DIRECTED BY TI WEST, DAVID BRUCKNER, MATT BETTINELLI-OLPIN, TYLER GILLETT, JUSTIN MARTINEZ, GLENN McQUAID, JOE SWANBERG, CHAD VILLELLA & ADAM WINGARD
V/H/S is the best horror film to come out this year. Whatever horror film comes out from now until Halloween this film, and not THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, should be the bar set for all other horror films to try to reach and top. Not to go all Armond White on here, but what THE CABIN IN THE WOODS ultimately sells to the viewer, espousing a very empty nihilism within its world that rung hollow is the opposite viewpoint in (well, most of) V/H/S. V/H/S observes and critiques the post-internet boom of nihilism in culture, particularly in modern male culture and male behavior. Ti West in his own films has always dabbled with the expectations and roles of gender but mostly by having female protagonists in the classic final girl set-up with THE INNKEEPERS and THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. An earlier film of his called TRIGGER MAN also dabbled with masculinity and maleness that ultimately showed the problems when masculinity is in cohoots with violence. V/H/S takes it a step further with four of five segments (five of six if you include the very universe where this conceit is set up) critiquing in distinctly different and effectively scary ways nihilism, masculinity, violence, and horror cross paths in terrorizing ways. For people who avoid found-footage horror, please reconsider this film if you can at least enjoy a horror film with a brain.
The conceits and pretense built in the beginning of this film are done in a way that made THE ROOST Ti West’s best film, an homage to the midnight horror film presentations on television (with the great Tom Noonan as host). If you can buy the universe in V/H/S, you can easily be in on the film not just from what it brings in its scares, and there are a plenty, but its themes.
We start with the introduction of some of the most loathsome group of people, sort of hipster nihilists who tape themselves doing random sexual assaults against women in parking lots in the middle of nowhere. Surely they do it for the attention it brings them, there is a market for their work (sort of in the way tape recordings of bum fights actually have a market). Their introduction also recalls an infamous scene in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER where Henry and Otis rally get into watching their own degradation against another human life on their television. Their only reaction to what they watch is that the reception on the television got out of whack and proceed to kick the television, as in the television and human life are equal, inanimate objects in their point of view. Safe to say, we are not supposed to like these guys though the mustaches on them were incriminating enough.
From that dirty work, these guys get summoned to retrieve a certain VHS tape at this house they have never been to by breaking in. These guys have no idea which VHS tape is which, and there are quite a few spanning dates that stretch from when we thought this was obsolete technology to when it was a part of the zeitgeist, so they, ever the voyeurs, search by watching the tapes. We learn from each tape the conceit built behind how this person is taking footage of themselves in the first place and the distinctly different, creative ways society has amassed in using a video camera however big, clunky, and junky to microscopic and virtually invisible. But how did this stuff wind up at a V/H/S tape and why all in this house? How are these taped segments of people in crises related? Considering the behavior of the group summoned to this house, I would say their masculinity, sexism, and degradation of human life are pretty in-line with the videos they watch.
The first V/H/S segment could not be a stronger indictment on their behavior. The segment features rape culture, unwanted sexual encounters, the male gaze, the male libido, sexism, and ‘bro culture’ all come to a head against an unknown supernatural being. The second segment deals with the power roles in a relationship where the conquering of male virility gets a very interesting and dark twist.
The fourth segment is by far the segment that will be talked about with the online, long-distant relationships via Skype getting really twisted and retro-fitted into an almost ROSEMARY’S BABY kind of plot. The fifth and final segment is a goofier spin on man children compared to the first segment but shows just how much the behavior of chivalry in an equally medieval situation may not be the best road to take.
All four of these segments run well in the universe of critiquing modern male behavior. Much of it is a power imbalance of control and abuse displayed by these characters against others. Even the second segment having a plot twist that might go against this thesis does not negate the sort of the desperation of the male character in that tape, in a real masculinity crisis. He is clearly trying to serve as the stronger, authoritative person— putting on the ten-gallon cowboy hat to almost mask a problem. This house of tapes suddenly becomes a house of mirrors. This is no longer just a place but a place of judgment.
The only tape that does not flow with the rest of the film, thematically or in terms of scares, is the third V/H/S segment. It is a hot soup of all of the worst conceived elements of found-footage horror. You do not have the slightest idea what is going on because you are unsure if the pixelated quality is because of this (possibly) supernatural force or that the quality is that slipshod that this force cannot be captured properly on film. Plus the story is pretty lame in a half-assed vengeance plot completely telegraphed to the point you know exactly how this will end and really you wonder why this person ever thought this plan could work. It was like watching a very bad unrelated sequel (the most interesting parts of that segment is the description of events leading to ‘the plan’) to some other film that somehow got packed in the middle of this surprisingly thematically coherent horror anthology. Luckily the strongest V/H/S segment followed to cleanse the palate but what was the purpose of the third segment?
V/H/S is a film that provides a lot of scares, surprises, and tension for most of its segments while unpacking a (mostly) coherent theme that critiques a male-dominated culture’s obsessiveness with validation, control, nihilism, virility, sex, and violence that really flows through rather than intrude on the viewer. You can easily enjoy this film just by the scares it brings and even the third segment I unloaded on did give me jumps in the first viewing. But this is not just a film that is seeking to be found-footage film taken seriously by the contents of the film as to be mistaken as real or anything like that. This is a film seeking to be a horror film where its themes and critiques are taken as seriously as its scares.