V/H/S (2012)

(On Cable TV, March 2014) On paper, V/H/S seems custom-made to annoy me: An anthology film (eek) of found-footage horror films (boo) featuring twenty-something hoodlums doing dumb things (urgh) and getting punished for them. My tolerance for grainy shaky-cam footage, frat-boy protagonists and they-all-die conclusions is at an all-time low, and I approached the film with low expectations. But V/H/S is actually pretty good at transforming its weaknesses into strengths: Aside from the mostly annoying frame story, the individual segments of the film usually have some wit to them, and the result is quite a bit better than anyone could expect. The anthology format may be repetitive for horror movies in which setup only cedes to gory death, but it sets a nice cyclical rhythm to the film, each vignette quickly building up to outright horror. The found-footage gimmick leads the individual writers/directors to ingenious devices (one vignette takes place entirely through video-chat, and two others from head-mounted cameras), and the grainy cinematography helps a lot when it comes to reinforce the realism of each piece –so that reality can break down more effectively. V/H/S is better than most movies in building up an effective sense of dread, where we can be convinced that bad things may be just a frame or two away. (The film’s most effective visual trick is in presenting a monster as a visual glitch in recording.) It amounts to an anthology that has its weak moments, but is generally successful at what it tries to do. As for the individual segments… Framing device “Tape 56” isn’t much: beyond initial revulsion at the taped antics of the delinquent protagonists and a sense of impending horror as they explore an empty house, it’s not much more than a structural conceit… and not even a particularly inspiring one. “Amateur Night” doesn’t feature more sympathetic protagonists, but the escalating sense of things turning badly is effectively limited by the perspective of the camera. (Hannah Fierman is also V/H/S‘s most noteworthy presence despite her one line of dialogue.) “Second Honeymoon” is the weakest segment, with a gory ending that seems to come out of nowhere even despite creepy bits of foreshadowing within a far-too-long setup. I’d file “Tuesday the 17th” as a half-success: Despite solid monster work, it seems arbitrary, forced and with such familiar slasher shtick that it could have worked better as comedy rather than earnest gore-fest. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” has a heck of a title and a clever form, but it seems to be playing with three ideas that don’t work well together. Fortunately, “10/31/98” singlehandedly ends V/H/S on the high note it needs, as a an expedition through a haunted house peaks with a deliriously enjoyable sequence in which the characters run through pure craziness: The mixture of frantic pacing and special effects work by Radio Silence filmmakers had me cackling for a full minute at the sheer action/horror crescendo of the piece, a very nice change of pace from the dread and squeamishness of the rest of the film.

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