V/H/S: Found Footage? Put it Back.
The very fact that I spent two hours watching V/H/S with hundreds of other films at my disposal says a lot about the times in which we live. First of all, with lowering equipment costs and a number of affordable digital distribution methods, the idea that anyone can become a filmmaker is more realistic than ever before. Second, the ever-expanding number of film bloggers with which I become acquainted on some level or another means that I’m exposed to a large degree of hype for many movies that would otherwise probably fly under my radar. Sometimes, as with 2011’s Hobo with a Shotgun, this all adds up to a good thing. On the other hand, V/H/S, an eight-writer-and-director foray into the apparently lucrative “found footage” horror subgenre, underlines an important caveat for all aspiring filmmakers out there; just because the tools are easy to get doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at using them.
V/H/S fetishizes its namesake format to an absurd degree, in that the movie is comprised of several small stories contained on various VHS tapes found by a group of guys who break into a house and–get this–record the entire thing on VHS. Because, as Jimbo Jones so wisely proclaimed on an old episode of The Simpsons, “Videotaping this crime spree is the best idea we’ve ever had!”. Mind you, the wraparound story is taking place in an era in which these guys make extra cash selling videos of themselves yanking the shirts off of struggling girls to shady Internet sites, and one of the stories revolves around a laptop with an uncommonly high-quality webcam. Yet, everything still seems to be captured exclusively on VHS. During the break-in, one guy is shown lugging a camcorder that must be at least 20 years old. Oddly, all this purported amateur video is in 1.85:1, so the filmmaker’s dedication to the medium only goes far enough to make everything look terrible, but not far enough to be 100% accurate.
V/H/S kicks off with an extended sequence of a bunch of guys working over an empty house with a baseball bat and gradually finds these upstanding gentlemen embarking on the aforementioned break-in, where they’re looking for a VHS tape with unknown contents that will nonetheless net them a ton of cash. More than, like, a year’s worth of upskirt videos. They break in, the old guy who lives there is dead (or is he), and there are static-filled screens, VCRs, and a basement full of old VHS tapes for the plundering. While the group tries to locate the tape they came for, one guy hangs out with the corpse they just found and watches a bunch of the tapes he’s got lying around. So far the entire movie has been like some August Underground-style faux snuff film but without anything actually happening, so one would hope that the mini-movies contained within might break up the monotony. They don’t.
The stories range from supernatural to slasher format, with a dose of urban legend here or there just to keep things 90’s. They all have more in common than not though, and it’s all the things that are inherently wrong with the “found footage” format. First of all, you need to keep the victims filming mundane things more than anyone ever would, so the bulk of each story is like watching the world’s worst vacation videos. I remember what it was like trying to keep a camcorder battery charged during a vacation, and the lifespan was nowhere near luxurious enough to film random car and hotel room conversations. Second, there is a reason cameras were always stationary or mounted to a track prior to the arrival of Steadicam: watching the results of someone walking around with a camera in their hand, even for a few seconds, is the worst possible thing. Any bit of movement is like watching someone hit record and then roll the camera down a steep hill, and that’s just a little bit of movement. This is a film in which people literally cannot stop running up and down staircases. The only time the first-person shakycam look has even been remotely acceptable was in Cloverfield, and even that wasn’t great. The only reason it even got close is that it was made by a crew far more experienced than that employed by V/H/S.
If you look closely you can see the occasional interesting special effect as each segment finally and mercifully moves past its excruciating car ride and/or conversation scenes. It’s too bad the filmmakers were more dedicated to making the footage look as terrible and amateurish as possible, otherwise some of the actual horror movie bits may have been entertaining to watch. As it is they’re lost among the static, tracking lines, and bits of unrelated footage inserted by someone who doesn’t actually understand how taping over things works. They try to give the effect of most of the actual movie footage having been taped over other things, but these bits of “old” footage pop in entirely at random and sometimes during otherwise continuous shots, rather than in between instances of hitting “stop” and “record”.
Unless you’re related to one of the seemingly endless list of people it took to actually make V/H/S, I would suggest giving this one a pass. There are likely no less than one hundred better horror films available on Netflix Instant, and if you were going to buy it on disc that number jumps up considerably. If you, like the makers of V/H/S are simply obsessed with that format as a nightmare delivery system, you could go watch The Ring again and probably have a better time. If you’re just on the lookout for some interesting new indie horror and got caught up on the inexplicable Internet hype for this one, just keep looking. As a collection of separate shorts without the found footage style a couple of them may have been interesting enough, but the hamfisted attempt to cram them all into a loose anthology just kills it; there’s absolutely no reason this thing should be two hours long.