Fast Forward, by David Bax
Like every anthology film ever made, V/H/S (the unifying concept of which is found-footage horror) is an uneven film. The peculiar thing about this one, however, is that it’s also unevenly weighted. The best entries by far are the final two. That’s a risky tactic when the stuff you’re asking your audience to endure is the kind of extremely shaky, handheld, low-fi stuff that can induce motion sickness (at least one of my fellow critics left after the first short looking more than a little green). And that’s before we even get to the question of the film’s quality.
Making up a story of its own, the movie’s framing mechanism counts toward the six-film tally. It’s called “Tape 56” and it’s the story of a group of lowlife, sociopathic criminals who earn a living making illicit videos and selling them. Peppering the cast of a horror movie with douchebags is a time-honored tradition. It’s just more people we get to enjoy seeing killed off. These guys, however, exceed tolerable levels of doucheness. Not only are they unpleasant to watch but Adam Wingard (You’re Next), the director behind these sections, seems disturbingly to approve of them. In the introduction, we see the recording of a sexual assault they have perpetrated for their latest video. Yet the way it’s presented – and the fact that Wingard returns to it later for no good reason – allows it to read as if it’s meant to be fun or funny. In a film full of disturbing images, it’s the most morally upsetting one.
In any case, these dipshits are tipped off to an opportunity to make a huge score simply by breaking into a house and stealing a particular VHS tape. What they find is a massive stack of such cassettes in the basement and, upstairs, a dead man propped in front of a bank of televisions. Which tape is it? I guess they’ll have to watch them to find out.
First up is “Amateur Night,” directed by David Bruckner. Three friends head out on the town. One of them is wearing eyeglasses in which a tiny camera has been installed. The idea is that the other two will bring girls back to the hotel room and the bespectacled one will watch his friends have sex with strange women. By my count, this makes them not only assholes but weirdoes too. Though the twist that turns this into a horror story is an interesting one, the film fails in two ways. First, we are meant to sympathize with the guy wearing the glasses – our ostensible hero – but there’s nothing that convincingly puts us on his side. Why is he going along with all of this? Second, the film is simply stylistically unpleasant to watch. If you do tend to get nauseated from these kinds of movies, this one will almost certainly set you off. Even apart from that, though, it’s ugly in an artless way and the intentionally shoddy sound puts up too strong a barrier to allow for immersion in the story.
“Second Honeymoon” is the entry from Ti West, the director of The House of the Devil and last year’s terrific The Innkeepers. Despite this being a short, he still employs his trademark slow burn, establishing weirdness when a young, married couple become concerned with the presence of an odd young woman hanging out in the parking lot of their motel. The next day, while sightseeing, they seem to have gotten over their willies but there remains a pervading sense that something is off. Unfortunately, the culmination of the build-up is not scary and, in fact, most resembles a cheap, tasteless and unfunny joke.
Next up is “Tuesday the 17th,” the story of four friends heading to a cabin in the woods (like in that other movie and all those other movies it was referencing!). Director Glenn McQuaid displays a clear penchant for innovative visual effects. The appearance of the villain is unique, creepy and very cool. Unfortunately, McQuaid fails at pretty much everything else in his job description. The dialogue is unconvincing at best and the amateurish performances do nothing to help it along. The whole thing is unfortunately rather stagey and, like the previous entries, suffers from an inability to get us to care about the characters.
Finally addressing that problem is director Joe Swanberg with “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” the first truly good section of V/H/S. Before addressing the characters, though, congratulations are due to Mr. Swanberg for finding a believable approach to the found-footage guideline. The entire film takes place over Skype. When we get up and explore the apartment, it’s because Emily is trying to show something to her boyfriend on the other end of the conversation. It works without fail. What also works is that Emily and said boyfriend, James, appear to actually be nice people. Emily is good-natured but also troubled because something that happened to her when she was younger (something sick, probably) has left her on medications that lead her to act erratically. For instance, she swears she feels something under the skin of her arm and can’t stop herself from picking at it and, later, doing much worse. Also standing out in this entry is Swanberg’s reliance on scary and chilling imagery and not straightforward violence and gore like the previous films. Don’t be worried, though. Violence and gore do make an appearance.
Ultimately, V/H/S ends on a high note with “10/31/98,” directed by a team known as Radio Silence. Again, the found-footage conceit is well-earned. We are en route to a Halloween party with a group of male friends, one of whom is dressed as a nanny-cam, complete with the camera sitting atop his head. When they arrive at their destination, they are greeted by something other than what they expected. I won’t describe any further because, if you’re going to see this film, “10/31/98” is the one you’ll want to know the least about. This is true for the simple reason that it’s the most fun piece of the anthology. For example, the 1998 setting – used mostly to provide a lack of cellphones and GPS – is highlighted by our protagonists singing along to an MU330 song. This is the only one of the shorts to effectively mix scares with laughs and it is by far the best use of visual effects. They actually become the centerpiece of the film as it goes on but Radio Silence never lose sight of their characters.
There are, as you can see, worthwhile elements to V/H/S. Sadly, they don’t show up until the end. Even more sadly, they can’t be said to be worth the investment of the film’s first two thirds. Maybe you should just rent this one on video and fast forward to the good parts.