V/H/S isn’t so much a single film as it is an anthology of short films bound together by a basic story arc: a gang is hired to break into an old man’s home and steal a specific videotape, and we’re treated to the contents of his collection while the gang members go through them. These various segments are each tackled by a different director, and they’re all self-contained found footage shorts – and most importantly, they’re good. The impact of the direction on the style of the shorts is vividly clear, and some have clearly taken advantage of the format to produce something more experimental that could not work as a whole film, such as one short based entirely in the context of a video conversation.
The first “short film” of V/H/S’s anthology is promising: it’s a creepy story about three guys who bring a girl from a bar back to their hotel room, only to find she’s not quite normal. It indicates a few things about the stories to come: notably the use of unconventional cameras, as this particular short is shot through a pair of “spy glasses” with a video camera in the middle; and the uncompromising use of gore and nudity which pervades the rest of the film, where you’ll be hopping from sex to gruesome death in a matter of seconds. We also get our first glimpse at the convincing visual effects that continue to impress throughout the film. Unfortunately, the atmosphere and originality of that first short is never really surpassed.
There are some interesting ideas, like the aforementioned FaceTime-based short, but many of them fall to pretentious presentation, dodgy mechanics, really basic scares, and in one case, an unintentionally hilarious peculiarity. The sheer variety is something I want to applaud, though; the anthology format has proved a viable ground for experimenting with the format, and while I can’t claim to believe “found footage” will last much longer as a genre, this does demonstrate its potential. Of course, there are faults in the format too: it’s a film in which you have to experience six times those annoying moments of “character development” which inevitably make up the weak start of any found footage flick, sacrificing tension and soon simply aggravating the audience.
The film’s also held back by some of the weaker segments, and it feels like at least one could have been cut in favour of a shorter, more enjoyable film, or relegated to an extra-long “uncut” edition. Clocking in at nearly two hours, V/H/S definitely begins to feel like a drag before it’s over, even though its first and last segments are thankfully strong. I might have opted to drop the single non-supernatural (or rather, not blatantly supernatural) short with the premise of a road trip across Nevada from the roster, especially as it serves as a completely unsatisfying story. The “haunted house” tale from towards the end comes second only to the opening segment: the film needed more like this.
Ultimately, V/H/S is an original take on a genre now saturated with Blair Witch copycats and torture porn, which alone makes it worth looking at. Its advertisement as “the last word in found footage” might be taking things a bit too far, especially as it does remind us how tired the format is in its forced character development and touch of repetition, but the story arc wrapping the segments makes it more compelling than a typical short story compilation, especially since the temptation to skip a story would be too strong otherwise. Notably, it shines as one of this year’s better horrors so far, despite its flaws – so I’d recommend it without hesitation, especially to fans of grindhouse-style experiences.