Horror films have to choose a style and stick with it. It is tough to navigate between the jump scares of slasher lore, the slow burn or the haunted house jamboree, but “V/H/S” makes full use of its anthology format, combining the voices of several budding horror directors in an eclectic, varied and effective collection of short horror films that will terrify you on multiple levels.
Several of the half-dozen directors of “V/H/S” have worked in horror before, but Adam Wingard is perhaps the most promising filmmaker in the group. However, he’s given the shortest shrift here, relegated to directing the film’s connective tissue. The film features a group of miscreants hired to break into a house to procure a videotape. Instead, they find a dead body and numerous stacks of cassettes, leaving them to sift through the tapes, each of which contains a different director’s take on found-footage horror. While this segment is absolutely necessary for “V/H/S” to work, and occasionally evokes a lo-fi “Clockwork Orange” with its enthusiastic depiction of thuggish shenanigans, it lacks Wingard’s directorial stamp.
While Wingard fails to bring anything distinctive to the film’s framework, directors like Ti West and David Bruckner are well within their wheelhouse here.
Bruckner’s feature debut was in another anthology, zombie thriller “The Signal,” and his segment here features a group of college guys who hit the town with a camera hidden in a pair of glasses and less-than-honorable intentions. Both Bruckner’s and Wingard’s VHS-shot openings are distractingly ugly and tough to watch, and if all found-footage films looked this terrible, the genre would be dead in the water. However, their commitment to their premise is admirable, and Bruckner’s short rewards those that stick with it with a bloody, satisfying climax.
West is also playing in familiar territory here, and takes a more traditional approach to found footage, simply sampling from the camcorder of a vacationing couple played by Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal. West has practically mastered the slow burn by now, and squeezes in scares that are chilling in their simplicity alongside predictably strong character work. He even manages to get a decent performance out of Swanberg, a consistently irritating screen presence, and “V/H/S” finds West effortlessly doing what he does best on a much smaller scale.
Meanwhile, Swanberg directs his own addition to the film, a ghost story told through a long-distance couple’s Skype interactions. His short has easily the film’s most nerve-wracking scares, and its most relatable character work, helped along by the adorable Helen Rogers. Using Skype proves to be an innovative choice, making for the film’s most spine-chilling moments and a refreshing change of pace for Swanberg.
Glenn McQuaid wins for the most creative application of the film’s premise. His tale of a camping trip led astray stands out for its plentiful gore and the audacity of his villain, a monster that can only be seen in the playback errors of the VHS tape. However, the best thing about “V/H/S” is its final segment. The Halloween-set segment follows a group of friends who wander into an empty house in search of a party. Everything is off, ever so subtly, until they stumble upon something horrible in the attic, and then “V/H/S” flies off the hinges, tossing off scares left and right in one of the most entertaining sustained horror sequences in recent memory. It’s a rollicking, excellent finale to the film.
Printed on Thursday, December 4th, 2012 as: Directors pool horror preferences