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SXSW 2012 Review: V/H/S

Drew Tinnin

March 18th, 2012

Staring in the face of a VHS tape, it can't be denied that it looks like a friendly face: Spindles form big eyes and a cute little nose can be imagined, making the cassette look like an early design for E.T. The '80s are back, and although Johnny Five doesn't go on a killing spree CHOPPING MALL-style, if that dream short film fantasy came true, it would almost undoubtedly be added to the DVD extras of V/H/S.

The collaborative efforts of some of the most talented up-and-comers in independent film and horror are on display here, and nearly everyone is in top form. Through the limitations of VHS, using camera tricks and clever techniques, each filmmaker manages to take the found footage concept and the time constraint of an anthology to explore new territory within each story.


The wrap-around of V/H/S, book ending every terrible tale, follows a group of vandals selling footage of their exploits to an anonymous bidder. That buyer instructs them to go inside a man's home, who may be dead when they first arrive, to retrieve a VHS tape containing some very interesting content. All of the footage we see from the first shot on is on tape - cassettes showing some of the most shocking footage ever recorded, documenting the obscene and offering proof of the unexplained. The wrap-around, by Adam Wingard, is actually resolved before the final installment, but it makes for a much more satisfying ending - an ending that shouldn't be altered in a future cut of the film.

The festivities get underway with "Amateur Night", David Bruckner's segment, that uses a pair of spy glasses with a hidden camera to chronicle a  night out at the bar that turns into an unexpected opportunity for casual sex. As the wild party girl of the bunch passes out, three college guys are left with one remaining girl who also agreed to venture back to their hotel room, and they suddenly get a lot more than they bargained for. Let's just say she's definitely a wild cat in the sack. The playful, albeit horrifying, dynamic between this woman and the four-eyed nerd filming is electrifying, and the execution of some of the more fantastical elements makes for a great introduction.

In "Second Honeymoon", Ti West's (THE INNKEEPERS, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) style is completely abandoned for handheld shots capturing a cute, twenty-something couple and their Grand Canyon getaway. Once at their hotel, a strange woman comes to the door, continuing to linger in the parking lot well into the night. The couple is thrown, but not overly concerned. When she tries to get a little closer later on, it seems as if the couple are both in legitimate danger. "Second Honeymoon" might be the weakest of the five entries, with an abrupt end that probably would have been explored a little further in a different format.

Glen McQuaid's "Tuesday the 17th" finds a group of kids running amok in the woods, only to be tracked down by a killer who appears to be out of this world. Never getting a clear look at its face, the murderer somehow disrupts all electronic camera equipment through some kind of electromagnetic field. It's an an obvious nod to Camp Crystal Lake, but the perpetrator isn't just some deformed child who wants to please his Mommy. The distortion effect used is unsettling and feels otherworldly, giving out goosebumps that rise up once the brain knows it's looking at something that's unnatural.

Next up, Joe Swanberg (NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS, HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS) surprises with a long distance ghost story, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”, where a young woman, with the help of her boyfriend via video chat, tries to prove that her apartment is haunted. There's some great scares on display followed by a little levity after both parties realize they keep forgetting to record their video call. Swanberg shows he knows how to setup a scare, and never panders to the audience. Considering that Swanberg is most known for his art house indie romances, the respect he exhibits for genre fans is encouraging.

Despite all of the talent displayed in the previous segments, the last story, Radio Silence's "10/31/98", is the clear standout here. As a few friends go to a costume party at a haunted house, they find that they are the only ones there. When the jump scares begin, they slowly realize that the house they are in might actually be haunted. As they rush through the house looking for escape, plates start flying and complete chaos surrounds them. It's a complete riot and the most technically well-executed of the bunch. The ending is a perfect way to close V/H/S out, although that is certainly up for debate.

Just remember to suspend your disbelief during V/H/S. These filmmakers are simply using the anthology and found footage templates as a basic setup to create a new experience that also represents their love for '80s horror. Don't sit and wonder how a Skype call could be transferred to tape, or how footage from spy glasses could download to the format, either. It's a wooden roller coaster ride with carnival thrills that delights in scaring the audience at every turn.


Grade: A

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