Review: V/H/S [Sundance 2012]

on Monday, Jan. 30th

The horror anthology is dead. Long live the horror anthology.

V/H/S, the brainchild of Brad Miska of horror website Bloody Disgusting, is a glorious, gory collection of work by some of the most prolific and talented indie filmmakers going.

Right off the bat we need to be clear about what V/H/S is not: a coherent narrative. Nor is it a deep examination of the existential dread that lies at the heart of the horror genre (at least, not beyond what is inherently baked into the form). That the film does not advance a single story across the series of vignettes seemed to disappoint some of the cineastes on the Park City buses. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo, but in their defense it’s been a long time since the anthology format has been in regular use.

V/H/S does feature the lightest of framing stories. A group of vandals who get their kicks videotaping their exploits of trashing houses and assaulting women (real charmers, these guys) take on the job of breaking into a house and stealing a certain videotape. They’re not told what tape to steal, only that they’ll know it when they see it.

This becomes the excuses for screening a collection of five short films, that all fall within the confines of “found footage”. Each short is a riff on a classic horror movie trope: the monster, the stalker, the lakeside killer, the uncanny ghost story, and the haunted house. There are more hits than misses, and every short has at least one standout sequence or performance. If there’s any real fault with the film, it lies in what appears to be a democratic consensus amongst the various directors to turn in works around the same length. This creates some rhythm problems.

A few of the shorts– like Ti West’s “Second Honeymoon” and and Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th” (check your calendars) could have stood to let the air out of their first thirds. What was likely an attempt to build tension by delaying the macabre comes off more as a delaying tactic in the context of a film where the audience at least thinks they know what is coming next.

As someone who was familiar with the work of three of the directors — West (The House of the Devil), David Bruckner (The Signal), and Joe Swanberg (Silver Bullets) — I was particularly fascinated by the sense that the anthology’s collaborators were “swapping murders” stylistically.

West’s short has all the hallmarks of some of a Joe Swanberg film, up to and including casting Swanberg as the lead male and Swanberg collaborator Sophia Takal as his wife. Until viewing the credits I assumed that Swanberg in fact did direct the piece, and suspected that West might have had a hand in a cleverly constructed story that was presented entirely as a series of Skype conversations. In truth it was Swanberg, along with Simon Barrett, who produced that segment, which was hands-down the creepiest segment of the bunch. The short represents a huge departure from Swanberg’s recent, more introspective work.

Meanwhile the role that technology plays in McQuaid’s picture has thematic similarities to Brucker’s The Signal (itself an anthology film, although one that tells a single mosaic tale.) Brucker’s contribution, Amatuer Night, has the best performance of the piece, featuring Hannah Fierman as a very strange girl who is not at all what she appears to be. Unless you are a genre fan. In which case: she’s still not quite what you think she is at first.

The picture has been picked up for distribution, and now it’s up to Magnolia pictures to make the case for the return of the horror anthology. Here’s hoping they’re up to the task, because I definitely want to see more.

V/H/S Directed by: Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, and Ti West. Premiered as part of the Midnight movies section in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

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