A group of obnoxious street punks capture their crime spree on video, whether vandalizing a house or assaulting young women in a parking lot so they can sell the footage online as reality porn. Hired by an anonymous party, the gang break into a house in search of a mysterious VHS tape, only to find an old man slumped dead in his armchair surrounded by a stack of tapes, leaving them uncertain which is the one they are after. While his friends explore the house, one of the group decides to watch several of the tapes that recount various unsettling incidents...
In the years following The Blair Witch Project (1999) the found footage format has become a staple of the horror genre. There is an undeniable immediacy to the form that lends itself towards unsettling the viewer, yet remains something fumbled by filmmakers with surprising frequency. V/H/S boasts a killer concept yet squanders the potential to highlight and subvert the voyeuristic nature of horror viewing itself by instead serving a selection of sub-Amicus level anecdotes whose grisly punchlines kill promising plots stone dead just when things get interesting. Another key failure lies in the filmmakers alarming inability to craft sympathetic or at least engaging characters. Not only are the protagonists in the framing story established as the most hateful and obnoxious assholes imaginable, the majority of those featured in the ensuing stories are either stupid, despicable or overbearing. Presumably so viewers can relish their eventual fates but if the filmmakers could not care less, why the hell should we?
The film segues into “Amateur Night” directed by Adam Wingard which involves yet another bunch of braying jackasses. Shane (Mike Donlan) and Patrick (Joe Sykes) persuade nerdy, sensitive Clint (Drew Sawyer) to don glasses equipped with a hidden camera so he can film them as they hit the local bars trying to pick up girls. The trio eventually succeed bringing Lisa (Jas Sams) and spooky-eyed, monosyllabic Lily (Hanna Fierman) back to their motel room where the expected sexual shenanigans go seriously awry. Although the story establishes a reccurring theme throughout the anthology of young men victimising young women, it mistakenly believes simply presenting leery, laddish behaviour is akin to satirising the same. As a horrific fable it is slight and would likely work better as a six minute short on YouTube.
Next up director Ti West delivers “Second Honeymoon” wherein husband and wife, Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) are on a road trip out west unaware they are being trailed by a masked stalker. West hatches an eerie concept well matched to the format yet grinds laboriously through a set-up that becomes akin to watching someone’s vacation video and about as exciting as that sounds. “Tuesday the 17th” from Glenn McQuaid is - as its title suggests - a micro-budget variation on the slasher genre. Wendy (Norma C. Quinones) leads yet another group of unlikeable, unsympathetic teenagers on an outing in the woods where her male friends (Drew Moerlin and Jason Yachanin) smoke weed, ogle the token busty blonde cheerleader (Jeannine Yoder) and play numerous pranks until a masked maniac hacks everyone to death. How original. There is a twist in the tale that at least offers a fresh take on the “final girl” tradition in slasher movies yet proves tantamount to a misogynist re-imagining of Friday the 13th implying the gutsy heroine deserves to be disembowelled then violated. Nice.
Moving into the director’s chair after playing male lead in the preceding segment, Joe Swanberg handles “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” By far the most minimalist entry in the anthology, the fourth segment consists of a video chat between James (Daniel Kaufmann) and girlfriend Emily (Helen Rogers) who worries about a mysterious gash on her arm and suspects something is lurking inside her house. Structurally the segment recalls Paranormal Activity but with a punchline that recalls Milton Subotsky at his corniest. Rogers keeps viewers from falling asleep with some undeniably pointless nudity but her character proves remarkably blasé about her eerie experiences. Co-star Daniel Kaufmann is either a very bad actor or else as bored as the audience.
And so to the fifth story, “10/31/98” which almost redeems the whole sorry enterprise. Once again we have four fun-loving frat boy types en route to a Halloween party only to wander inside a seemingly empty house. Exploring their spooky surroundings they stumble upon a group of men performing some kind of unholy ritual upon a captive girl who begs for help. Directed by the presumably pseudonymous Radio Silence, this is the creepiest and best handled story of the bunch although again draws ideas from a previous found footage film, in this instance The Last Exorcism. Its punchline is all too predictable and like other entries confuses ambiguity with incoherence. All six stories (including the framing narrative) adhere to the tiresome found footage formula for suspense (quiet... quiet... SCREECH! quiet... quiet... SCREECH!), serving up short sharp shocks at the expense of logic or even adequately outlining their own mysteries. In fact the biggest mystery is how a film full of monsters, murder and gratuitous nudity could prove so mind-numbingly dull.