To love horror movies is to live a life searching for a fix like your first highs and rarely getting it. For me, those first loves were slashers like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. Since I saw those movies, I've had hopes for every over-hyped horror film, and those hopes are almost always dashed. Then I saw V/H/S.
The new, sick found-footage anthology is the kind of intense nightmare that is a dream come true for horror fans. I became more and more excited about this film as word came in from Sundance and South by Southwest earlier this year that this thing would fuck us all up. That people reportedly fainted at screenings made it all sound sweeter. I was so excited for last week's screening of V/H/S that I predicted it would underwhelm me. It didn't.
V/H/S presents five different snuff-esque film scenarios within the organizing framework of a sixth. In the framing storyline, a few scumbags who make movies of themselves assaulting women in public seek out a prized videotape they plan to distribute on the black market. They rifle through a collection in a house whose only occupant seems to be a dead guy in front of a bunch of snow-filled TV sets. Each tape they watch is a short film by a different horror director.
Each sub-film has its merits, but the highlights are Joe Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Young, which is told in a series of Skype chats between a woman who thinks her house is haunted and a concerned (potential?) lover, and Ti West's Second Honeymoon. That one documents a couple's road trip as West throws out the foreboding giant rock formations of The Hills Have Eyes and the washed-out nature of Cannibal Holocaust. But to achieve the terror, West goes off the grid for something that's virtually devoid of traditional suspense, save two horrifying scenes seemingly based on the Manson family's twisted pastime of creepy crawling (basically: breaking and entering to do weird shit/maybe murder). Creepy crawling provided the inspiration for Bryan Bertino's 2008 film The Strangers, and it just so happens that V/H/S is the best American horror film since that one.
The lack of traditional suspense is blisteringly effective because when the terrible things happen, they have the effect of a sucker punch. These are no jump scares; they're jump-out-the-window scares. While some of V/H/S's entries contain a more conventional approach to terrifying, a thread of convention abandonment runs throughout. In these quick, nasty bites there's no time for character development or context or resonating dialogue or very much of anything aside from relating a few sentences worth of disturbing plot. No one seems to feel the pressure of a happy ending or leaving things open for a sequel (although as a broad anthology series, V/H/S could go on infinitely as long as there are enough directors with disturbing and succinct ideas – and I'd love to see that happen). Don't get close to the characters; they probably won't end up final girls and if they do, they'll stab you in the back.
I have a few formatting qualms with V/H/S. The picture is presented in widescreen, which isn't how it would appear if we were watching actual tapes and most of it was clearly shot digitally. It would take a real, true sicko to then want to convert that to tape. If the idea of POV/found-footage horror film is to present something that feels real and gritty, then being realistic within that framework would seem to be of paramount importance.
That said, the stories, the pacing, the uniformly solid performances and the ideas in this film are strong enough to forgive a less than masterful grasp on the media it provides. V/H/S didn't make me faint, but it did make me swoon. If you think you might like this, you will, and if you think you won't, stay far, far away.
V/H/S will be released August 31 via video on demand platforms and October 5 in theaters.