The concept isn’t an original one, but as is the cyclical nature of the horror genre, it’s time for the anthology format to migrate from its usual home on television – think Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996) or Freddy’s Nightmares (1990) – to scare up five short horror parables helmed by some of the most promising young architects of nightmares working in film. The results are a bloody mess.
Encased in an intriguing bookend entitled “Tape 56” (directed by Wingard), which sees a group of petty criminals tasked with finding a single VHS tape located somewhere in their next target house, only to discover that there are hundreds of cassettes through which they’ll have to wade through. Each of our stories is one of the random tapes selected by the gang.
“Amateur Night” (dir. Bruckner) is the story of three frat boys, armed with hidden cameras, who rent a hotel room with the sole intention of inviting drunken girls back in the hope of promiscuous abandonment. The three learn to sober up quickly when the mysterious, Lilly (Hannah Fierman), turns out to want a little more. “Second Honeymoon” (dir. West) focuses on a young couple taking a celebratory road trip that are visited at night by a switchblade wielding, transparent mask wearing stranger. “Tuesday 17th” (dir. McQuaid) features the age old camping trip to the woods. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” (dir. Swanberg) predates Paranormal Activity 4’s webcam shenanigans with its tale of two young lovers experiencing things that go bump in the night via the medium of Skype. And finally there’s 10/31/98 (dir. Radio Silence), which as you’d guess from the date is a Halloween centric section about an ill-fated house party.
As you’d expect from something with such a wide array of creativity, V/H/S is a hotchpotch of unfulfilled ideas, so let’s start with what works.
There are some wonderfully iconographic moments of genuine horror to be found within; the truly disturbing knife antics of Second Honeymoon, coupled with the fact that despite masked bogeymen being ten-a-penny these days, this luminescent faced killer is imagery that will be scorched upon the viewer for a few bedtimes to come. Equally unsettling, and perhaps the high point of the entire thing is Fierman’s performance in Amateur Night. Her face slightly altered by effects/prosthetics, she is first glimpsed starring straight into the camera during a busy crowd scene, subtle and sinister, before whispering the signature line “I like you” in a manner that will shatter rather than tingle your spine. She is a terrific ghoul, superbly executed by the lithely feline actress, and one which commands sympathy and elicits horror, an excellent achievement considering the sparse screen time.
Unfortunately, moments are about all V/H/S has going for it. None of the short stories are entirely satisfying, and the wraparound is frustratingly ineffectual, as both a device and a scary story. Only 10/31/98 works as a self contained episode, albeit quite predictable in its scares and resolution. Although compared to the truly awful Tuesday 17th section, which features a video camera view finder “glitch” as the killer, and some of the weakest acting in the movie, which let’s face it, doesn’t have the highest calibre of performer, it’s a masterpiece. Why not just put the stupid video camera down? Audiences are intelligent these days, don’t insult them with tricks from the era you’re aping.
Curiosity may lend itself to V/H/S finding an audience, and a rabble-rousing, intoxicated late-night crowd may find something to holler at. But in the cold light of day this is a format, much like the titular tape, that is better left obsolete.