Anthology films can be hard to grade because we’re basically looking at six different movies instead of one. Even great anthology films like Creepshow have their ebbs and flows, and evaluating them as a whole becomes difficult. V/H/S falls into that easy trap. Some sections are quite solid, but the overall effect feels spotty and uneven. It utilizes the found-footage format to its eternal detriment, as well as struggling to find anyone onscreen we can legitimately sympathize with. Watching douche bags get their comeuppance loses its charms the fourth or fifth time through, and V/H/S can’t find enough other things to keep us engaged.
The biggest problem occurs with the framing device needed to keep all these disparate storylines connected. A group of petty criminals are hired by an unseen employer to break into an old man’s house and steal his collection of VHS tapes. Once they arrive, they find the old man apparently dead in front of his TV, with a tape in the VCR. The first thug watches it; it becomes the first story we see. When it ends, a second thug arrives to find his friend missing. He looks at another tape, which forms the second story, and so on until the entire film is done.
V/H/S overplays its hand almost immediately with an early prelude, showing these punks sexually assaulting a woman in a parking garage while restraining her boyfriend. It’s an ugly, unnecessary display: coating the film in a nasty sheen before we’ve even had a chance to get into the spirit. We get into further trouble with the herky-jerky method of their demise, spread out over the course of the film. It mistakes obfuscation for suspense and thus keeps us in the dark about key details that would have made it all a lot scarier.
The stories themselves employ similar tropes to reduce our sympathies for the victims and cathartically enjoy their messy demise. In some cases, that actually works quite well: particularly the first clip, “Amateur Night.” A trio of college students heads out on the make, with one of their number using a hidden camera in his glasses. Naturally, the evening doesn’t go quite the way they’ve planned. Director David Bruckner uses the shakycam format to good effect, especially when the boys run into a freaky girl (Hannh Fierman) who seems abnormally interested in one of their number. It’s swift, it gets to the point and it ends with a striking visual kicker that promises great things to follow.
Sadly, the film takes a step down for the next three clips. The biggest disappointment, “Second Honeymoon,” comes from director Ti West, who helmed two terrific feature-length horror movies in House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. Here, he follows a couple driving along Route 66 and menaced by an unseen figure along the way. It takes too long to make its case and the twist doesn’t carry the punch that the filmmakers intend.
The next clip, “Tuesday the 17th,” holds even less energy, as a quartet of friends head into the woods only to find themselves face to face with an unseen assailant. Director Glenn McQuaid leans on a keen video effect to make it work. It generates some decent knee-jerk scares, but like “Second Honeymoon,” it can’t sustain its slight premise enough to reach the finish line.
The fourth clip stands as the weakest of the bunch, relating an ongoing video chat between a woman threatened by unseen forces and her boyfriend who assures her that her fears are all imaginary. It never finds its way out of second gear, and the maddeningly smug turnaround exists solely for its own sake.
That leaves just the finale, directed by a quartet of filmmakers going under the combined name “Radio Silence.” It picks up yet another group of dippy young people, on their way to a Halloween party, who find themselves in a real haunted house by mistake. It suffers from the fact that we don’t much care about the protagonists, but earns points for good technical prowess and a genuinely spooky atmosphere that doesn’t let up until the agreeable finale.
It’s all a mixed bag, to say the least, and at nearly two hours, the general idea wears out its welcome far too soon. The center sections become an interminable slog, and the overall gimmick labors to assert itself in the face of unconscionable repetition. Yet it never descends into the truly awful, and the framing pieces are both solid. A tightening of the running time would have helped a great deal, and its passel of filmmakers likely have more potent scares in them. This effort simply requires too much from the audience to pass muster. V/H/S is a film for DVD players and DVRs: a sampler platter that works best if you can take what you want and leave the remainder behind. Hold off until then (assuming you haven’t caught the VOD already). You’ll feel better about it once the tape runs out.