Sundance Review: V/H/S

The found footage horror anthology is a mixed bag. But at least it's a gory bag.

Disclaimer: I am friends with some of the producers and filmmakers involved in V/H/S.

Found footage, whether we like it or not, is here to stay. At least for a little while; the fad has turned into a legit part of the horror cycle, and the success of a movie like The Devil Inside proves that the public appetite for shaky-cam antics remains big.

Every found footage movie is too long; they all spend way too much time in the first act fucking around trying to get to feature length, and then they often withhold anything good until the end. It seems as if the perfect format for found footage is the short, where the filmmakers don’t have to justify seemingly hours of recorded material and where they can get to the sting as quickly as possible. V/H/S confirms that.

It also reconfirms the universal truth about anthology films: they’re almost inevitably mixed bags. The stuff that I liked in V/H/S mostly works well, but the bad segments are truly terrible. Is the film worth it for the good parts?

Nothing surprised me more about V/H/S than discovering that my favorite segment - and easily the most interesting and original - was directed by mumblecore villain Joe Swanberg. Created totally with Skype video chats between a girl and a boy, his segment manages to be a great parody of the found footage genre while also operating on a level of genuine scares - and it has an incredibly good ending. Joe Swanberg hasn't just directed something I liked, he directed something I really, really liked a lot.

The worst entry comes from Ti West, who squanders an intriguing idea - what if someone started filming you with your own camera while you slept - in the service of... I’m not even sure what. It’s a cinematic shrug. Ironically it stars Joe Swanberg, and I was convinced this was his entry in the anthology, and that West’s was the Skype one. Had it totally backwards.

There are two other strong entries, one that has an effective haunted house theme (directed by a collective called Radio Silence, who cut their teeth on crazy YouTube videos) and one that’s dead obvious from about a minute in but still fun. That segment, directed by The Signal’s David Bruckner, is the most overtly Tales From The Crypt of the bunch, and while I found the opening - a bunch of dudes trying to get laid, and using spy glasses with a camera in them to record it - unbearable, the practical FX work at the end made it all worth it. I’d actually have liked to have seen Bruckner’s segment as a non-found footage short.

There’s one more segment, from I Sell The Dead director Glenn McQuaid, which has an interesting concept and simply dismal execution. Together with West’s short this creates a stumbling block that keeps V/H/S from getting the really right momentum. Not helping matters is the wrap around story, which seems to peak before the first anthology segment kicks in.

The good news is that V/H/S is such an effective crowd picture that even these terrible segments have some life in a packed theater. The film seems to have hit that exact sweet spot of standard found footage jump scares mixed with old fashioned gore. That gore - which all seems to be practical - is a welcome change from the ‘show nothing’ school of Paranormal Activity and its ilk*.

V/H/S is kind of a party movie, a film that probably works best with the energy of an audience. A raucous, involved crowd will elevate the movie to another level  - I sat behind two women who reacted to the film as if they had never even known a horror movie to exist, and they truly added to the experience.

I wish the film was stronger throughout - that it had no bum segments - but I think the entries that do work make the movie worth your time.

* which, like all styles, has its place.