Tuesday, December 10, 2013
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: V/H/S
If ‘V/H/S’ had been made in 1988, and you’d rented it from a video store (y’know, back in the day when you walked or drove to your nearest video store and rented a movie on a big clunky VHS tape), it would have been the. Best. Horror. Movie. Ever.
But it was made in 2012, I saw it on DVD and it isn’t. In fact, it’s pretty appalling. It’s often shoddy in execution, routinely misogynistic in content, and most of its characters are venal, vulgar and thoroughly unlikeable. But, hey, it’s the Winter of Discontent here on The Agitation of the Mind, so let’s give this motherfucker its day in court.
‘V/H/S’ is a portmanteau film consisting of a framing device and five short films. The framing device is intriguing in concept but lousy in execution. Three douchebags who molest women and film their escapades for sale to a “reality porn channel” (why they aren’t in jail since they point the camera at each others’ faces almost constantly is never explained) are hired by some random third party to break into an old house and retrieve a video tape. We’ve seen them break into an empty property already and their modus operandi is smash things up, spray graffiti and say “dude” and “fuck” a lot. Their behaviour evinces no real improvement on the professionalism front when they undertake the job. They find a dead guy in front of a bank of TV screens in an upstairs room and a fuckton of VHS tapes in the basement. Instead of bagging up the tapes en masse and getting the fuck out of Dodge, they spend an inordinate amount of time alternatively exploring the basement (which seems to be occupied by a possibly spectral figure) and watching some of the tapes. Their explorations take the form of jerky handheld camcorder footage that keeps pausing or cutting out. Imagine watching an episode of ‘NYPD Blue’ shot on the cheapest camcorder known to mankind and played back on a video recorder whose tape heads have been coated in treacle and you’re halfway there. Five minutes and it becomes almost unwatchable.
And it’s no great relief when the first short film kicks in. Here’s the plot: three frat boy douchebags outfit a pair of spectacles belonging to the myopic member of their party with a pin-camera, and set out to find a girl or girls to bring back to their motel room with the intent of selling the resulting orgiastic footage to a … oh, great; repetition sets in already. As well as the first of many inconsistencies. Notwithstanding that there’s a flaw to every found-footage horror movie I’ve ever seen – let’s call it Just Put The Fucking Camera Down And Run You Moron Syndrome – there is no sense whatsoever in their ludicrously elaborate plan … when they could easily have secreted a camcorder somewhere in the motel room and set it to motion-detect recording. And had they done so, ‘Amateur Night’ – such is this segment titled – would have been about two minutes long and saved me a headache. If anything, the camerawork is shakier and more blurred than in the framing story. The protagonists are just as big a trio of tossers. Attitudes towards women are equally appalling. There is, however, a comeuppance once they’ve lured two girls back to the room, and the last few minutes work reasonably well … until a lurch into outright fantasy renders the whole thing utterly stupid, not least because the production had nowhere near the kind of budget required to make the pay-off work.
There follows another five minutes of the Original Douchebags back at the old house, then we’re on to ‘Second Honeymoon’, directed by Ti West, and thank God we’re in the hands of a director who can actually bother to frame a shot let alone deal in establishing characters and developing a slow-burn sense of tension. Married couple Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) are taking an on-a-budget road trip across America; a second honeymoon it may be, but their interactions make it clear that their marriage is running out of steam. West plays this out against a dusty series of drab locations, mainly tourist spots that are starved for tourists. The big creepy scene is reserved for a motel room that makes the place in ‘Vacancy’ look like the Hilton, and while it’s swiftly revealed as a variation on an old urban legend, West pitches it perfectly. The whole thing pays off in a twist ending that practically begs for the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ theme music, and never quite justifies the amount of time spent building up to it. Nonetheless, it represents a trade up in quality which carries over, to greater or lesser degrees, through the remaining sections.
Glenn McQuaid’s ‘Tuesday the 17th’ is a nifty little subversion of the camping trip/slasher scenario. Here we have college pals Joey (Drew Moerlein), Spider (Jason Yachanin) and Samantha (Jeannine Yoder) heading into the woods with their new friend Wendy (Norma C Quinones). Wendy acts kind of weird from the start, almost casually mentioning how a group of her mates met their gruesome ends out in the wilds the previous year. Joey et al assume she’s joking … that is until something starts decimating their already finite numbers. The nature of said something is McQuaid’s stroke of genius. Every time the killer shows up, the video footage is distorted by what seems to be a tracking error. The distortions are timed so perfectly that you’ll find yourself rewinding in the hope you can actually catch a glimpse of the fiend – be it human, animal or otherworldly – on a second viewing. Everything about this segment unsettles, from the occasional pans to animal corpses (or at least we assume they’re animal corpses) during Wendy’s monologues, to the strange manner in which Wendy conducts herself, to the ultimate revelation of why Wendy hooked up with them, to the brutally inevitable finale. ‘Tuesday the 17th’ is the film’s high point, and even if the final two stories don’t measure up to it, at least neither of them plumb the depths of the framing story or ‘Amateur Night’.
Douchebag reprise, more yawnsome wankerishness, then Joe Swanberg’s ‘The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She was Younger’ comes along and epitomises the best and the worst of ‘V/H/S’. The best in that, like ‘Tuesday the 17th’, it embraces the format rather than being restricted by it. Playing out as a series of skype conversations between Emily (Helen Rodgers) and her med student boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman), the story moves through sexual power games and body horror before paying off in a ‘Twilight Zone’ style lurch into outright sci-fi. The worst in that it relentlessly objectifies women, and trades logic for cheap scares. The least of its crimes against the suspension of disbelief is how come a skype conversation ended up being recorded on VHS, particularly when (a) James assures Emily that he’s not downloading any of their sessions and (b) is later shown to have bloody good reason not to. ‘TSTtHtEWSwY’ is ultimately a nifty concept that wasn’t thought through to any real degree, and would probably have been abandoned had any real critical scrutiny been given to the difficulties of realising it convincingly.
‘10/31/98’, directed by the collective known as Radio Silence, starts well and effectively sidesteps the VHS-in-the-digital-age problem that dogs most of the stories. As the title suggests, we have a home video shot 15 years ago. Such a simple work-around that it’s almost inexplicable that none of the other contributions opted for it. It’s Halloween and a bunch of twenty-something drinking buds get kitted out in fancy dress and head off to the wrong side of town where a happening party is, well, happening. Only they get the wrong address and discover a human sacrifice in progress. Once they adapt to the fact that what’s happening isn’t, as they initially assume, a particularly elaborate Halloween tableau, they intervene and rescue the young woman who’s about to be offed. But before you can say “oh, thank Gawd for that, finally an antidote to all the misogyny”, it turns out that she’s genuinely possessed and an instrument of Satan and the mean lookin’ dudes who were about to fuck her shit up good were actually doing the Lord’s work and everything goes to hell in a sequence of fairly impressive special effects for such a low budget but you know what fuck the special effects because ‘10/31/98’ is little more than a re-emphasis of the woman-hating that ‘V/H/S’ grooves on.
‘V/H/S’ has three segments you can make a case for as genuinely worthwhile. The other two are flawed at best. The framing device reeks. Conceptually, there’s a lot going on – or at least a lot that could have been done with the concept. As it is, ‘V/H/S’ is overlong and too easily defined by what doesn’t work rather than what does.