Since it’s beginnings in notable films such as 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” the horror genre’s found- footage phenomenon has become one of its most widely utilized narrative techniques. This is not entirely surprising considering we live in a world where documentation of daily life is nearly a social expectation. In 2012’s “V/H/S,” (dir. Adam Wingard et al.) certain things are caught on tape that perhaps should not have been recorded, yet you won’t be able to look away.
“V/H/S” is an anthology of six short tales. In the framing story of the film, a gang of hoodlums document their seedy exploits and sell the footage to an underground online market. An anonymous source recruits the gang to break into a designated address and steal a particular VHS from within. As it turns out, the house contains not one but hundreds of unlabeled tapes, and since the corpse sitting in front of a blank TV doesn’t seem to mind, Crime Night turns into Movie Night. One by one, the weird and creepy homemade videos are screened in search of the “right” VHS, keeping the burglars too busy to notice as their own cameras pick up unsettling occurrences taking place behind them.
Because each story is told through the first-person narrative of found footage format, it can be challenging for viewers to gather basic facts such as the who, what, where, and why. This may prove to be a slight annoyance for some, but it’s actually part of what makes “V/H/S” quite effective as a horror film. A key element to all things scary is the great and powerful Fear of the Unknown. It’s one thing to objectively watch a monster of some kind chase a character in a removed setting and atmosphere, yet it is far more nightmarish to actually see the monster’s sudden appearance from that character’s perspective. In this way we are able to experience their confusion and fear as it disrupts their reality, which, by extension, has become our own. The realism of the found footage technique allows for an eerie sense of possibility, making it all the more difficult to assure oneself that “it’s only a movie.”
…But Not Without Its Flaws.
As wonderful as it is to see the Fear of the Unknown be put to good use, “V/H/S” ultimately flounders in its narrative by failing to tie the six segments together. The only thing close to a motif is a mildly sexist tone against women, whose main roles rigidly alternate between monsters and prey throughout the segments. In the interest of allotting the benefit of the doubt, I’ll chalk this down to mere coincidence, as there seems to have been an overall lack of communication among its numerous collaborating directors. Not even the theme of VHS-footage remains consistent, as the mediums vary from hand-held cameras to web-cam conversations. What the movie lacks is flow and a sense of continuity, which is problematic considering its staggering two-hour run-time. With a fairly large number of different writing and directorial styles placed into one single space, the viewing sensation does become rather crammed and exasperating. Even though “V/H/S” is at times a fairly long-winded smorgasbord of visions devoid of any sense of unity, it deserves top-marks for its creative efforts. The effects are amazingly realistic and the stories are highly unsettling. Those of you looking for a good fright-fix will find satisfaction, while more seasoned horror viewers will be pleased to watch a film that requires interaction and second-guessing. Like “The Blair Witch Project” before it, this movie brings to the table something new and refreshingly simple, and is bound to gain cult-status in good time. So get comfy and settle down for the long haul but please, make sure all cameras are turned off.