Saturday, September 1, 2012

Found footage goes looking for itself: V/H/S

With the posters Magnolia has been releasing for horror anthology V/H/S, you wouldn't be alone in thinking that the film is meant to be a nostalgia-fueled romp put together to capitalize on horror fans who pine for the glory days.

Turns out that it's not a throwback and that's a huge plus for me. If V/H/S is going to be accused of anything, it will be that it's too modern.

We've had enough trips down memory lane. It seems that every slasher that's come out in the last decade has been so busy billing itself as "back to basics" that it's forgotten to be good. Meanwhile there are enough entries in the faux-grindhouse sub-sub-genre alone to bore even the most forgiving and nostalgic horror fan.

What V/H/S brings to the table is forward-thinking, and even though I'm about to discuss some of the aspects I didn't love about the film, I want you to keep in mind that I would rather watch V/H/S than almost any recent "homage" to the genre's proud past.

We can call it the curse of the anthology film, but invariably there are going to be better and worse segments. One might even extend this axiom to say that are almost always segments that we wish didn't make the final cut, parts that hold back the movie as a whole.

The good news is that there's no one segment of V/H/S that I would jettison on a rewatch. They all bring enough ideas to the table to earn their spot in the roster.

The bad news is that there's no clear winner, no instant classic mini-movie couched inside V/H/S's serviceable wraparound story. What the film does offer is a collection of well-executed jumpscares underlined by enough intelligence to soften the blow provided by the film's greatest flaw: the overabundance of downtime.

Since the birth of today's found footage genre, these films have employed downtime. The Blair Witch Project set the standard, using this downtime to sell the "reality" of the situation. By holding too long on a mundane conversation or including extraneous hiking footage, the flimmakers give the impression that we're watching b-roll. This was footage that the characters were collecting, but not intending to use.

Flash forward to today, where the novelty is gone but the genre is more popular than ever. The best of this most recent crop of films have been successful at balancing this downtime with scares. Downtime is misused when it's not hypnotizing the audience into the reality of the situation, only boring them.

Most of the segments in V/H/S fail to keep this balance. At two hours, the film is too long. The way I put it last night on twitter was this: "I understand the need for quiet moments, especially in found footage, but when you have a Ti West portion: you all don't have to be Ti West."

West's the oft-cited master of modern "slow-burn" horror. I''m an enormous admirer of some of his work (House of the Devil) and can appreciate the ones that didn't work for me. His films contain long stretches of mood-setting and often end in explosions of horror. Four of these five short films miniaturize that  formula and the results vary.

The best of the bunch embrace their genre and its conceits. David Bruckner's piece wrings scares out of a nightmarish situation made even more personal through an extremely limited POV (a mini-camera in a pair of eyeglasses), while Joe Swanberg uses a Skype conversation to waste no time getting to creepy spookhouse jolts.

The worst try to overextend themselves and leave too much unexplained in their pursuit to leave viewers stranded at that perfect level of ambiguity. Although I thought Glenn McQuaid's segment had the most fully-formed and intriguing plot (I won't spoil it, but it's unique take on the slasher/final girl relationship), I found it to be the most lacking in execution. Ironically West's own segment has a quietly terrifying scene in the middle, but ends with a thud that's meant to feel like an EC-comics twist, but did nothing for me.

Despite its issues, V/H/S still got to me. There are some really great moments here, and those are the images that stuck with me when I'd turned off the lights and tried to get to sleep. It is very rare to find a film that leaves me with this feeling, so no matter its shortcomings, I appreciate V/H/S and look forward to staunchly defending it as it makes the rounds and polarizes the community (which I have no doubts that it will).

If you're in the market for some scares and are ready to bring some patience, V/H/S may work for you in the same way it worked for me. It's available for rental on-demand for $10 and will soon have a theatrical run*. But if you're disappointed to hear that this is an ultra-modern film that plays it straight and is not a video-era period piece, I can't help you. Until January.

*This is one film I'm glad I watched on the small screen. Although I'm usually a huge proponent of going to the movies, I almost feel like it would lose some of its charm if you weren't watching it in your own living room.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree with you, Adam. There was no true standout although I liked one or two more than the others.

    And I appreciate ambiguity when done properly! The 'tales from the skype' story just had too much of a gaping hole for me but I did dig it's originality and tawdriness.

    I'm really glad I had no preconceived ideas about this one. I wasn't looking for nostalgia (I just watch the old stuff if I want that. But I will say Ti West is one of the best examples of the revamp lately), I just wanted to finally see a horror movie I haven't seen before... while folks are buzzing about it.

    Much like you, I'd watch it again. But sheesh... that $10 hurts a little.

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