I recently spent a weekend playing with Netflix, catching up on some of the movies that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages and just hadn’t gotten around to for one reason or another. It’s actually kind of nice to be too busy to watch something right away, in some ways; sure, you miss out on a bit of the cultural experience that comes from being part of the zeitgeist, and there’s a much bigger risk of spoilers. But on the other hand, it means that you don’t wind up watching something that makes a huge pop-culture impact, but turns out to actually suck hard when you finally experience it for yourself. (See ‘Blair Witch Project, The’.) Some of these movies are a few years old…but if I’m still hearing about a movie two or three years later, that means it’s probably worth a watch. And so I’m providing my somewhat belated impressions of movies that you’ve either already seen years ago…or, like me, you keep wondering whether it’s worth watching. I’ll start with ‘V/H/S’, a horror movie from last year that got some people talking.
This one is a conceptually clever mashup of the “found footage” horror movie and older horror anthology films like ‘Tales From the Crypt’ and ‘Vault of Horror’. The framing sequences involve a group of petty crooks who sell clips of vandalism and sexual assault online; they make a pittance from the videos, but they’re clearly in it for the thrill of demonstrating their ability to violate people and get away with it. But one of them has a more lucrative gig in mind; he’s been promised a large sum of money to steal a videotape from an old man’s house. The crooks arrive to find a vast collection of VHS cassettes; their efforts to find the right one (they were simply told “you’ll know it when you see it”) form the bulk of the movie.
Anthologies are always going to be uneven. It’s a hazard of the form; no matter how hard you work at selecting the material, it’s still going to be a thing of parts and the average audience is going to like some bits more than others. So when I say, “V/H/S is a bit uneven,” I hope you understand that this isn’t so much a criticism as a general caveat. Even so, there’s nothing in the film that’s totally worthless; even the weakest segments do some interesting things with their narrative style. If there is a single overarching complaint, it’s that a lot of the segments (especially the framing sequence) seem hauntingly inconclusive. We’re getting little snippets of a story, and while it’s kind of interesting to fill in the blanks yourself, there are times when you’re frustrated by a lack of knowledge of what happened after the camera stopped rolling.
In order, the sequences are: ‘Amateur Night’, which is a vignette about a group of dudebros whose plan to covertly film themselves having sex with women goes somewhat awry when one of the women they pick up isn’t…normal. It introduces a major theme of the anthology, the way that we instinctively recognize a power dynamic in the act of recording someone; the men in this segment get off on the fact that they’re going to be filming women without their knowledge, and the secret gives them power right up until things go pear-shaped for them. The best thing about this one (apart from the excellent, underplayed special effects) is Hannah Fierman as Lily, the woman who they pick up. She does an excellent job of conveying someone who’s dangerous and vulnerable at the same time.
The second sequence, ‘Second Honeymoon’, contains one of the few moments I’ve ever seen of perfect horror. Unfortunately, the director doesn’t realize he filmed it and keeps going. The ending you actually get is maddeningly vague and inconclusive, especially as you realize pretty early on that the story should have stopped several minutes ago. (At one point, the wife shuts down the video camera to go to bed. The video camera turns back on, panning over the husband again…then panning over to the sleeping wife. It’s that moment, when you imagine husband and wife back at home watching the “happy memories” of their trip and seeing this unexpected bonus footage, that you understand how perfect this could have been. And not incidentally, how much power the person holding the camera really has.)
The third sequence, ‘Tuesday the 17th’, tries for a ‘Cabin in the Woods’ knowing mockery of slasher genre tropes, but doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. It’s about a group of friends going to the woods to draw out a mysterious killer in order to gain evidence of his activities; there are some mildly funny moments as the instigator of the plan behaves with knowing matter-of-factness about their chances of survival, but it can’t quite manage the shifts between horror and comedy and so the scary bits fall flat. That’s despite a really interesting and creepy visual trick; the killer doesn’t show up on video at all, appearing as a series of blocky, pixilated “glitches” in the footage. (Which, if nothing else, has certainly made watching digital cable a creepier experience.) Again, this fits in nicely with the theme of the film–the killer avoids the power exchange inherent in recording by being unfilmable–but it doesn’t work as well as the director probably hoped.
The fourth sequence, ‘The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger’, is probably the one that suffers most from being found footage, but in some ways its tantalizing hints at a larger and more complicated world are the best thing about it. It features the titular Emily as a lonely college student having Skype sessions with her long-distance boyfriend, talking about her haunted apartment and the strange lump in her arm. All of these things have explanations, but they’re not the ones you would expect and finding out the truth only leads you to more questions that never get answered. This one could probably be expanded out into a feature if the director wanted. Or maybe it works better as a short. Maybe the answers I’m imagining are more interesting than anything the director could have come up with.
The last sequence, ’10/31/98′, functions more as a traditional horror story, albeit one that makes good use of its found footage conceit. A group of dudebros go to what they think is a “haunted house” party, and realize a little too late that they’re in an actual haunted house. The ending, in which they realize that there’s a further twist, is elegantly done, even if the audience figured out what was going on about five minutes before the characters did.
On the whole, it’s probably worth watching. It’s certainly worth watching for free; even if the whole is less than the sum of its parts, many of the parts are really quite excellent.