An anthology of found-footage shorts strung together by a flimsy premise, V/H/S eschews the polish and sheen of recent pictures such as Chronicle and Project X and returns to the style’s Blair Witch Project roots: Rough, low-budget, fuzzy and prone to inducing motion sickness in viewers with sensitive stomachs.
If the constantly wobbly camera doesn’t get you, the blood and gore might. The six directors who contributed to V/H/S are all rising stars in the horror genre who have been weaned on equal parts Hostel and Paranormal Activity. The best-known name in the bunch is Ti West (The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil), whose contribution here, Second Honeymoon, continues his trademark style of the painfully slow-burn pace with a hair-raising payoff. About a couple on a romantic vacation in Arizona who attract the attention of a creepy hitchhiker, the story is saddled with a silly twist ending that makes no sense, but it also contains the biggest shock in the entire film.
10/31/98, directed by the four-man collective Radio Silence, follows a group of friends who go to a haunted-house party on Halloween, then are puzzled to find the house is empty. By far the most resourceful and inventive of all the shorts, the film uses practical effects, brief touches of CGI and ingenious old-school tricks to convey the dread and panic of walking through a real haunted house — and then finding something awful in the attic.
The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger is the most creatively ambitious of the bunch, taking place entirely via Skype conversations between a girl and her long-distance boyfriend. Directed by Joe Swanberg, who is simultaneously channeling David Cronenberg and The Haunting, the film risked feeling static and repetitious. Instead, it is creepy from the start and builds from there.
Other entries aren’t quite as effective. Amateur Night, directed by David Bruckner (The Signal), follows three frat louts who go out to pick up girls, one of them wearing eyeglasses loaded with a hidden video camera. The story plays out exactly as you expect, although the performance by Hannah Fierman as the odd young woman the guys take to a motel is memorable, and so is the nightmarish final image in the short — an absolute triumph of resourceful filmmaking.
Tuesday the 17th, from Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), is a tired riff on Friday the 13th clichés with only one clever idea that incorporates the limitations of videotape technology into the narrative. The trick was previously done in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, but it still works here and at least gives you something to hold your attention.
No such luck with Adam Wingard’s Tape 56, in which four miscreants break into the home of a creepy old dude in search of a valuable videotape. Their story is the glue that connects the other shorts, but the characters are so repellent and the film so dull that V/H/S would have benefited from losing it entirely. At almost two hours, the movie feels wildly overlong, and although all the directors try hard, the first-person found-footage perspective grows tiresome. But V/H/S also packs the grungy menace of early Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper pictures — the movie feels dangerous — and when it works, it puts its glossy Hollywood counterparts to shame. The film also plays to the strengths of the found-footage format, proving that sometimes the scariest things are the ones you can barely see. For horror hounds, this is required viewing.
Cast: Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Kentucker Audley, Adam Wingard, Frank Stack, Hannah Fierman.
Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence.
Screenwriters: Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Nicholas Tecosky, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence.
Producers: Gary Binkow, Brad Miska, Roxanne Benjamin.
A Magnet Releasing release. Running time: 115 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, extreme violence, severe gore, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.