Not every satisfying movie has to have a big budget. In fact, production obstacles, like limited finances and locations, can give birth to unexpected creativity, forcing filmmakers to find imaginative solutions with the resources they have. Much of this applies to V/H/S, with its found-footage style and compilation format. Regardless of the budget, however, there’s no excuse for a poor script, and, unfortunately, some of the vignettes are uncomfortable to watch for the wrong reasons.
V/H/S comprises a handful of different horror stories (directed by different directors) caught on video, which are loosely tied together by an overarching plot that’s completely unrelated to the individual stories. In the main plot, a group of young guys run a small video racket where they prowl for women to sexually assault while filming the attack. Their distributor puts the guys on a mission to break into a specific house and steal a special VHS tape. Once inside the house, however, the guys discover the owner dead, sitting in a chair, in front of a television, next to a stack of VHS tapes. Since the guys don’t know which tape is needed, they sit down next to the corpse and watch tape after tape, discovering horror stories with each viewing.
Found-footage, the style of filmmaking that delivers the movie through the literal lens of a cameraman within the story, is both engaging and contrived, and V/H/S doesn’t do much to change that opinion. The biggest issue with found-footage is the question: Why are these people still filming? The last thing on anyone’s mind should be to film while a monster is chasing them or, in this case, while breaking into a house. In one of the stories, a girl eluding attackers in the woods is still rolling tape even while the attacker is swinging his weapon at her. In another story, a couple on vacation discusses the mysterious visitor at their motel door, but feel the need to videotape their seemingly innocuous conversation. When characters have to deviate from natural human behavior to accommodate a style, then it’s obvious that the style is too intrusive on the storytelling. On the other hand, some of the stories in V/H/S handle the constant filming in an organic way, keeping the audience engaged instead of questioning the plausibility of the situation. In one story, the camera is placed inside a pair of glasses to secretly film sexual encounters. In another story, involving a Halloween costume party, one character is dressed as a teddy bear nanny, complete with functioning hidden camera. The ingenuity in those stories works very well, and is quickly accepted and forgotten so that audiences can focus on the action.
The individual stories, including the overarching story are hit and miss. Some stories just aren’t scary or clever at all. On one tape, a happy couple is on vacation and is being stalked by a knife wielding assailant who likes to videotape them while they sleep, threatening their unconscious bodies with a pocket knife. There is almost no tension at all in that story, and it’s almost laughable that the couple never wakes up even when the assailant uses the bright camera light to illuminate the shot in the pitch black room. Other stories, however, offer some of the best scares around. Consider the tape featuring a group of guys who pick up drunk women and then take them back to their motel room for sex, which they secretly tape using special glasses. When their latest victim turns out to be an otherworldly creature, seeing the death and dismemberment from a first-person perspective effectively transfers the fear from the screen to the audience in one of the more visceral manners available in cinema.
The biggest issue with V/H/S is its inconsistency. While some parts are very well done, other parts are terrible. Moreover, since each story is essentially its own horror film short, audiences have to see the same horror contrivances over and over again. For example, in any one horror movie audiences can usually expect a scene of gratuitous nudity and/or sex. Here, audiences have to experience the scene over and over again, because the respective directors probably never communicated with each other until their portion was ready to be cut into the overarching plot. So, while men in the audience will probably not mind seeing women jiggle their bosoms on the screen in most of the tapes, those looking for satisfying storytelling could probably do without those moments.
Most impressive about V/H/S is its visuals. While it’s never stated, the stories presented all look captured during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, since no one is recording on a phone, opting instead to use camcorders or special equipment. As such, the quality of the footage isn’t as clear as digital media. This helps tremendously in the special effects department since all of the special effects look just as grainy as everything else.
V/H/S offers a few scares, serviceable acting and some solid storylines. Basically, it gets the job done, but doesn’t revolutionize the genre. On the other hand, it probably wasn’t trying to, which is too bad, because it should have and could have.