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Entries in V/H/S [2012] (1)

Sunday
Sep092012

V/H/S (2012)

Head Cleaner

I recommend watching V/H/S, but not before going to bed. The new horror anthology may or may not give you nightmares, but there's a good chance its hyper-editing and rampant digital-artifact gimmickry will flicker across the insides of your eyelids into the wee hours. The few minutes of sleep I managed afterwards were interrupted by paranoid bursts of waking, during which I was convinced something had left a light on in my living room.

This was definitely not the reaction I expected after having started the film, which follows a gang of bored twenty-somethings as they record disturbingly violent acts of vandalism and sexual assault. Only Gary (Calvin Reeder), the head asshole, is remarkable--partially because of his temper, but mostly because he sports a crazy porno moustache and doesn't wear a hoodie. Apparently, these cretins make a decent enough living selling their videos, but Gary has a line on a really big score: someone has hired him to break into a house and steal a rare VHS tape.

He and the crew take the bait, and wind up in the home of a man they discover dead in a chair--sitting in front of a crude mound of TVs and videocassettes. Because the job's instructions are so vague, Gary decides to collect every tape in the house. He leaves one of his goons in the room with the corpse to sort through what's there, which launches us into the anthology proper. V/H/S is comprised of five vignettes, each found on a different tape, and each watched (ostensibly) by a different person who vanishes after watching them.

As you might expect from a series of horror movies within a horror movie, all written and directed by different teams, the quality varies from segment to segment. The common denominator, though, is that every one of these stories features unlikable people meeting gruesome, supernatural ends. You might argue that horror movies have always had such characters in them, and that part of the fun is seeing jerks get their just desserts. But V/H/S elevates douchebaggery to almost intolerable levels. There's not a person who appears on screen that I cared about, and it feels as though the filmmakers' mission was not only to scare the audience, but also to dare them not to turn off this procession of dim-witted, self-absorbed jerks.

What kept me going, aside from a firm "No Walk-outs" policy, was the creators' consistent devotion to weirdness. Horror's found-footage sub-genre should be on its last legs by now; with a half-dozen such retreads limping into theatres every year, I figured this would be yet another Paranormal Activity/The Devil Inside-style chore. But each segment has at least one creepy kernel of innovation that makes it worthwhile.

In one story, a group of teens drives into the woods for a carefree weekend of skinny dipping and drugs. What they don't know is that one of them survived a massacre in those same woods, and is using her friends to draw out the killer. As seen through the camera, their assailant is a phantom of shifting pixels who reminded me of Jason Voorhees wearing Predator camouflage.

Another segment involves a Skype-style chat between a girl and a guy struggling through a long-distance relationship. She's just moved into a new apartment, which she believes is haunted. He's in med school (I think) living a few time zones away. When ghastly, child-like apparitions begin running around, the film goes full-on Paranormal Activity. But the truth behind the "haunting" is a delicious slice of nonsensical strangeness right out of The Twilight Zone. It's also quite creepy.

The strongest video, though, finds four guys heading to a Halloween party and stumbling upon what they think is a Satanic ritual. As they try to escape the labyrinthine house, reality shifts around them in truly unsettling ways. This is the most faithful representation of a nightmare I've seen in awhile, and the story ends with a cruel "no good deed goes unpunished" stinger.

In V/H/S, the little things kept me interested, even as my brain went into overdrive with questions like:

"How drunk do you have to be not to realize that the girl you just met at a bar has a weird seam bisecting her face?"

"What sense does it make to film something digitally and then transfer it to VHS tape? Is Satan the ultimate technophobe?"

And, in the last act, "If no one is watching this particular tape, how am I seeing what's on it?"

These are nitpicks. They're also the heart of my biggest problem with a movie that is is very entertaining, and at points very effective. There's an attitude to the whole production; a snobbish, hipster stink that says, "We're young, we're talented, fuck yourself and enjoy our shit"--which goes hand-in-hand with the scumbag characters I mentioned earlier. It's not enough that good people stumble upon evil; V/H/S would have us believe that good people simply do not exist--that everyone is a debaucherous, foul-mouthed demon just waiting to get picked off by a bigger supernatural bully.

This guiding meta-statement is a license to bring the scares and forget about lame details like internal logic and audience empathy. Personally, the idea that I might run into some of these so-called protagonists on the street fills me with more dread than fifty haunted houses or pixelated maniacs. But if you can wade through the human trash, misery, and too-precious-by-half video effects (warps, tiling, etc.), you may just find yourself entertained--and more than a little disturbed.

Note: I often cite actor, director, and screenwriters' names in my reviews. V/H/S helpfully lists these by segment title in the end credits. However, because this was an on-demand rental, and because this information isn't listed anywhere else that I could find, I can't properly discuss the individual performances or filmmaking skills. Ti West directed a cool segment; and the guy from the Skype episode looks uncannily like SNL performer Bill Hader. Someone at Magnet Releasing may want to fix this, so that folks like me can give credit where credit is due--as well as effectively assign blame.