'V/H/S' may not be the best found footage horror movie to date, but it's easily the most literal. This anthology of scary shorts is connected by a framing story about a bunch of thugs hired to break into a house and retrieve a VHS tape. When they arrive, they discover a dead man seated in front of a wall of televisions and a cache of videocassettes. In order to locate the right one, they have to watch the various tapes one by one. Each is more disturbing than the last.
It's unclear how footage shot on spy cameras and Skype calls wound up on archaic VHS tapes, or how the tapes came to rest in this strange house, but that's a conversation for another time. All that really matters is that most of the shorts in 'V/H/S' use the found footage gimmick cleverly and a few are deeply unsettling. As anthology films go, that's about as much as you can ask for.
Each short comes from a different horror sub-genre: over the course of nearly two hours we meet vampires, slashers, stalkers, ghosts, and spend some a few cherished moments in one seriously haunted house. That keeps 'V/H/S' fresh and lively; just as you settle into a particular pattern of scares, a new one comes a long to jolt you out of your seat and your comfort zone.
The six filmmakers (five individual directors and one directorial collective) are clear connoisseurs of horror, and their stories are filled with homage and pastiche. Glenn McQuaid's 'Tuesday the 17th' bears obvious resemblance to the 'Friday the 13th series' -- a bunch of obnoxious young people take a trip out to a lake in the woods, where they're pursued by a mysterious killer (the twist, in this case, is that the killer can't be seen clearly on camera). The collective known as Radio Silence's '10/31/98' plays on the famous first-person-perspective opening of John Carpenter 'Halloween' by following a guy with a camera strapped to his head as he and his buddies wander around a deserted house.
My favorite short, though, was the most unusual. Ti West's 'Second Honeymoon' follows a young married couple (Joe Swanberg, director of his own 'V/H/S' short, and Sophia Takal) on a road trip. They take home movies of their travels to kitschy tourist traps and the Grand Canyon. But while they sleep, a mysterious woman breaks into their hotel room and films them -- poking their vulnerable bodies with a switchblade and dunking their toothbrushes in the toilet. West makes very specific and very smart use of the found footage device; since Swanberg and Takal aren't looking at their random vacation footage, we're the only ones who know they're in danger, which creates this pervasive air of menace throughout their segment. It's very effective.
Another pleasant surprise is '10/31/98' which is one of the few shorts which, contrary to its title, actually looks like it was shot on VHS (some, like Swanberg's Skype-call-exchange 'The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She was Younger,' are deliberately modern) and contains the anthology's most convincing blend of lo-fi visuals and extensive special effects. Found footage and overtly supernatural happenings don't always mesh well -- pseudo-documentary style tends to raise our b.s.-detectors; if it's going to pretend to be real, it better look real -- but this short pulls the combination off. Even more impressively, '10/31/98' is Radio Silence's feature debut. I'm eager to see what they do next.
In general, 'V/H/S' leans a bit too heavily on twists-for-twists'-sake surprise endings -- not every horror short needs to feel like it was written by Rod Serling. And those with sensitive stomachs, beware: between the intense gore and the intensely shaky handheld camerawork, 'V/H/S' is not for the faint of heart or the easily motion sick. But the film is creepy. Its titular format belongs to the past, but the inventive, low-budget filmmaking skills on display suggest a bright future for the horror genre.
'V/H/S' is currently available on VOD and hits theaters on October 5th.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’