Monday, October 8, 2012

V/H/S : Video Nasties

Part of the reason I'm sick of found-footage horror movies is that the more of a proven commodity they become, the further and further away they get from the things that make a found-footage narrative especially effective. After a certain point, at their worst, they might as well be conventionally shot movies with a little red recording light in the corner of the frame. If you're going to make something a found-footage story, it should be not only be shot in a certain way, but the story should be told in a certain way as well. Found- footage with a minimum of backstory is good, because the whole idea is that  it's just raw footage, the documentation of something nobody was ever supposed to see. The lack of provenance is what makes it scary. In that respect, V/H/S works quite well on balance.

V/H/S is an anthology of five short movies, plus a framing narrative, all shot as one type of found-footage conceit or another. At its best, this anthology rediscovers what makes found-footage movies so powerful. It falls short a couple of times, but overall makes a convincing argument for continued exploration of the form.
The framing narrative - titled Tape 56 -  is about a bunch of scumbags who get their jollies from vandalizing abandoned houses and molesting women on the street, all while videotaping their antics. Somebody has offered them money to break into a house and steal a specific videotape. "You'll know it when you see it", the man says. The house is oddly empty, except for an upstairs bedroom, which contains a stack of TVs and VCRs, a bunch of videotapes, and a dead body sitting in a chair. One of the idiots sits down in front of the TVs and starts plugging in videotapes, each one of which is a separate story.

On the one hand, Tape 56 does set a tone of unblinking nastiness that serves some of the best stories in the anthology well. But otherwise, it's pretty unfocused - sure, the unexplained is an advantage in scary movies, but there's not really enough information here to draw any conclusions other than this house is bad, the tapes are bad, and these guys are bad. Each interstitial segment tries to advance the story with action, but because we're returning to it between separate, discrete stories, it's more distracting than anything else. It might have been more effective if we didn't hate these guys from the word go, and if not much happened until the very end. As it is it's too choppy and chaotic to make much of an impression.

Amateur Night

The first entry proper is about three fratboy types who have acquired a pair of glasses with a small video camera embedded in the frames. As you might expect, the whole plan is to go out to the bars, score some tail like a bunch of bros will, and then record some homemade Girls Gone Wild action. Never mind consent, never mind permission, if there's a more literal instantiation of the Male Gaze, I can't imagine what it is. The story itself is short, sharp, and mean - the guys bring a couple of girls back to a hotel room, and the whole thing is extremely rapey from the word go. It really feels like you're watching a video that could be used as evidence in someone's trial - it's intensely uncomfortable and wrong-feeling throughout, and things go south very quickly and in spectacular fashion in a pretty surprising way. The claustrophobically small hotel room, realistically lit, and rapid pace give it a raw, breathless feel that doesn't give you much time to look away or settle down. Does more for contemporary horror in 20 minutes than the Saw series did in six or seven feature-length movies.

Second Honeymoon

Tonally, this is pretty much on the other end of the spectrum from Amateur Night. It's the slowest burn of the group - a somewhat awkward collection of recordings, documenting a married couples' vacation. It's pretty evident after a few minutes that these two are having their troubles;  lots of things left unsaid, lots of uncomfortable silences and even more uncomfortable interactions between the two of them. The footage rumbles and mutters like oncoming storm clouds. It benefits a lot from showing instead of telling, and even the most innocuous exchanges possibly hold some clue as to what's going to happen to both of them. When it happens, it has all of the queasy, voyeuristic creepiness of the most unsettling parts of The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Again, it doesn't overstay its welcome, but might actually benefit from repeated watchings - once you know what's going to happen, you wonder if you could have seen it coming.

Tuesday the 17th

This segment is possibly the shortest self-aware slasher movie ever. It's less a story than a series of necessary plot steps - teens going out into the woods where some teens had previously died, some go off to try and have sex, pointy objects end up places they shouldn't - but that's sort of the point, and that's itself conveyed pretty economically. It starts off pretty straight-faced and initially delivers a sense of unease pretty well, but the more it becomes apparent that it's less about the characters and more about the worlds in which horror movies happen and how found-footage films fit into that, it trades a lot of that unease for commentary, which takes a lot of the edge off of it. It's all sort of over before you knew what hit you, and an uncritical viewing that takes it at face value is probably going to be disappointing, but it's the segment that has the most potential for further analytic discussion. On the other hand, it's just goofy enough in its premise and execution that it kind of kills the vibe built up to this point.

The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger

This one does something pretty interesting with the form itself - it uses a Skype conversation instead of a camera to convey the same queasy feeling of seeing something you weren't supposed to that makes the first two segments so effective. A young woman is having a conversation with her boyfriend, who is still a week or so away from moving out to wherever she is. It's pretty routine stuff to start, but there's oblique references to her "accident", and the longer the conversations continue, the more you realize there's something probably really wrong with her - and something definitely really wrong with him. Had they stuck with that story, it would have fit right in and maybe have been the most disturbing piece in the collection, but it tries to do too much for its running time, throwing in the supernatural and then a weird twist, and the piece ends up losing focus, leaving us saying "what the - what? Huh? What?" when we should be shaken by what we've just seen. On the one hand, it's a really novel, effective use of non-cinematic recordings to tell a story, and to tell it in a way that wouldn't have even been possible when The Blair Witch Project came out. On the other, the filmmakers didn't trust that and tried to cram a bunch of shit in that the movie didn't need.


The final segment is sort of the less overtly vicious companion to Amateur Night. We follow a bunch of dudes going to a Halloween party who end up at the wrong house (whether by accident or design) and seriously in over their heads. It's much less gory than the other segments, but no less scary for it. The pacing is half slow burn and half "oh sweet holy motherfucking shit", and like the protagonists, we barely have the time or attention to take everything in or piece it all together. This shit is happening as sure as if they were filming a race or air show and happened to catch the devastation and chaos. Bizarre things are caught in sidelong glimpses as the camera (cleverly and appropriately incorporated into one of the Halloween costumes) happens to be pointed in the right direction. That we get no explanations or backstory is especially effective here - we have an idea of what we saw, but there are still all sorts of reasons it happened the way it did and we'll never know which ones were the right ones. The protagonists - and by extension the viewing audience - are all hapless witnesses, way out of their league.

It wouldn't have occurred to me before I watched this, but found-footage movies have a lot of potential to be better in the short format than a full-length narrative. In life, homemade footage of even happy occasions is incomplete, a product of the moment, with half-glimpsed looks at the camera, things happening offscreen, and a spur-of-the-moment quality to it. These are all things that help scary stories as well, and I wonder if this wouldn't be a bad thing to turn into a regular series. I'm normally not a fan of franchises, but I wouldn't mind seeing another collection like this. It seems like an opportunity to  showcase all sorts of directors, be cost-effective and so encourage experimentation with the form and as a result would probably make for a better viewing experience. Not all of these work, but they're all admirable shots at doing something fresh and interesting.

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