The "found footage" horror movie has been, if you will, done to death. Handheld camcorder footage provides an excuse to eschew cinematic storytelling in favor of sloppiness, under the assumption that the amateur quality fits the narrative. The anthology horror movie "V/H/S" is a sharp rebuke to this laziness, delivering the creepiest first-person horror movie since the original "Paranormal Activity" while pushing the genre in a fresh direction with the sheer visceral energy of its execution. The camera never sits still and neither will nail-biting audiences as they endure the heightened uneasiness created by this marvelously frantic accomplishment.
"V/H/S" contains contributions from some of the more ambitious microbudget American filmmakers working today, not all of whom exclusively work in horror. The concept's parameters were developed by Brad Miska, founder of the horror fan site Bloody Disgusting: A group of young hooligans are tasked with stealing a mysterious tape from an ominous home. When they come across a heap of unidentified tapes, the framing device begins as each cassette contains another morbid encounter. The resulting experience is their own private horror festival, with shorts by known indie filmmakers David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Ti West and the online filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence. (Adam Wingard, whose "You're Next" was a breakout hit on the festival circuit last year, directs the wraparound segment.)
Despite the chorus of indie names involved in its production, "V/H/S" maintains a surprisingly fluid structure; the lo-fi video quality and foreboding atmosphere carry over into each chapter. Most segments have a fair share of cheap scares, but they also delve into the art of the build-up, as if delivering a series of grim jokes with bloody punchlines.
"V/H/S" toys with the formula by offering up a series of relatable characters before leading them to grisly fates. Far less gimmicky than it sounds, the movie consolidates most of its precedents into a neat package. This brings to mind not only "Paranormal Activity" and "Blair Witch" before it, but also costlier endeavors like "Cloverfield," far edgier uses of found footage such as "Trash Humpers" and "Memorial Day," and the gripping disorientation of "REC" and "REC 2."
That means "V/H/S" covers a lot of ground in a relatively simple fashion. The camera binds you to the movements of the doomed protagonists carrying it, resulting in a continuing sense of claustrophobic dread (hence the fainting patron at a recent Sundance screening). Each segment culminates in a gruesome finale, leading to the increasing anticipation of another one to follow.
At the same time, because the directors didn't collaborate while developing their contributions, the individual chapters contain their own unique storylines. Bruckner's "Amateur Night," the standout of the bunch, opens the anthology with a frat party night gone very wrong. When a trio of heavy drinkers take a creepy goth girl back to their motel, they fail to realize her taste for human blood (or the possibility that she might not be human at all). The mortifying final chase scene, which literally covers a lot of ground but never loses coherence, turns the long take into the doorway to a terrified victim's subjectivity.
While "Amateur Night" essentially punishes a group of hedonists for documenting their careless exploits, Radio Silence's "10/31/98" takes the opposite approach, following a group of well-meaning friends on a Halloween outing when they discover a sacrifice in progress. Taking advantage of the ability to present credible CGI on low-grade video, Radio Silence builds to digitally enhanced haunted-house finale featuring relentless horrors around every corner.
By comparison, West's "Second Honeymoon" (starring Swanberg and "Green" director Sophia Takal) adopts the feel of a quieter mood piece -- and may even realize the sick fantasies of mumblecore's greatest detractors with its gory finish. And McQuaid's "Tuesday the 17th" takes the thriller-in-the-wood scenario into a welcome arena of minimalism.
Swanberg, meanwhile, delivers the tightest movie in his prolific career with the amusingly cryptic "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Young." The entire story takes place over Skype, creating an original split screen set-up with a shocking twist. (Those familiar with Swanberg's "Uncle Kent" will recall his penchant for online video chat, but would never have imagined that it could lead to this.)
A 21st-century take on "Tales from the Crypt" (and a suggestion of what the upcoming omnibus horror film "ABCs of Death" might offer), "V/H/S" manages to overcome the familiarity associated with its design. The repetition of certain themes, particularly casual behavior that leads to doom, turns the movie into a treatise on the danger involved in failing to look too closely. "Were you recording that?" a character asks the cameraman in one of the segments when a spooky figure slinks past them. "No," comes the reply, "I just got caught up in the middle of it." Precisely.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "V/H/S" has major commercial potential, which Magnolia has recognized by picking it up after a trio of successful screenings at Sundance. It could drum up attention with a Halloween release. However, it should also enjoy a healthy run on the genre festival circuit and perform very well on VOD.