Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Instant Movie Club: V/H/S

Every week, your friends at Culture Blues get together to watch a movie from their Netflix Instant queue. Then, they put on video glasses and answer a series of discussion questions. This is The Instant Movie Club.

This week we’re watching V/H/S. This horror anthology made a splash at last year’s Sundance and spawned a sequel this year.

Next week:  Bachelorette. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay try to cash in on the "suddenly women are funny" fad with this Bridesmaids-style comedy starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan and Rebel Wilson. Oh, and Cyclops.

Let's make a snuff film!

It’s been almost 15 years since The Blair Witch Project put found footage horror on the map. Using V/H/S as a barometer, how’s the genre doing?

Jeremiah White:  Horror and found footage are a natural fit. The unreal becomes more believable. The camera, whether fixed (Paranormal Activity) or restless (everything else), is a source of frustration and tension itself. And the low quality video and frantic camerawork can mask special effects that don’t quite get the job done. Mama could have used some of this instead of its many long, loving shots of that silly ghost monster. The only drawbacks are that found footage movies look crappy and are boring. Small price to pay for a few cheap thrills, right?

Jeff Hart:  So we both agree that found footage isn’t our favorite subgenre of horror and that the special effects down the stretch in Mama were hilarious. Good to know. Paranormal Activity is definitely the current standard-bearer for found footage, which sucks because those movies are mostly dull. V/H/S, on the other hand, brings good energy to the proceedings and some fresh ideas. This often requires Cloverfield-sized suspension-of-disbelief levels, but it’s a lot more fun to watch than a drawer slowly opening in nightvision.

Jeremiah White:   V/H/S is something of a mixed bag, but it certainly doesn’t advance the genre (is there anywhere to go?). The cleverest implementation of the found footage gimmick comes in the form of the video glasses in David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night,” which isn’t saying much but it easily solves some of the gimmick’s inherent logical issues. A solid cast (way to commit to douchiness, guys!) and a consistent build to an exciting finale made this easily my favorite. The Skype set up in Joe Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger”, on the other hand, is original (as far as I know) but not utilized well. They don’t get much mileage out of him seeing things she can’t, and they don’t even bother using the boy’s window in the narrative. During all those times when she has her eyes closed, there could have been hints as to his true nature. Instead he’s just hanging out taking up space.

Jeff Hart:  “Amateur Night” is definitely the strongest of the five shorts, the only one I’d really passionately recommend. I don’t think it’s the spy glasses that make it stand out – the nanny-cam costume in “10/31/98” is pretty much the same conceit (and that’s also the second best short) – it’s the difference in scares. I mean, it’s a freaking harpy! Haven’t seen that before. Same goes for the really batshit haunted house in “10/31/98,” which has a surplus of cool tracking shots and spooky effects. These two advance the genre not by changing up the format, but by getting more ambitious with the scares. The plot in “Emily” is pretty ambitious too, but like you I was turned off by the Skype device and the stiff performances. A nice try, though!

Jeremiah White:  The other two are pretty standard “hey I’m going to tape people getting killed with my camcorder” type deals.  In “Tuesday the 17th”, the slasher survivor who uses her friends as bait is a good premise, but the found footage device, the unexplained appearance of dead bodies, and the killer’s odd pixilation super powers are carelessly shoehorned in. If V/H/S is the face of modern found footage horror, it might be time to make the whole genre go stand in the corner and face the wall.

Jeff Hart:  I wasn’t that into “Tuesday” either and, despite being the biggest name in the anthology, Ti West’s stripped down “Second Honeymoon” takes a long time getting to one really creepy moment (although, I like this one better after learning the title). But let’s not throw the alien baby out with the bathwater! I’m going to haphazardly argue that “Amateur Night” is the best example of found footage horror in existences besides maybe The Blair Witch. So maybe the best is yet to come?

The terrifying image of your chest hair on a webcam.

The terrifying image of your chest hair on a webcam.

Horror anthologies have a proud cinematic history including Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Tales From the Darkside, but we don’t see too many these days. Could V/H/S spur a resurgence?

Jeremiah White:  I hope so! I’m surprised the J-horror and torture porn fads didn’t give us any notable anthologies. Much like found footage itself, anthologies are a natural fit for horror. Give me a premise, a few scares and a final twist and I’m happy. The subplots and characterization that fill out feature length runtimes are almost always superfluous. I’m not here to learn about the human condition.

Jeff Hart:  I’m so glad there’s not a torture porn anthology. But yeah, horror anthologies are awesome! More of them, please. And it’s a perfect fit for found footage because, usually, 20 minutes is about all the patience I have for some dope running around with a handheld camera.

Jeremiah White:  Unfortunately, V/H/S doesn’t make great use of the format. One problem with using found footage as the unifying characteristic is that the films are doomed to look similar (in bad ways). Did the framing device really have to be found footage too? My eyes could have used a break. It also diminishes the impact of having different directors. No matter who is behind the camera, “found footage” is always going to be the dominant stylistic choice. V/H/S manages to include a few different horror subgenres (slasher, haunted house) but there’s no real change of pace here (the slasher one is a step in the right direction). I was on edge for much of the nearly 2 hour runtime, but I was also looking at my watch.

Jeff Hart:  Yeah, the framing device is pretty superfluous, although I initially thought with all the rapey guys in the first few segments that there was going to be some thematic dovetailing toward the end where everyone gets castrated. No such luck – it turns out dudes are just gross! I totally disagree with you on the different directors front; there are definite stylistic differences between all the shorts, from editing to film quality. I look at the V/H/S series as almost a challenge to see what these directors can do with a languishing genre. For the most part, I enjoyed the results.


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1 Responses »

  1. I was a pretty big fan of this, actually. But then again I lower my standards for horror movies all the time.