Whilst the likes of Lake Mungo, The Last Broadcast, Cannibal Holocaust and, lest we forget, The Blair Witch Project are fine examples of what can be done with little budget. They’ve also unwittingly become part of that all sub-genre of horror that is found footage or as we call it here; shakey-cam-what-the-fuck-was-that-it-was-the-Devil-after-all footage. They really have become ten a penny; with companies like The Asylum pumping them out at the same frequency a cast member of Made in Chelsea talks utter mouth crap. Like Kurt Cobain in the hands of Courtney Love, all sense of originality and joy has nearly been squeezed out of them and, with films like the forthcoming Paranormal Activity 4, you’re left with disposable hits to please the masses. Cookie cutter concepts for aficionados of dirge.
So, it’s with trepidation one might find themselves going to see V/H/S. An ensemble piece that sees Ti West, the director of sleeper hit, The House of the Devil being tied to it. A group of low-lifers who spend their spare time forcibly exposing women’s breasts for porn sites, agree to steal a VHS tape from an old man on behalf of someone who seems to know more about them then they do about him. When they arrive at his house, they find the old man dead, a room full of TVs and a large collection of VHS tapes. Like Robert Powell’s visit in Asylum, this is all just a framing device as we join the bungling burglars in taking turns to watch one of the videos. Of the tapes themselves, each contains an unconnected story detailing something miserable happening to various groups of white middle class 20-somethings.
The main issue with found footage films is, and always will be, convincing the viewer that even when the protagonist’s walls are vomiting blood and their cat has taken to moonwalking and speaking in tongues, they will stay in the house to video everything and not run out of the house screaming till their bum falls off. Even REC 3 gave its own visual style the finger by having the camera man abused and his camera broken. So when you’re faced with six different stories with the potential to use the same techniques as each other, you’d be right to roll your eyes.
Things don’t get off to a particularly good start with our framing device already pushing its credibility in the first five minutes. We seriously question whether burglars would really tape themselves robbing a house; let alone sitting down to watch a film. After that though, most of the directors do try to bring some originality to how these horrors are recorded. Even going so far as to use spy glasses and nanny cams, it adds a wonderful POV style that puts you literally in the shoes of one of our heroes. It’s like Peep Show. If Peep Show were to have an episode where David Mitchell comes at Robert Webb’s gurning face with an axe.
The most effective horror is when the everyday is mutated to the macabre and V/H/S certainly delivers. Staying safe in your hotel room, having a conversation on Skype and even just trying to have a good old-fashioned gang bang takes on a ghoulish tint when viewed through the cold eye of V/H/S.
Are all the stories successful? Not really. Like the portmanteau’s of the 60s and 70s, the main problem is the tone is all over the place. The serious, throat tightening feel of the second tale is immediately followed by a snarf, snarf Friday the 13th pastiche that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor. And it’s not the only thing that could cut. Coming in at over two hours, if none of the directors were willing to kill their darlings, they could have at least exercised a little restraint.
Case in point, the penultimate tale is a brilliant tale done via the medium of Skype. With the heroine’s boyfriend, we watch helplessly as she’s terrorised by ghosts and her own mental issues. It was one of the more successful stories after the first two…. Then the ending came and it was the equivalent of a man telling you the joke about the chicken crossing the road and then going on to tell you why the whole non-joke is funny. The whole time he’s just tapping you in the forehead with his index finger. Tap, tap, tap. No, it’s more annoying than that. It’s Gandalf and Frodo saying goodbye in Return of the King. You just want to scream, ‘Stop it! You’re ruining it! The story ended 3 minutes ago’.
It’s a frat boy horror filled with violence and sex – Seriously, a style guide must have been distributed amongst the team that breasts must make an appearance in every video regardless of context – but it shouldn’t be derided for that. If anything, it’s good to see horror can still get down and dirty when it wants to and it should be applauded. And to be honest, we had a bloody good time watching it.
V/H/S is by no means the death rattle of Found Footage. We’re pretty sure that will come Paranormal Activity 5: Electric Boogaloo Never Sleeps.