When compared to the pristine picture quality of Blu-ray, the VHS format is a decrepit, grungy thing, so how better to make an anthology of grimy spook stories than to embrace that aesthetic all-around as “V/H/S” does? Made up of six found-footage style segments – few of which actually attempt to replicate the look of old tape, but all of which have their distinct variations in interference and texture – it’s a film consumed with bad deeds recorded and recovered, helmed by a who’s-who of current genre mavens and delivered with a good sense of playfulness around concepts and conceits generally exploited to lure in the gullible masses for the sake of a single opening weekend.
The film’s wrap-around “Tape 56,” directed by Adam Wingard (“You’re Next“), features a crew of video-obsessed vandals breaking into an old man’s home on the hunt for one particular tape. With a sketchy sense of logic, it proceeds down a conventional found-footage path: people go where they ought not to, find what they’re not supposed to (in this case, the tapes that make up the other segments) and never stop filming the entire time. It sets the schlocky bar well enough for what follows – much of which easily plays to, if not subverts, expectations of their respective genres and plots.
Take the first chapter, “Amateur Night,” from horror omnibus alum David Bruckner (“The Signal“). A gaggle of idiots arm their relatively dweeby friend with hidden-camera specs in an effort to record their own shoddy porno, cast entirely with women drunk and unaware, including one oddly infatuated female. It establishes the formula to come: mostly short-sighted characters (who are more often than not inviting their comeuppance); the subtle hints and patient build during which sensory discomfort is caused through feasibly herky-jerky motions and cuts; and the climactic carnage that unfolds over the course of a seemingly continued take. In this case, it works like gangbusters and kicks things off with a fair share of jolts and one effectively unnatural performance in particular.
Naturally, “Second Honeymoon” by Ti West (“The Innkeepers“) takes the same considered sense of pacing to follow two young lovers (indie directors Sophia Takal and Joe Swanberg) who chronicle their Arizona vacation and run afoul of a hitchhiker without even so much as leaving their hotel room. It satisfies the short-story rhythm of the overall structure at its own pace, but not without its own handful of eerie developments. Far more blatant about its influences, “Tuesday the 17th” from “I Sell the Dead” helmer Glenn McQuaid sends a bunch of sex-crazed teens into the woods where a killer once lurked and – surprise! – still does. It’s a knowing encounter, though, initiated by one of the characters and perpetuated with their willful embrace of slasher staples: drugs, pre-marital sex, etc. This one has a fairly inspired audio-visual trick up its sleeve, a development best left discovered by viewers.
Swanberg steps back behind the camera for “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger,” his umpteenth tale of long-distance relationships, which sees one girl’s haunted home captured via a webcam conversation with her far-off boyfriend. Of the entire lot, this one kicks things off relatively early and only proceeds to twist the narrative from there; again, some surprises are better left unrevealed, but the usually frustrating genre clichés of entering dark rooms with limited light at hand are upended nicely by the end. That leaves “10/31/98” from heretofore unknown filmmaking collective Radio Silence, a four-man outfit that also stars in this tale of costumed partygoers who unwittingly walk into a real haunted house on the aforementioned Halloween. The short serves as a rip-roaring replica of the haunted-house experience itself, with spooky peripheral occurrences giving way to levitating objects, writhing walls, and it ends the anthology with one doozy of a closer.
The individual filmmakers reportedly didn’t confer with one another, though trends begin to emerge, with many of the chapters feature male jerks who deserve what’s coming their way – the title might as well stand for “Violent Horrible Suckers” – and women can often be found taking the upper hand (though not always for long). These thematic through-lines assist in making the whole feel like slightly more than the sum of its generally successful parts and slightly better than both your typical found-footage flick and the often uneven horror anthology. All the same, “V/H/S” delivers the thrills and chills craftily and with a better batting average than usual. When Magnolia puts it out later this year, watch it with friends. [B+]