“... What Most Of These Directors Failed To Understand Is That A Short Film IS NOT Just A Single "Gotcha!" Idea; It's A Beginning, Middle And End...”
October 4th, 2012
Of the many forms of storytelling that exist, none strike such a chord with me as that of the tried-and-true anthology. Since I can remember, I've always maintained a penchant for short-stories; their concise and oftentimes brilliant means of conveying a narrative in an incredibly contained space. Be it book or film, my ever growing interest with omnibus-style dramaturgy has pushed me to explore the depths of Clive Barker's twisted soul with his BOOKS OF BLOOD; has driven me to understand the science-fiction genius of Harlan Ellison; has given me added appreciation to TALES FROM THE CRYPT and CREEPSHOW. I guess my infatuation for such minute stories stems from the fact that such condensed tales of joy, love, sadness, horror and tragedy are--many a time--able to accomplish in fifteen minutes or pages what a feature length film or novel fail to do in two hours or three-hundred pages. So, with all of that laid out, one can understand the giddiness I experienced upon my screening of V/H/S. It's a horror movie. It's an anthology. It derives from some of the best upcoming genre filmmakers of our generation. Sadly, for every incredible garland of cinematic terror akin to TRICK R' TREAT, there's a disappointing effort along the lines of SNOOP DOGG'S HOOD OF HORROR. While V/H/S is nowhere near such a travesty as Snoop's aforementioned folly, it doesn't come close to meeting the high bar set by Michael Dougherty and his pumpkin-headed roustabout, Sam.
V/H/S follows a group of young, idiotic criminals who spend their days videotaping their petty offenses. From trashing random, derelict houses to de-blousing young women, one can quickly understand that a Michael Mann-esque heist will not be in the cards for them. Anywho, this band of fratty thugs are commissioned by an unknown person to acquire a certain VHS tape from the home of an old man. Upon their forced entry however, they not only discover a massive collection of VHS's, but the stone-cold cadaver of said olden creature. The weird thing? His carcass resides in a recliner illuminated only by the subtle glow of five, static-filled television sets stacked one on the other with a handful of VHS players adorning their tops. Directed by Adam Wingard (A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE; YOU'RE NEXT), this story entitled, "TAPE 56", serves as the overarching thread "connecting" the five following tales. As the crooks search high and low for that one particular tape, a handful of them begin going through copies of the other tapes to witness what's on them. Sadly, while this overarching link begins on a solidly intriguing note, it de-evolves into absolute stupidity and poor filmmaking. Worse, is the way it all ends: abruptly with no creativity. Next to Ti West's endeavor, this is easily the worst of the bunch as it sets itself up for greatness but settles for less than ordinary.
So, the overarching plot aside, let's view each of these short films on their own.
V/H/S begins on a strong note with David Bruckner (THE SIGNAL) and his vicious "hunters-become-the-hunted foray into fear, "AMATEUR NIGHT". In this segment, we follow three douchebags as they dress one of their buddies with a spy-cam and seek out any young women which will give them tail. While the first few bars/clubs turn up nil, the last offers two promising females for the night; thus, the assholes take them back to a motel. Early on, it's incredibly apparent that one of the chicks is not exactly normal and this pays off immensely during the short's last five minutes. It's pretty damn creepy, contains some splendidly gruesome prosthetic effects and ends on a commendably interesting note. Outside of the last film in the series, I found AMATEUR NIGHT to be the best of the collection.
Following this, is the weakest of the bunch, Ti West's, "SECOND HONEYMOON". Following West's signature style of "incredibly slow burn; sudden, terrible climax", West tells the candid story of a couple's road trip as they take in sights, sleep in dirty motels and record their fond memories via hand-cam. After about ten minutes of them traveling from destination to destination (in a fifteen minute short), we're finally introduced to a masked killer sneaking into their room and recording them with their own camera. While that little tidbit does come with its own voyeuristic dread it all builds to a terribly vague "conclusion" that had me and my buddy looking at each other with "What the fuck?" expressions. A completely wasted effort that feels dissonant to the grisly harmony the rest of the directors were trying to create.
Next up, is "TUESDAY THE 17TH", a slasher flick with a 'lil twist. . . Kind of. Directed by Glenn McQuaid (I SELL THE DEAD), this vision of horror follows another group of assholes and whores as they journey into a forest, only to learn of several murders which occurred there. TUESDAY does sport some eye-widening carnage placed against cool camera effects and an antagonist seemingly composed of video static, but it all feels completely undercooked and forced--even for a short. Really, it's just an excuse to show some graphic violence.
The fourth entry, deceptively titled, "THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER", begins on a fun and enjoyably frightening note, but descends into questionable territory with its audaciously cruel twist. While director Joe Swanberg deserves props for delivering some of the collection's only scares, but it also misses the mark as its conclusion feels like a twist to something which should have been much larger. A nifty misdirection of a tale, but that's it.
The last and best (next to Amateur Night), is that of Radio Silence's, "10/31/1998". When four buddies head to a house party on Halloween night, they get infinitely more than they bargained for when they discover an empty abode with some monstrous tendencies. This last short performs like two different versions of a haunted house story as it begins with slow, ominous creep-outs (loved the chair!) that escalate into full blown special effects and absolute chaos during the movie's final reel. Again, while easy to anticipate, it's nonetheless infinitely more fun than the majority of the previous outings.
With V/H/S, I absolutely commend the talent herein and what they were trying to do, but the same clever minds behind such a concept also failed to lift something so potentially great above the bar of mediocrity. What most of these directors failed to understand is that a short film IS NOT just a single "Gotcha!" idea; it's a beginning, middle and end. Just because one must manipulate a time frame into fifteen minutes, does not mean that you forego storytelling as a whole. My biggest gripe with this anthology is that nearly all of the stories (except for the first and last) are built around a final idea--they aren't structured around a story. While Amatuer Night and 10/31/1998 felt like nifty, brutal shorts, the rest simply felt like a collection of random events before the director tossed in his SINGLE concept, "Surprise!", to which I say, "Meh". I'm sorry, but the duration of V/H/S is not comprised of short films, they are but single "Gotcha!" ideas placed at the tail end of a fifteen-minute series of events.
My other issue was surprisingly the characterization; or lack thereof. Nearly EVERY male character in V/H/S is a frat-bro-douchebag. Nearly all of the flicks involve some sort of "manly-man" asshole either trying to get laid by any means necessary, or just outright mistreating a woman. There's a weird dynamic purveying this bit of celluloid as it presents women as either victims or the cause of men's pain, and presents men as frat boys with no conscience (Radio Silence's project, withstanding). This might say something about the director's themselves (party too hard with their Phi-Beta-Kappa bros in school?) as each seems to stand by the same perspective of character development. What's further disheartening about not only this element of the film, but the experiment as a whole, is that many of these directors have proven themselves capable of great things in their past visions of horror. They dropped the ball here.
I don't regret any of my time spent with V/H/S and actually had quite a bit of enjoyment with many of its gloriously creepy parts. But as a whole, V/H/S is nothing more than some solid ideas placed against a backdrop of bad storytelling, some incredibly annoying camerawork (prepare to get motion sickness) and a pastiche of explicit sex and gore. As I made mention earlier, anthologies work--to me--because of the power they can muster within a snippet of time that something full-length could convey. Taking that into consideration, it's interesting that Michael Dougherty, writer and director of TRICK R' TREAT, was able to tell four cohesively resplendent stories by himself. V/H/S had ten writers, ten directors, two hours, and yet, couldn't even muster a single story on any par with even one portion of Michael Dougherty's creation. Maybe next time, such an assortment of talented individuals can learn about the simple power of one rather than the lazy efforts of the many.