AUGUST 7, 2012
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)
If you paid attention, I never made a "HMAD Today is" tweet for V/H/S, because I wasn't sure if I was going to review it or not. Produced by my ex-boss (oh yeah, I'm not really at Bloody-D anymore - they're not doing videos for me to edit and I don't have time to write stuff for free) and with some segments worked on by pals of mine, I don't usually feel comfortable with that sort of thing. However, I noticed that the movie had no opening credits, and thus I wasn't able to tell who did what segments (and thus create a partial bias). So since I was able to watch the movie "in the dark", I figured I'd be OK.
The hook for the film is terrific: a found footage anthology, with the wraparound focusing on a group of hoodlums who are hired to enter a strange house and retrieve a supposedly valuable VHS tape. The problem is, they get there and find several tapes, and thus each segment is another (presumably incorrect) tape. The horror angle in these segments is quite intriguing - there's a corpse in a chair that seems to disappear and reappear at random, and who exactly is the owner? Why does he have so many tapes that are more or less snuff films? The film abruptly ends at the conclusion of the last segment, which is peculiar (it's a wraparound that doesn't actually wrap around the whole thing!), so the resolution is unsatisfying, but perhaps more entries are planned that can flesh out this stuff while providing the engine for more tapes to be uncovered.
But it's still a bummer that it lacks a final sequence with this group. Running 115 minutes (in line with Creepshow!), no one can accuse the movie of "needing" to be longer, but as it went on I noticed that each segment could have benefited from some fleshing out, as they often had to race through the setup so they could get to the hook. And "leave 'em wanting more" seemed to be the MO here, as many of them end with ambiguity, leading me to wonder if the movie wouldn't have improved if they dropped a segment and fleshed out the others (along with the wraparound). As a result, it's an enjoyable, but frustratingly uneven film, and to my eyes that could have been avoided with 4 fleshed out stories instead of 5 somewhat rushed ones.
So which would I cut? No question, the first segment, depicting a group of college kids who are seeking to get laid. The method of filming is a pair of spy glasses, which is the entry's best idea - no one has to question why he's still filming when things go horribly wrong. But the kids are wholly obnoxious and idiotic, and their response to the monster is unbelievable - they run into the bathroom and keep peeking out at the thing devouring their pal. Once Glasses finally leaves the room (with the monster in pursuit) it has some great POV work and a great sight gag, but it's a chore getting to that point, and a later segment covers some of the same ground anyway, making it less impressive in retrospect since the other is a much better piece overall.
The second was a big improvement, in fact it was my 2nd favorite of the bunch. Part of that is due to the fact that it's the first time (and we're like 45 minutes in) that the camera operating wasn't all jerky, nor was the image sort of ugly. A clear face! A framed shot! It was a relief, and I also enjoyed the story itself, concerning a couple who are traveling down Route 66 and have a few minor "that was weird" encounters. The creepiest bit occurs one night when the camera starts filming the wife as she sleeps and you assume it's the husband, only for it to turn and see him sleeping as well (or vice versa, I forget). The prowler steals some money (and dips the husband's toothbrush in the toilet!), and the rest of it follows them on their trip, unaware of their danger. The twist is a bit goofy (though it pays off the toothbrush gag in a very surprising way, if you think about it), and like all of the stories here seems to be missing a beat, but it worked for me.
The next entry is the most frustrating; it has a terrific idea about a killer who seemingly only exists in the distortion caused by VHS tracking issues, but the execution is sloppy at best. The backstory comes out of nowhere and has no weight to it at all, as if they skipped an entire reel or something, and the constant "glitching", while somewhat necessary, is overdone - it's actually the closest I've ever gotten to getting a headache watching something like this. The tone was also erratic - one girl's death seems to be being played for laughs, but there's nothing overtly humorous about anything else in the segment.
Things get back on track for the next segment, which is the film's best. It concerns a Skype session between a girl and her long distance boyfriend, who is trying to calm her as she is seemingly besieged by a ghost. In addition to the film's best scare by far, it also has the most novel twist of all the segments, and while it falls in line with the others by making me wish it had some more explanation, I wish the others followed suit, as nothing else was as completely gonzo. Good enough to forgive the fact that it made no sense for a Skype session to be on a VHS tape!
In fact only the last one seemed to follow the whole VHS aesthetic down to the camera level, as it took place in 1998 when mini-dv and such was not as commonplace. As with the first story, the camera is permanently attached to the character's head (though it's not really explained - we just see him in mirrors without a camera), but it's a far more successful story. The characters (another group of guys, this time en route to a Halloween party) aren't as obnoxious, and the story is much more interesting - they get to the house where the party is supposed to be and find it empty, but apparently rigged as a haunted house. The outcome isn't too surprising, but the lo-fi aesthetic works like gangbusters during the FX heavy finale - there's something about seeing Poltergeist style floating objects and other CGI elements via low quality digital video that has always impressed me (those old PS2 era Ratchet & Clank commercials are a fine example), and it has the best ending of the bunch to boot.
But as I said, there's no return to the framing story - that's the actual ending of V/H/S as a whole! The segment ends and the credits roll, allowing us to finally know who did what. I was legit surprised by the answers, especially when the two segments I liked least were by the directors whose previous films I liked a lot (and the one I liked best was from a filmmaker who I've never had much interest in). I never even heard of the guys behind the last segment, in fact (I guess making web videos is their specialty), and in fact that's part of why I didn't say who did what in the review. I think your best bet is to go in blind, as your preconceived notions of certain filmmakers may warp your judgment some, and plus part of the fun was being surprised: "He did *that* one? Wow, I thought for sure he did THIS one."
Back on the credits, I was super impressed by how they nailed the font and mode of VCR on-screen displays (with a giant PLAY followed by a smaller "play" in the top left corner), as well as the off-black that makes up part of the reason why I have no nostalgia for watching movies on the device. Sorry, I like actual black and proper contrast levels. Still, I certainly watched enough movies like that and retain my memories of fiddling with the tracking, and the distortion (I called it a "gweep") that would occur at the end of something that was taped over original (longer) footage. I was also charmed that, despite all of that (and the movie's release, which will favor VOD over theatrical), the movie was shown on 35mm, which means I can host a screening at the New Bev someday if I so desire!
Earlier this year I bemoaned the lack of anthology films, and some pointed out that it feels like an outdated way of presenting a feature, so it's awesome that these guys found a way around that potential "dating" by utilizing the found footage aesthetic. Likewise, the biggest problem with FF movies is that they have to kill too much time to stretch it to feature length, so the anthology format allows them to get to the point quicker. The result is uneven, but I am duly impressed by how the two styles compliment each other, and I look forward to future entries (preferably with a revolving talent pool).
What say you?