Saturday, October 24, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: The V/H/S Series


 editor's note: the following reviews originally appeared during coverage for Horror Fests VII and VIII, along with the 2014 Year End Recap.

 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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V/H/S 2 is a marked improvement on just about every aspect of V/H/S, and this is coming from someone who enjoyed the first film. It’s a weird point of cognitive dissonance for me, because I love anthology films but mostly hate “found footage” films, so V/H/S had to overcome its conceit with interesting segments and succeeded half of the time (I largely prefer the first and last entries in the film – the bat-creature and the haunted house). That said, it was too long, stretched the “frame” story too far, and is something I “liked” more than really “enjoyed.” I haven’t seen it again since last year and don’t know that I will any time soon.
 On the other hand, I've already seen the second film twice this year; V/H/S 2 drops the segments, cuts down on the length, and provides a more satisfying overall experience, which is critical for any anthology. The “frame” story, “Tape 49” is more focused and streamlined while still loosely tying in to the first film, and three out of the four “tapes” are winners, with the other one an inspired effort. Let’s take a look at how the film breaks down:
 “Tape 49” – from Simon Barrett (the writer of You’re Next), follows a dubious private investigator and his assistant as they break into the house of a missing college student, only to find a familiar setup involving VCRs and TVs in the living room. A laptop video from the missing student suggests that playing the tapes “in the right order” will change you, and they seem to be having an odd effect on the investigator’s assistant.

“Phase I Clinical Trials” – Adam Wingard (The ABCs of Death) directs and stars as an accident victim who receives an experimental artificial eye which is, for research purposes, filming everything. Things seem to be going well until he notices strange goings-on in his house, and a stranger turns up to warn him that the longer he can see dead people, the more they can interact with him. How does she know? Her cochlear implant has the same effect, and it may already be too late for both of them…
“A Ride in the Park” – from Eduardo S√°nchez and Gregg Hale (The Blair Witch Project), a biker has plans for a nice ride through the woods when he runs into a familiar horror monster, and thanks to his helmet camera, takes us on a first-person journey through the “eyes” of the undead.
“Safe Haven” – from Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption) and Timo Tjahjanto (The ABCs of Death), a documentary crew is allowed access to the compound of a cult promising “Paradise on Earth.” Little do they realize that their spy cameras will do more than expose what’s going on behind closed doors – their arrival signals the beginning of the end…
“Alien Abduction Slumber Party” – from Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) comes, well, exactly what it promises. Teenagers put up with their obnoxious preteen brothers and friends, until invaders from another world decide they want everybody, including the dog.
 The “frame” story benefits from stripping down the main characters to two (there were too many people in the first film) and keeps the in-between segments shorter and to the point. While you might miss it the first time, there are quite a few references to the first film and the “mythology” behind why somebody would collect these tapes. I would imagine this will expand as the series goes on (it’s hard to see why there wouldn’t be more), so it doesn’t feel intrusive and people who hadn’t seen the first V/H/S didn’t feel lost in the meantime.
 Every one of the entries is an improvement over the first film, not simply because they’re shorter (“Safe Haven” is the longest of the four and deservedly so). While it’s still hard to argue why anybody would transfer this footage tape, let alone circulate bootlegged copies, there’s nothing as credibility straining as the “Skype” segment from V/H/S. “A Ride in the Park” manages to take the overdone (if still wildly popular) zombie story and present it from a perspective you haven’t seen before and mixes in other camera angles in a fairly clever way. “Phase I Clinical Trials” makes good use of a limited perspective “first person” camera and builds some tension with creepy imagery.
 If there’s a weak link in the lot, it’s probably “Alien Abduction Slumber Party”, and mostly because it comes after the truly fantastic “Safe Haven.” Evans and Tjahjanto’s tour-de-force is an almost impossible act to follow, and “Slumber Party” is good, even when you consider that Eisener breaks three cardinal rules of movie-making (don’t work with children, don’t work with animals, and don’t kill either if you do). His novel use of the camera attached to the dog makes the frenetic chases near the end more interesting and explains the “why are they still filming this?” problem inherent to “found footage.”
 The undisputed winner is “Safe Haven,” for reasons I don’t want to spoil for people who haven’t seen V/H/S 2, because you should see the film if for no other reason than this segment. It’s an ominous buildup that turns into a rollercoaster of “holy shit!” with a perfect final line that’ll make you chuckle. I didn’t even realize I’d missed the last line until the second time I saw it, which caps off an already impressive exercise in ratcheting up the stakes for a film crew in far over their heads. The rest of V/H/S 2 is icing on the cake, which is not to diminish Eisener’s effort or the conclusion to “Tape 49,” which is more satisfying than the end of V/H/S.
Before we watched V/H/S 2, the Cap’n screened “Incubator,” a short I saw last year at Nevermore, and “One Last Dive,” another short from Eisener that shows just how much you can do with one minute. While I enjoy Hobo with a Shotgun to a degree, Jason Eisener has to this point really impressed the Cap’n with the short films he’s directed, edited, and produced. Not to bag on his feature length endeavor, but he really knows how to pack a punch in a short film.
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Remember how V/H/S was too long and only had a few good segments, but the frame story was fairly interesting even though why would you tape a Skype conversation and put it on a tape? And then V/H/S 2 was a marked improvement in every way, because it was shorter and the vignettes were more concise and creepier, even if the frame story was kind of a mess? I guess when the time came to make V/H/S Viral - which might as well be "3" based on the end of the movie - everyone involved from the producers to the writers and directors forgot that.

 The wrap around story makes almost no sense until the very end, and aside from an amusing cookout gone wrong, there's nothing but gore for gore's sake until the mysterious van that causes people go turn violent is shoehorned into the V/H/S mythos (such as it is). If clips from the first two films weren't crammed in as cutaways, you wouldn't even know it was supposed to be part of the same series. The "tapes" are abandoned completely, leaving us with a combination documentary / found footage story of a magician whose cape gives him real powers, a trip into another dimension that, initially, looks like ours but really, really isn't, and twenty minutes with the most obnoxious skaters you're likely to meet, who are eventually killed by zombies or eaten by a demon the zombies are summoning.

 Of the segments, the second one - "Parallel Monsters" - by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) is the only one worth watching. That said, it's so over the top that you're liable to start laughing at the "reveal" of how the alternate universe is structured. The Day of the Dead / Skater video only gets remotely interesting near the end, when it's clear they can't kill the cult members in Tijuana. Everything else is an absolute waste of time, and I worry that trying to turn the series from a Videodrome-like vibe to a "viral video" ending (think The Signal or Pontypool, but much worse) isn't going to serve V/H/S well.

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