Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ingeniously conceived "V/H/S" makes for freaky fun




V/H/S (2012)
116 min., rated R.

Just as this year's "The Cabin in the Woods" upended the kids-in-the-woods horror genre, "V/H/S" flips found-footage on its head once and for all with a fresh spin. This nifty but admittedly uneven horror-anthology "video nasty" is a collection of five found-footage tales, written and directed by a new generation of nine rising indie-horror filmmakers, including Adam Wingard (2011's not-yet-released "You're Next"), David Bruckner (2007's "The Signal"), Ti West (2009's "The House of the Devil"), Glenn McQuaid (2008's "I Sell the Dead"), Joe Swanberg (2011's "Autoerotic"), and the group Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella). As is the case with most anthology movies, the parts are much greater than the whole; some stories are always going to be better than others. Here, it's a mixed bag of goodies, too, but each self-contained tale diverges from the last with its own little horrific delight. All nine talents have built a factory of nightmares.

"V/H/S" sets up Wingard's wraparound, "Tape Fifty-Six," as the connective tissue: a group of despicable hooligans (Wingard, Calvin Reeder, Kentucker Audley, Lane Hughes) regularly videotapes themselves assaulting strangers and vandalizing buildings. They get an offer from a mysterious client to break into an old man's house and steal one VHS tape but have to go through a bunch to find the right one. Gee, didn't these punks know Blu-ray discs are now in? That's where the anthology part comes in. First up is "Amateur Night," Bruckner's jittery, unpredictable yarn. It involves a trio of vulgar, misogynistic frat dudes (Drew Sawyer, Mike Donlan, Joe Sykes) who try out a hidden camera inside one of their eyeglasses. They aim to pick up chicks and make their own porn but end up getting their just desserts from a strange, bug-eyed young woman named Lily (a supremely creepy Hannah Fierman) who can lure the token geek with a simple "I like you." Before anything horrific happens makes one uneasy, and when the horror hits, it's positively thrilling. Bruckner figures in the POV conceit the best, offers up scarily real effects and makeup, and ends up delivering one of the five's strongest. 

The second tape, "Second Honeymoon," finds a good-natured couple, Sam (mumblecore director Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal), recording their second honeymoon in the West and making a stop at the Grand Canyon. Once they get a weird knock on their hotel-room door from a girl who just wants a ride, the road trip ends there. West's contribution depends on his trademark slow-burn pacing and suspense, leading to an unexpectedly disturbing shock that dares you to pick out plot holes. McQuaid helms the third, "Tuesday the 17th," a playful twist on four friends going into the lakeside woods, only to become mincemeat. It starts off familiar like a "Friday the 13th"-style slasher, but the girl driving, Wendy (Norma C. Quinones), has ulterior motives, and the camcorder plays an important role, as the unstoppable killer can only be seen behind the tracking noise on camera. This one is decidedly more about the journey than the destination, which doesn't shy away from the blood but turns out to be the least of all. 

In Swanberg and writer Simon Barrett's fourth segment, "The Strange Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," the project's shaky-cam aesthetic is given a rest here. As sweet, pixie-haired Emily (Helen Rogers) and her doctor-to-be boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufmann) carry on a video chat each day, she's convinced her apartment is haunted and a bruise on her arm worsens. The old flashing of a Polaroid camera in a dark room, while an old trick, will keep one's stomach in knots, and Swanberg knows how to plant his jump scares. Overall, this is a lot of creepy, hand-in-front-of-your-eyes fun, with the revealing of an unsettling (if illogical) revelation. Last but certainly the best, Radio Silence's "10/31/98" has four buddies on their way to a Halloween costume party in a house that seems to be empty. Wandering around, they think it might be a haunted funhouse, until they walk in on a ritualistic sacrifice in the attic that looks too real to be fake. Made with the most effects (which are seamless by the way), this segment has plenty of freaky frights and just keeps on escalating the panic. It just goes to show that low-budget, DIY f/x are the way to go.

Could any of these unfinished shaggy-dog stories sustain themselves in feature form? Probably not, but treated as shorts, each one begins in an off-the-cuff holding pattern, builds with nightmarish dread as we wait for the other shoe to drop, and then unleashes its shocks until the anticlimactic ending. The whole visceral experience is practically like watching a collection of snuff films or exploitation YouTube videos, even if you must make giant leaps of faith for all of it to work and realize character appeal is mostly null and void. Though every tape is pretty grainy, underlit, and poorly shot with technical glitches, that's the point; none of them is really more nausea-inducing than "The Blair Witch Project" or any other pseudo-doc pic. For what it is, this is carefully crafted stuff.

Cleverly conceived and reasonably well-executed, "V/H/S" is a masterstroke of sick, twisted fun that will fit in nicely with "Creepshow," "Twilight Zone: The Movie," "Tales from the Darkside: The Movie," "Tales from the Hood," and "Trick 'r Treat." Even though the filmmakers could have separated the wheat from the chaff (the payoff to the functional framework story is bungled), "V/H/S" is, all told, a neat package that should thrill die-hard horror fans and those that are sick of the found-footage genre's old tricks. Give this one a late-night watch.

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