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v/h/s

How does this keep happening?...
I see trailers for new, terrible looking horror movies - I trash talk them for months then finally break down and watch them (out of nothing short of morbid curiosity) and find myself (not even grudgingly) enjoying them.


Tonight's unexpected gem? 

Allow me to make the usual disclaimer here: I’m going to spoil the surprises, the twists, etc. If you don’t want that - bugger off.

When I first read about this movie the gist I got from the synopsis was that it was another "Ring". (Or "Ringu", if you're feeling especially pedantic tonight.) There’s a “mysterious” and “evil” video tape circulating that, when watched, dooms the viewer to death.

...boooooring!

Tonight, when I started watching it, I realized that's not actually the case. In fact, it appeared to be something far worse than another cheap rip-off of a Japanese horror flick: a found footage movie.

Ugh. Kill me now.

There aren't enough of these pieces of crap kicking around out there? Someone had to go and make another?... The internal monologue kicked in, full-throttle at this point: "I'm not really going to watch this, am I? It's going to be worse than I imagined. I'm so turning this off. Wait. I can tolerate this, for science. Okay. I’m watching it. I'm going to give it 5 minutes to impress me..."

The minutes ticked by and I found myself growing increasingly more interested in the movie. Had I gone crazy? Was I (still) drunk? I'm a horror snob, what was I doing enjoying this movie?!

As an aside, I turned up this quote while reading about the movie:
Trevor Groth, a programmer of midnight movies at the Sundance Film Festival, said, "I give this all the credit in the world because conceptually it shouldn't have worked for me. ... Personally, I'm bored by found-footage horror films, which this is. And omnibus attempts rarely work. But this one does. It's terrifying, and very well executed."
And thought: Yes! Absolutely! These are my sentiments, exactly. On the surface, there is nothing about this movie that I should like yet somehow, I ended up feeling as though it was on of very few well done, found footage movies.

So what really worked for this movie?

Solid Stories
Most of the stories were good and some were even unexpected. The writing was pretty solid within the context of the film; if characters feel “bland” and “generic”, turn on your TV and watch 10 minutes of any “reality” TV show - suddenly the characters seem overwhelmingly real.

Two of the stories did, admittedly, fall a bit flat for me but I’m not sure it was the writing so much as the content: I’m not really into the whole “alien conspiracy” thing and found the “haunted house” gig to be a little too cliched. (I’m soooo picky about haunting stories. You can read more about this in my review of Woman In Black.)

Less is More
v/h/s is structured as an anthology, wrapped within an overall narrative. While the overall narrative is supposed to add context, it was mercifully lacking in “over explanation”; yeah, it sets up the fact that there are some “mysterious” video tapes hanging around and leads up to the fact that watching them (possibly) makes bad things happen to the viewers but it never tries to tell you who made the tapes or why or why some creepy old dude seems to have them all in his possession.

What do They Say About too Much of a Good Thing?...
Some critics felt the movie was too long but, with the anthology format, it felt comfortable to me. Were this one movie / story, I think I would have hated it, immensely. And I think that’s a failing of the found footage genre; it’s not a format that holds up for a feature length film. There just isn’t enough variety in the film-making style to keep you interested for 2 hours of shaky-cam storytelling. 

Surprise!
Because each of the stories is totally unrelated to any of the others (or to the overall narrative) the transitions between the narrative and the first story and then to the second story are the strongest; you don’t, at all, know what to expect which puts you a bit on edge right out of the gate. 

Leverage the Medium
There are elements of found footage that are inherently disconcerting and, amazingly, the directors leveraged them all to their benefit. 

The quality of what you can see on video can be very poor, this opens the door for subtle, visual “confusions” that let your imagination go crazy while making you continually doubt yourself. “Did I just see... wait. What did I just see?!”

I loved that, in the first story, they really escalated this confusion by having the camera holder becoming progressively more intoxicated. His self-doubt is contagious and leaves the audience grasping as terrifying possibilities.

Some things cannot be seen with the naked eye (a common trope being that “supernatural” things fall into this category) but can be seen on film. Allowing the audience to see terrifying things that (many) of the characters can’t is a great tension builder. Its an extension of the horror trope, “Look around the room, see nothing. Look in the mirror, see something horrifying.”

There’s also this cultural fear that all of our video-ready devices are spying on us; we’re just terrified of being watched in our private moments. I want to imagine that this fear is rooted in some righteous indignation surrounding invasion of privacy or something but, I’m pretty sure its just that people are terrified of embarrassment and rejection and don’t want to be seen by others as sloppy fools (and judged harshly for it.) That said, there’s this amazing moment in one of the stories where a couple is asleep in their hotel room and someone is watching the husband sleep. You’re initially led to believe it’s his wife watching him. The reveal that there’s a 3rd person in their room, watching them both, is fantastic.

Effects Affect Me
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know (already) how I feel about special effects; I need them to be believable & well done for me to stay engrossed in the movie. Thankfully, the majority of the effects in v/h/s were good. This goes back to the quality thing though; on video, the quality is terrible so your effects can be “not great” and actually look pretty good. Bonus!

Alright. I’m sure I’ve said enough already so, its wrap up time.

You can consider this post my official apology to the creators of v/h/s for trash talking their movie. There are, definitely, many worse movies out there!

You can watch the v/h/s trailer here:


You can, un-ironically, purchase a copy of v/h/s on Blu-ray here:

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