The very concept of the new horror anthology film V/H/S is intriguing enough: a group of thugs, out to sell their video finds to an internet site, have been tipped off that a local house has a tasty stash of VHS tapes to mine for their "business." After running roughshod over the place, the guys come across a long-dead body in a room filled with television monitors. Even though the corpse supposedly stinks, one guy is commanded--for some ridiculous reason--to stay in the room while the others search the place for the tapes. This is a good way to split up the group because, you know...this is what horror movies do. So, in the meantime, this guy whiles time away by popping in a few tapes to review, and here we get into the bloody meat of the movie:
Episode one, "Amateur Night," is directed by Atlanta's David Brucker, one of three at the helm of 2007's quasi-zombiefest The Signal, and he's lucky he gets the first spot here because, as we get into V/H/S, we realize most of its stories are strikingly similar, so this first outing begins at a point of freshness. A group of hard-partying guys hit some Atlanta nightspots (including the legendary Star Bar), with plans to pick up a couple of girls and whist them away to a hotel room where they can videotape each having sex with them. The footage here is supposedly being shot through a pair of spy glasses that one reluctant predator is wearing. You can predict that things won't turn out so well for them, but I'm trying mighty hard to avoid spoilers here. Let's just say that this extremely well-edited segment stands as one of V/H/S' most entertaining (if rarely scary) offerings. Performance-wise (as with most of the acting in the film), there's not much to be said. All throughout V/H/S, we only see white, mostly male twentysomethings, so all the actors tend to blend together as they hit two notes: annoying wise-ass and screaming freak-out. On the other hand, the actresses in the movie tend to stand out, and here, one of the film's wide-eyed female victims (Hanna Fierman) seems like obvious trouble from the start. It's a fun if thinly-written piece, with an extremely short but memorable series of culminating shots that very well may be V/H/S's most frightening images.
Mumblecore progenitor Joe Swanberg stars in the next segment (but does not direct--this is a Ti West production). Titled "Second Honeymoon," it stars Swanberg and Sophia Takal as a troubled couple out to re-spark their romance via a trip to the Grand Canyon. This is one of V/H/S' most fascinating segments precisely because its horror elements are introduced rather late in the game. For me, though, the push-me/pull-you sexual dynamics at play here are the segment's greatest asset. Swanberg and Takal are pretty much perfect, especially in one scene that has Swanberg humorously admit to a scantilly-clad Takal that, as the man with a video camera, he has "a great idea" (we know what THAT is). Takal's piercing reaction is a fun moment of stinging non-horror joy. This is the one segment that could be considered more of a noir piece than a member of the horror genre.
The third segment is the least effective. Directed by I Sell The Dead's Glenn McQuaid, "Tuesday the 17th" is nothing more than a variation on a kids-in-the-woods slasher movie, with its only truly inventive element being a killer who can only be seen through the camera's viewfinder. The well-worn video effects here are smart, but that's its only positive (the acting in this segment is, also, quite pedestrian, which at least gives the viewer some way to judge the acting in the rest of V/H/S).
Swanberg reappears as the director of the fourth and unquestionably best of the bunch. "The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Young" is posited as a series of Skype-like conferences between a wide-eyed innocent (a superb Helen Rogers) and her far-away boyfriend (who appears, of course, only in a little box in the bottom right corner of the frame). She's in a house that she insists is haunted, and she appeals to her guy to accompany her in finding out if she is indeed right. Not only is this the most frightening of the stories, it's the most filmically inventive (one complaint: who would transfer a Skype conversation to VHS in this day and age?). Still, it's no surprise that this piece is as good as it is; while Swanberg's not really known for his horror output, he's still the most accomplished director here. Whatever complaints one might have with the unfairly-named mumblecore movement, his collaborations with Greta Gerwig Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes The Stairs are nonetheless laudible films. This segment also proves to be a welcome break from the hyperactive shaky-cam antics in V/H/S (Warning: this is EXTREMELY shaky shaky-cam territory here, which would probably account for the misleading reports of viewers throwing up during screenings).
Finally, after an unfortunate intrusion by Adam Wingard's largely useless wraparound piece, we get "10/31/98," which feels like an urban myth set to film. Yet ANOTHER group of asshole guys go out in costume to a Halloween party and find themselves at exactly the wrong address. Blended into this overlong piece is a climax which features extended digital effects that look quite fetching blended in with all the low-fi stuff. Still, by the time the filmmaking collective Radio Silence contributes this tale, my patience with V/H/S had worn away. The movie, at nearly 2 hours, is easily 20 minutes too long. There are only so many cookie-cutter shitty dudes I can watch in one sitting, even if most of them meet violent ends. This gimmicky gross-out has some notable moments and scares, but don't believe the hype: cripplingly light in the screenplay department, V/H/S hasn't reinvented a genre that, I feel, offers returns that diminish with each title released. But what the hell does it matter what I say? Horror fans will nonetheless scarf up this outing, as well as every other average-to-below genre title that's thrown their way.