It was George Lucas, ironically enough, who said “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing”. This is clearly not a philosophy adopted by the directors behind horror anthology V/H/S: five short movies and a framing device with barely a plot between them. I appreciate the concept of working in a short form as an expression of craftsmanship, but shocks for their own sake are not improved merely by getting to them faster.
The main arc is titled “Tape 56”, directed by Adam Wingard. It tells of a group of miscreants who make money on the side by committing sexual assaults and selling the videos to internet pornographers. And who knows; maybe there’s someone out there who believes that those things aren’t completely staged. But even so, why are they shooting on videotape? Indeed, their story is presented as a palimpsest of stepped-on video tape, with occasional gratuitous glimpses of the original attempt by one of them to record his girlfriend having sex.
Anyway, they’re enlisted to go to a certain house and recover a certain cassette for an unnamed buyer. In the house they find an old man, dead in his armchair in front of an array of televisions so old they actually display snow when their VCRs are not turned on. They go in search of tapes, leaving one of their number after another behind to watch.
The individual stories don’t get much better. “Amateur Night” — directed by David Bruckner — continues the theme with a trio of douchebags who obtain a set of eyeglasses with an embedded camera and set out to seduce some unsuspecting woman and record her in bed. Again, as if anyone still believes that sort of thing isn’t staged. As it turns out, they get more than they bargained for. This is really more of a premise than a plot, and it’s about as fleshed-out as any of the stories get.
“Second Honeymoon” — directed by Ti West — shows us a married couple off on a road trip through the southwestern desert. There isn’t even really a premise here; just a creepy interloper who somehow enters their motel room and films them both sleeping. Yes, it’s a good device, but the execution is rushed and sloppy, with little setup and less payoff.
“Tuesday the 17th” — directed by Glenn McQuaid — is even less coherent. A young woman invites three friends along to a “lake” — a small pond, really — in some remote woods. Once there, they run into something stalking the forest that plays havoc with their camera before attacking them.
Joe Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is the anthology’s sole standout: a series of recorded video chats between a long-distance boyfriend and girlfriend while he attends medical school and she deals with what seems to be a haunted apartment. This entry provides the best-developed story, but again it feels slapdash and hacky. For instance, certain nonsensical points are indeed explained later, but they stick out so awkwardly at first that they feel more like mistakes being rationalized after the fact than truly integrated plot points.
And finally we come to “10/31/98”, directed by the Radio Silence quartet (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella). Four friends attend a Halloween party at a house that seems empty at first, but which holds its share of secrets. Radio Silence do show some significant technical chops here with regard to their special effects. But, well, see the Lucas quote above.
True, V/H/S does not promise any measure of quality that it fails to deliver. But that doesn’t save it from being in turns stultifying, nauseous, and misogynistic. I’m sure there’s an audience for it, though, like the man laughing loud and long as a dog gets punched in the head in the clip from the upcoming ABCs of Death that leads into the anthology. If you want it, you’re welcome to it.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.