By and large, modern anthological horror pictures are a woefully untapped genre type, the only one of particular note coming out over the past five years being Michael Dougherty's 2009 autumnal spooktacular "Trick 'r Treat
," a film treated for no good reason like a bastard stepchild by studio Warner Bros. and all but sent direct-to-video despite massive critical acclaim. Either Dougherty made an enemy out of some thin-skinned top brass at WB or the distributor honestlyand foolishlyfelt that there was no audience for a Halloween-set thriller ingeniously structured to resemble the multilayered, revolving-door timeline of "Pulp Fiction" while tonally matching 1982's part-scary, part-funny classic "Creepshow
." The truth is that "Trick 'r Treat
" would have done huge business had it been sent out to two thousand screens a week or two before October 31, its intrinsically related subject matter and release date promotion enough to bring in a tidy profit. Partially because there has been such a dearth of this particular brand of horror flick, and also because its creators have come up with a fresh angle with which to present their six short tales of the macabre, "V/H/S" is an inviting addition that is already becoming something of a word-of-mouth cult sensation. With an independent distributor (Magnet Releasing) and a relatively limited initial theatrical release, the film's success will depend on people supporting it both on Video On Demand and in the cities where it shows up on the big screen. Its longevity as the 21st century's answer to a style made famous by EC Comics and "The Twilight Zone" is practically guaranteed.
In a wraparound story used to clothesline the rest of the free-standing narratives (each one positioned as found footage on grainy VHS tapes), three adult hooligans involved in recording and then selling their very own random physical and sexual assaults break into a house with the intent to steal a particular videocassette that could earn them a lot of dough. As an older man sits dead in front of the television, they search the house while continually getting drawn to the freaky real-life occurrences documented on the tapes playing on the VCR. The first, "Amateur Night," finds a group of frat guys (led by Mike Donlan) getting far more than they bargained for when they bring back to their hotel room one particularly off-kilter gal named Lily (Hannah Fierman). Directed by David Bruckner (2008's "The Signal
"), the chaotic, immature shenanigans of the young men, caught by a secret camera on Donlan's glasses, lead to a payoff that is nightmarish and literally edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, sweetened all the more by a twist to the ending as awe-inspiring as it is creepy.
The secondand beststory of the bunch is "Second Honeymoon," auteur Ti West's (2011's "The Innkeepers
") deliciously enthralling slow-burn sensibilities impeccably matching this writer's own. A couple, Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal), are taking a road trip across Arizona on old, reliable Route 66, amusing themselves along the way by stopping at tourist trap Wild West Junction and, later, taking in the sights of the Grand Canyon. When a mysterious woman knocks on their motel door one night asking for a ride, Sam politely declines. The whole situation is a strange one, but danger lurks closer than they expect when someone begins breaking into their room during the night, videotaping them sleeping while lightly running a switchblade across their bodies. "Second Honeymoon," which takes on a freaky, entirely unexpected second meaning by the end, is roughly twenty minutes long and mesmerizing for every second of those, unsettling tensions percolating toward a ghastly conclusion. Swanberg and Takal are excellent as the young vacationers, unaware of how abruptly their lives are about to take an unthinkable turn.
Next up on the docket is "Tuesday the 17th," wherein a group of nubile college kids head to the lake for the weekend. Wendy (Norma C. Quinones), however, has an ulterior motive: she plans to use her classmates as bait in an attempt to stop a seemingly unstoppable killer still roaming the woods. Director Glenn McQuaid (2009's "I Sell the Dead") merges the slasher and supernatural subgenres, delivering expertly upon imaginative kill sequences even as this story does not necessarily add up to much. A good deal more taut and jittery is the fourth yarn, mumblecore director Joe Swanberg's (2008's "Nights and Weekends") "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger." Emily (Helen Rogers) and James (Daniel Kaufman) have begun a cursory Internet relationship on Skype, Emily confiding in James every night as she becomes convinced that her apartment is haunted. Swanberg relies on a foreboding mood and the effectiveness of his jump scares throughout, keeping the viewer consistently on pins and needles. Only the story's final revelation is a letdown. This is one case where the unknown is far scarier than any kind of answer the makers provide.
The final tale is "10/31/98," directed by Radio Silence (a pseudonym for filmmaking quartet Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella), and, although it might be the weakest, in "V/H/S" terms that's still pretty good. A bunch of costumed guys head to a Halloween party, but once inside the deceptively desolate house, they discover it's haunted for real. Worse yet, a sacrificial ceremony is occurring in the attic. "10/31/98" has a methodical build and a few solid jolts, but feels a little sloppy and half-finished, as if it wasn't fully developed before it went before the cameras. The same might be said for the wraparound segments, called "Tape 56" and directed by Adam Wingard (2011's "A Horrible Way to Die"), threaded in between the five central shorts. There is a downright masterful setup with the introduction of the deceased man in the chair, placed just right in the background as the thieves sit down to watch the tapes, but Wingard botches the landing and doesn't appear to know where to take the premise.
As is apt to be the case with anthologies, not every part of "V/H/S" is equally successful. Taken as a whole, however, it is a grab-bag of clever, diverse frights, each one leading to an untimely death as captured by roving, "you-are-there" POV cameras. Performances are as naturalistic as need be across the board, while make-up and effects work is used to give gristle and crimson to the pseudo-documentary imagery. It's uneven but perfectly fun, an ideal movie to sit and watch in a dark room on a Friday night. This is one case where a sequel (with, maybe, five or six new up-and-coming directors) would be more than welcomed. The possibilities for where it goes from here are infinite.