. As someone who has found all the Paranormal Activity films pretty boring, I certainly appreciate the compressed nature of this little ghost story, even if it isn’t particularly effective. Swanberg scores points for not resting on the laurels of the Paranormal Activity thing and spiking his audience with surprise body horror and jet-black comedy. This is the one short in V/H/S that could’ve worked even better in a longer format.
The last piece is 10/31/98, the story of more douche-bags white guys on their way to a Halloween house party, dressed in clever costumes, and hoping to hook up with sexy girls. Unfortunately, the fellas arrive at an empty house and things go wrong from there. 10/31/98 is directed by Radio Silence (formally Chad, Matt & Rob), which is the group name for filmmakers Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella. V/H/S marks the group’s feature film debut, though they have produced a series of comedic shorts. It’s a sort of unspoken rule of horror anthologies that the last story has to be the most outrageous. This isn’t quite the crazy capper I was hoping for, but it’s certainly lively in a faux-Sam Raimi fashion and includes more surprisingly well-executed special effects.
The faux-camcorder/real-camcorder look of V/H/S doesn’t exactly make for the most impressive 1080p Blu-ray release, but the format does make for nice contrast between styles. Tape 56 mixes a whole lot of different devices, but is largely shot on actual VHS and uses the difference in compression artefacts to create its manic aggressive look. Amateur Night is shot using a tiny digital camera hidden within a pair of slightly oversized glasses. The look is similar to that of a five-year-old cameraphone, including a whole lot of fuzzy digital noise, bleeding colours, hard blends, and soft details. Second Honeymoon is shot using a reasonably high quality handheld camera. There are basic dots of compression noise, scan lines, and some ghosting effects, but overall, details are sharp, relatively complex, and colours are rich. Tuesday the 17th is also shot using a nice, modern, HD set-up. These daylight scenes of characters goofing off in nature are quite sharp (despite the constant camera shake) with more vibrant colours and complex background textures. The major blocking effects here are mostly added in post. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger is the Skype-like short and is limited by the abilities of a desktop camera. Besides digital grain and blocking, there’s also a video lag effect. 10/31/98 looks particularly camcordery with analogue shimmer and aliasing, dull bleeding colours, and jagged edges (apparently, it was shot digital HD, then transferred back and forth to analogue a few times to dirty it up).
Once again, there’s always something that bothers me about the sound design in found footage movies not being entirely centered or, at best, stereo. It always feels like a lie. But, obviously, filmmakers want to get the best out of a modern sound system and aggressive surround sound is a tried and true scary shorthand tradition. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 changes things up depending on the short in question. Tape 56 makes use of a whole lot of noise, which comes together to make something resembling dialogue and sound effects. It sets the stage for some of the more experimental hiss, hum, and buzz to come. During Amateur Night the sounds of the street and various clubs/bars blend pretty loudly into the stereo and surround channels, but has not been cleaned for clarity. The warbly, muffled quality is kind of gross, but certainly ‘natural.’ The directional effects here work especially well as the character wearing the camera runs and hides from the lady slaughtering his friends. Second Honeymoon is generally crisper and quieter with a decent stereo spread and minor surround ambience. The dialogue scenes are expectedly tinny and volume levels are expectedly inconsistent. Tuesday the 17th is dialogue-heavy, despite its natural setting, which offers only minor ambience. The sound design here gets interesting, however, as the short’s peculiar killer makes his appearance and the stereo and surround channels buzz with digital white noise. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger is very limited in terms of sound, but does feature a constantly building LFE rumble that eventually flashes out into an aggressive multi-channel white noise effect. 10/31/98 is, along with Tape 56, the closest to actual VHS quality and its sound design follows the lo-fi set-up. The sound is clear enough to understand the dialogue and there’s a decent front channel spread, but the bulk of the real sound design is devoted to the loud supernatural scare effects, which are generally a lot crisper than the analogue-flattened, base noise.
The extras begin with a big ol’ group commentary featuring producers Brad Miska, Roxanne Benjamin and Gary Binkow, directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner and Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella), writer Simon Barrett, and actors Helen Rogers and Joe Swanberg. This track is mostly a wall of discordant giggling, mumbling, and participants talking over each other. Everyone has something to say and nobody wants to wait for their turn. There’s also very little focus. Anytime someone tries to discuss the production process (a location, a special effect, a previous film) someone else pops in with a joke question and everyone starts giggling again. On a few occasions the gigglers run out of steam and I actually learned something, but, for the most part, I was so overwhelmed that I found myself ignoring the babble.
Up next are a pair of extended/alternate/deleted scenes, including an alternate ending to 10/31/98 (1:30, HD), ‘more’ Tuesday the 17th (including behind the scenes snippets, 2:40, HD). Amateur Night – Balloon Night (3:30, HD) features behind the scenes footage of the Amateur Night filmmakers attaching balloons to cameras for the climax. Up next is a pile of interviews, including webcam interviews with Simon Barrett and Helen Rogers (Joe Swanberg acts as interviewer, 13:30, HD), and talking head cast & crew interviews (mostly presented in pairs) with Brad Miska & Zak Zeman, Simon Barrett & Adam Wingard, Ti West, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett, David Bruckner & Glenn McQuaid, and Joe Swanberg & Simon Barrett (28:40, HD). The disc also features AXS TV: A Look at V/H/S (4:50, HD) is an elongated trailer/EPK with footage from the interviews, a behind the scenes photo gallery, a conceptual design gallery, trailers, and trailers for other Magnolia releases.
V/H/S is a disappointment, but not a failure. It’s the second big buzz horror anthology that disappointed me this year, behind The Theatre Bizarre. What’s interesting is that The Theatre Bizarre was full of conceptually interesting shorts that didn’t have much energy while V/H/S is brimming with energy (except Ti West’s episode), but is conceptually kind of vapid. Perhaps if the filmmakers here would’ve communicated a little more, there’d be a little less thematic overlap (some critics have accused the film of being particularly misogynistic and I believe it’s the repetitious story elements that add up to something misogynistic, not the pieces in and of themselves). This Blu-ray looks and sounds about as good as a movie that is meant to look grungy and analogue-infested can look and features plenty of extras – though, if you’re like me, you won’t be able to take the wall of noise during the group commentary. The future of the V/H/S franchise looks bright, though. The sequel, S-V/H/S is set to include returning staff Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, along with Edúardo Sanchez ( Blair Witch Project), Gareth Evans ( The Raid: Redemption), and Jason Eisener ( Hobo with a Shotgun).
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 4th December 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Cast and Crew Commentary, Alternate Ending (10/31/98), More Tuesday the 17th, Amateur Night: Balloon Night, Webcam Interviews, Cast and Crew Interviews, AXS TV: A Look at V/H/S, Behind the Scenes Gallery, Conceptual Design Gallery, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
Cast: Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Kentucker Audley, Adam Wingard, Hannah Fierman, Mike Donlan, Joe Sykes, Drew Sawyer, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Norma C. Quinones, Drew Moerlein, Jeannine Yoder, Jason Yachanin, Helen Rogers, Daniel Kaufman, Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Paul Natonek
Length: 116 minutes
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