Friday, November 23, 2012

Horro Fest VII Day One: V/H/S

 We decided to kick off Horror Fest with something I've been wanting to see for a while now, the "found footage" anthology film V/H/S. Normally the Cap'n isn't a fan of the "found footage" genre - the only two I've really enjoyed were The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield - but I thought the premise sounded interesting and one of the directors involved was Ti West. As you know, as a fan of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, I'm on board with anything West has a hand in directing. Also, the Cap'n is a sucker for anthologies.

 The film is broken up into five segments, with a wrap around story that actually advances as the film goes on (which isn't often the case in anthology films):

 "Tape 56" - from director Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die), a group of hooligans who like to videotape themselves exposing women and vandalizing property are hired to break into an old man's house and steal a videocassette. The only problem is that once they get there, the old man is dead and they don't know which tape to steal, so they watch the following stories:

 "Amateur Night" - from director Dave Bruckner (The Signal), three friends head out for a night of drunken sex with camera glasses in tow, but when they bring the wrong girl back to their motel room, the party takes a dark and twisted direction.

 "Second Honeymoon" - from Ti West (The Roost), a couple is sightseeing in Colorado and Arizona when a strange woman begins following them around, and eventually visiting them in their motel room, while they sleep...

 "Tuesday the 17th" - from Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), a young woman brings her friends up to a lake she visited last year, but her plans may not be as innocent as partying and smoking pot...

 "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily when She was Younger" - from Joe Swanberg (LOL), Emily and her husband are separated while he's in medical school, but she's having trouble dealing with noises in her apartment and a strange bump on her arm...

 "10/31/98" - from Radio Silence (Mountain Devil Prank Fails Horribly), a guy dressed as a nannycam bear and his friends arrive at the wrong house for a Halloween party, and instead find something more disturbing in the attic. When they intervene, they realize what they stopped wasn't the worst thing that could happen on Halloween...

 I'd heard positive and negative reactions to V/H/S, and I guess I can understand both. People prone to motion sickness from "found footage" movies may as well steer clear, as you'll be ill from the opening shots and it's not going to get any better. The ways that the stories use videotaped footage are, for the most part, clever, although I'd love to hear anybody's explanation of who would videotape a Skype conversation using a camcorder so that the wraparound story characters could watch it. But, if you're willing to overlook certain logical inconsistencies, I guess that for the most part they work.

 The "video glasses" in "Amateur Night" are probably the most successful because they limit our perspective in such a way that the ending is a surprise and it generally explains the age-old "why don't they just turn the camera off" question. This also works in "Second Honeymoon" and "10/31/98"'s favor, and "Tuesday the 17th" relies on keeping the camera rolling to reveal the killer. It's really just the Skype gimmick in "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She was Younger" that strains logic.

 Like most anthologies, there are a mixture of good segments, weaker sections, and one or two really impressive moments that help others to stand out. The ending of "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily" manages to elevate the story beyond a retread of Paranormal Activity territory. The fact that the characters in "Tape 56" are all loathsome assholes is overcome with the slow realization that watching these tapes are causing them to disappear one by one (although the reason isn't necessarily clear until the end), and great makeup effects and a gonzo ending help "Amateur Night" overcome its otherwise uninteresting protagonists. It will also make you second guess any girl who ever tells you "I like you" after a few drinks...

 I suppose that while I didn't necessarily like how lopsided "Tuesday the 17th" was in setting up the story before becoming an all out gorefest, the way the killer is handled was inventive and made the best use of the "videotaped" gimmick.

 Of all of the segments, "10/31/98" was probably my favorite, which is appropriate as they save it for last, after even "Tape 56" reaches its conclusion. When things move from suggested creepiness to all out special effects bonanza (handled really well considering it needed to be integrated with camcorder level video images), the segment earns the aimless first section, and the conclusion is satisfying and appropriately dark.

 Oddly, while West's "Second Honeymoon" suffers from the least motion-sickness inducing camerawork, it may be the most abrupt story conclusion and compared to the other entries is possibly the least satisfying. The "home invasion" elements are quite creepy, and West builds tension in appropriately slow pace, dropping hints about what's coming, but even more so than in The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, the conclusion is too rushed to be satisfying. I understand what he was trying to do, but the twist comes about so quickly and ends immediately afterward, leaving little time to digest what just happened. It doesn't seem unfair that the guy watching that tape says "what the hell was that?" when it ends.

 Is V/H/S going to be for everybody? Probably not. It is a better-than-average anthology movie, which I count as a plus, and as I said mostly makes the best of the "found footage" gimmick, but not all of the segments are good enough to sustain the runtime, even if some of their conceits help keep audiences engaged. I can't really say that it transcends either the "found footage" or anthology subgenre, and it's going to make some of you feel very queasy well before "Amateur Night" kicks into high gear, so consider this a conditional recommendation.

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