V/H/S, 9/10. Gory, fun and inventive - if flawed - portmanteau horror pic shot in the cinéma vérité (Cloverfield, [REC], The Blair Witch Project) style.
Like all anthology pieces, some ideas work better than others but V/H/S is packed with good stuff, containing as it does six "stories" (including the wraparound segment that tenuously links them all), each directed by a different up-and-coming bright young thing in horror movies. The wraparound story is by far the worst, and bizarrely it wraps up second-to-last, but still: a bunch of petty-criminal ****ers, presently making small-but-quick bucks from a streaming porn site by attacking innocent women in the street and exposing their breasts for the camera (charming) are hired by a "fan" of the site to carry out a reasonably simple task: break into a house, sneak in, steal a specific VHS videotape (apparently they'll know it when they see it, though this is far from the case), and get out of there. What they find is a largely empty house save for a cellar area chock-full of tapes and one room containing an expired tenant sat in front of a bank of old TVs and video players. They randomly play through a few of the many tapes in order to try and ascertain what they're supposed to be nicking, and that's where the five anthology tales come in; they're what these bellends see on the videotapes.
The stories, then (I'll buzz through these, they're only twenty minutes or so long each, so too much info will be to give the story up):
1. Amateur Night - A trio of lads go out on the razzle armed with some cool camera-glasses, so one of the guys can happily film their evening's debauchery without anyone being any the wiser; superb if you're planning to get a couple of lasses back to your motel room for some gangbang action and film the results. They... well, they probably pick the wrong gal to bring back. I liked this one, despite my nagging fear (placed by this segment in tandem with the wraparound skit and even borne out further - though to a lesser degree - by the other segments) that there might be a nasty undercurrent of misogyny running through the movie. I guess though the simple truth is that when you put a bunch of young male twats in charge of filming ****, they end up venturing up the "amateur porn" route sooner rather than later.
2. Second Honeymoon - Directed by slow-burn specialist Ti West (The Innkeepers, the superb House of the Devil), and this one's typical of his canon. Nothing really happens beyond getting to know - and like - the nice couple doing the usual touristy thing around Arizona/Nevada. Then a girl knocks at their motel room door. Gore-free - almost incident-free - until the very end, this one was nonetheless one of the most effective segments.
3. Tuesday the 17th - In which four kids go into the woods. Where some murders happened once. Ahem. The segment initially most calling to mind The Blair Witch Project being as it is both found-footage style AND set in the woods, this was for me the least affecting of the "watched videotape" tales, not through a lack of ideas (well, let me clarify: it DOESN'T make a whole lot of sense, but I don't mind that at all in short-story form) but because the actors in this segment were the most "actorly", the least honest and realistic. IMO. That said, it moved along at a real lick, it's as gory as **** and the antagonist's "appearances" on the videotape are pretty cool.
4. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger - Chronicling a sequence of Skype chats (hang on: this tale is being watched on a musty old VHS tape; who's converting their Skype chats to VHS? Ah well, no matter I suppose) between a guy working away and his girl, who is becoming convinced that she's either going crazy, or the house is haunted. Her arm's hurting her, as well... Yeah, this was a pretty good one. Not much in the jump stakes but it had a nice Tales of the Unexpected vibe going on, which is always welcome in these sorts of films.
5. 10/31/98 - Oh-so-simple tale, in which a bunch of guys - and in a refreshing change from the wraparound segment and Amateur Night, NOT a bunch of unlikeable dickheads - are on their way to a Halloween party, and go to the wrong house. Like, REALLY the wrong house. This may well be the best segment of the lot. Certainly the most cool-effects-laden. It was a great way to close out the movie.
Flaws - well, there's that aforementioned misogynistic streak running through the movie (most specifically the first 40 minutes or so). Also, although great ideas and buckets of grue abound and it was a blast to watch at the time, I'm afraid that lasting, visceral scares are thin on the ground, although I attribute that more to the nature of portmanteau films not having long enough per segment to develop real empathy or tension. But the worst flaw, by the proverbial "country mile", is that of all of the "shaky-cam" films I've ever seen, V/H/S is far and away the worst, most vomit-inducing exponent of that trait. Cloverfield didn't really pretend very well to be all that "amateur", [REC] elegantly addressed the problem by having their in-film cameraman be a professional television cameraman, with professional kit, and the Paranormal Activity franchise managed to sidestep the problem with the utility of tripods and fixed camera positions. So the worst I'd seen before this was probably The Blair Witch Project, way back when. But the cameras in V/H/S have been painstakingly made to look as amateur as possible, sadly to its detriment on several occasions. I found myself craning, squinting and frowning to see what the **** was happening a few times when I should have been freaking out at the events unfolding on-screen (somewhere).
Still, despite that: What V/H/S gets right, it gets VERY right (and it does so very often). If you likes your horrors, you need to give this one at least a look. Recommended.
The horror anthology has a chequered history, some are bad but saved by one great segment, others boast a couple of genuine creepers but are undone by one instalment so bad it tarnishes the film forever. And on it goes. V/H/S brings the format into the new age by unfolding its tales by wrapping around the latest craze of found footage.
Six indie directors have produced a picture that was well received at Sundance but has proved to be most divisive with critics and horror fans on internet forums. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows their horror anthology onions. The usual problems are evident here, a couple of great stories are surrounded by mediocre ones, but at least there is something for everyone, with most bases covered, but that in itself is a problem, all horror fans have preferences, it's a big ask to expect a fan of stalk and slash to love a story about a winged harpy!
Then there is the issue of the found footage format, here recorded on actual VHS. Not everyone is a fan (myself for instance), and much of V/H/S is dizzying and often hard to follow, especially as regards the Tape 56/frame narrative story that cloaks the other five stories as a bunch of no-mark young crims burgle a grotty house and sift through the tapes. It's a format loved by many for its supposed realism factors, I don't get that myself, but for those people this really is up their trees!
Amateur Night (David Bruckner) and The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger (Joe Swanberg) are the standouts. The former is a cautionary tale of frat boys out for sex who get more than they bargained for when they take home the mysterious Lily, the latter an eerie tale unfolded via Skype communication as Emily appears to be a victim of a haunting whilst chatting to her doctor boyfriend.
However, if you ask another fan of the film what stories they feel standout, you may just get two different answers. So as with any other anthology horror, you roll the dice and take your chance, just don't expect genius in every story, for that is purely folly of expectation. 7/10