Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Bless me, horror movie gods, for I have sinned. In the wake of October, I can actually justify making a Halloween-y post, and what movies have I been watching? The fucking V/H/S franchise. Blame Netflix. At least I didn’t spend movie ticket money on Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, the “final” (har har) entry in a tired, wretched series that’s trying to rely on the even tireder and more wretched gimmick of 3D. If you did, the more fool you.

This post will look similar to my rundowns of The ABCs of Death and its sequel, but while that other horror anthology series is like an experimental art show, V/H/S is like the strip club down the road. It’s grungier, trashier, more juvenile (about thirty seconds into V/H/S/2, the screen is filled with a pair of bare boobs)...and more true to the horror genre, if I’m honest. I started watching on a whim and didn’t hate it like I thought I might. The gimmick of V/H/S is, of course, found-footage, and I think we’re all glad that the trend for el cheapo handheld camera hijinks is waning. Still, there’s a reason why it took off like it did. Found-footage horror, with its shakiness, long takes, and non-acting, looks and sounds real enough to get under your skin. And the V/H/S series, lowbrow though it may be, does showcase some interesting twists on the idea that any random rube can film something horrifying.

Here’s the entire series thus far! Each main entry is broken up into several short films, with a wraparound tale that ostensibly connects the dots.


Tape 56
We’re off to a lousy start. The events of “Tape 56” are a bit too mysterious and feature the most unlikeable characters I can imagine. They’re a group of assholes who get off on being assholes (property damage! Sexual assault! Fun!), and who break into an old man’s house to find the guy sitting dead before a strange shrine of old TV sets and VHS tapes. As the burglars view the tapes (which are represented by the entries below), ghostly shit starts occurring. Problem is, we never get an idea of what’s going on, or why we should care. As I said, the assholes are utterly irredeemable, which might have been fine if they’d gotten cool death scenes. Most of them croak offscreen. Considering the balls-out gore of the other entries, this wraparound is just toothless. C-

Amateur Night
More assholes, yay! This time, the assholes are young brobags who want to film their own porno flick with a hidden glasses-cam and unsuspecting female partners. I think this anthology could use a bit less rampant misogyny, but it’s the bros who suffer the gruesome fallout when they recruit a spooky young woman who turns out to be...other than human. This entry features alllll the nudity, alllll the gore, and very few surprises. But it aims low and connects with a bang. Good makeup and special effects, and Hannah Fierman, who plays the predatory succubus, has an eerie, riveting screen presence. I could believe she was a monster. That’s a compliment. B

Second Honeymoon
Not really a horror story, more like a weird urban legend. A young couple are vacationing out West, trying to rekindle their dried-up passion, and someone might be stalking them. The story takes a slow-burn approach, with excess footage of the couple doing nothing in particular, in an attempt to build suspense. It doesn’t quite work. Yeah, after a long time, we get a gory payoff and then a final plot twist that works okay, I guess, but leaves plot holes. I think it’s supposed to be a modern-day Hitchcock story, complete with its very own Bates Motel. But if you’re gonna twiddle your thumbs for most of your runtime, make sure the payoff is all the way to the moon. C+

Tuesday the 17th
Okay, this feels like horror! Even if it doesn’t entirely make sense. A girl named Wendy takes three friends to her family’s remote cabin in the woods, or so she claims. I’m not spoiling much to say that Wendy has an ulterior motive. In the middle of nowhere, the four kids face an...entity...who appears on camera as a staticky glitch. This is actually very frightening, demonstrating how it can be way scarier to imply something than to show it. The film bets everything on how freaky its killer looks, and almost wins out, but suffers from not-great dialogue and odd character behavior, especially on Wendy’s part. She’s played very inconsistently, which distracted me right up until the end. But I did get scared, so thumbs up. B+

The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger
This is definitely the best entry in the first V/H/S, if only because of how it teases our expectations. The titular Emily has moved into a new apartment and is video-chatting with her long-distance boyfriend. She thinks the place is haunted, and sure enough, we soon begin glimpsing ghostly children in the background. The ghosts are somehow tied into Emily’s childhood trauma and a mysterious lump on her arm. What’s going on? Is Emily crazy? Then how can we be seeing the ghosts too? I particularly liked the non-acting in this one; both the main characters feel like real people trying logically to explain what can’t be explained. The climax plays out very well, with a big, fat plot twist that makes you kick yourself for not realizing what was really going on. Lastly, the video-chat format offers a nice break in style. Well done all around! A

1998, a time when VHS tapes actually still existed. This final entry is just plain fun. Four dudes are off to a Halloween party, only they get the address wrong and barge into a house that is very, very, very haunted. True, their behavior follows dumb movie logic (once they established the clear lack of any Halloween party, why didn’t they leave?) and they remain pretty clueless even when the supernatural shit hits the fan. But these guys, at least, aren’t assholes. They try to do the right thing, and you kinda want them to escape a horrible fate for once. On the flip side, the special effects are really good, both scary and goofy, no holds barred. We are not meant to take it seriously. We are meant to jump, shriek, then laugh. Mission accomplished. B

Overall Grade: V/H/S is too long and still finding its footing. If they’d cut “Second Honeymoon” and made “Tape 56” way shorter and less muddled, it would leave a better impression. Still worth it for the good bits. B


Tape 49
The wraparound is obviously supposed to be a sequel to “Tape 56,” as it features the exact same premise: amoral schmucks break into a house, find VHS tapes, die horribly. One problem I have with this whole premise is that these people are watching tapes that are ostensibly real and contain ghosts, demons, murder, you name it...and their response is never anything more than “Huh.” Still, I found “Tape 49” more bearable than its predecessor. The burglars are boring but not such horrid scumbags, the pace is brisker, and there are actually some scary moments. The camera keeps catching glimpses of a lurking threat the burglars don’t see, and it did give me shudders. It still doesn’t really explain what’s going on. Comes a little closer, though. B+

Phase I Clinical Trials
These directors are trying different things with the found-footage concept, and kudos to them. But this short fumbles. The main character has an “ocular implant” and we’re seeing everything through his eyes. Didn’t you know we can now turn people into cyborgs? Skynet, baby! Anyway, the dude starts seeing ghosts through his robo-eye, and the entry is content to rip off Paranormal Activity and feature the most typical and predictable of jumpscares (every time the guy turns around, there’s guaranteed to be a phantom right behind him). Being startled does not equal being scared; thus, nothing here scared me. I could have accepted either the lame premise or the uninspired ghosties, but not both. Also, this story was already done ages ago. C

A Ride in the Park
Looks like somebody wanted an excuse to shoot lots of bloody zombie mayhem! If there’s anything more tired than found-footage horror, it’s zombies. However, this entry works because of how it approaches a well-tested story. A bicyclist with a helmet-cam stumbles into an undead outbreak. But it’s not a survivor’s tale: our hero is very quickly zombified, and before long he’s filming his own grisly attempts to feast on the living. When you think about it, we don’t often get to see a zombie’s POV, so the novelty factor makes up for the lack of originality everywhere else. Also, there’s tons of cheerful, old-fashioned gore and guts on display. I think I would have preferred an explosive climax over the more “thoughtful” ending we get. But it manages to inject some juice into the genre. B+

Safe Haven
This is the centerpiece of the entire film, and everyone knows it. It’s the longest entry and by far the best. An Indonesian film crew obtains permission to enter the compound of a religious cult and film their everyday life. Wouldn’t you know it, the hapless wannabe journalists arrive right when the cult decides the End of Days is nigh and it’s time to break out the cyanide punch and prepare for the coming of the Dark One. The plot takes its time in getting to the good stuff, and when it does, hoo boy. We’re dragged into a crimson maelstrom of shocking, outrageous, unapologetic, capital-H Horror. The carnage keeps finding new ways to surprise us, and everything -- the setting, the people, the effects -- is played for maximum HOLY SHITBALLS. I loved it. It really is a horror junkie’s dream and it sets the bar super high for everything to come. My only real complaint is that, again, the ending didn’t quite satisfy. The final shot comes off as unintentionally funny. Was that deliberate? A punchline to a very black joke? I can’t tell, but if you ignore that one misstep, “Safe Haven” is one nasty, vicious, raging little ball of horror-movie greatness. A

Slumber Party Alien Abduction
They really should have ended with “Safe Haven” instead of this nonsense. Now that you’ve read the title, you don’t need to see the film. Aliens abduct kids. Really, that’s all they’ve got. The kids are so fucking annoying that we feel nothing when they meet their poorly-defined fates. And the aliens are just as bad: generic gray-skinned types who lurch about, bellow, and wave their arms in the air. Y’know, just like you’d expect from an advanced race with interstellar travel. The aliens from Signs look like Vulcans by comparison. And the “scary” scenes are composed of loud noises, bright lights, and more shaky-cam than all the other entries put together. Hard to be frightened when you literally can’t tell what the fuck is going down. There’s only one decent idea: the camera is mounted on a live dog. Spoiler alert: the dog dies at the end. Just to ensure your mood is ruined. D

Overall Grade: It’s funny how V/H/S/2 has both the best and the worst entry in the entire series. Things sort of even out overall, helped by a tighter pace and a much better wraparound segment. I’d say it’s a leeeeeetle bit better than the first one. B+

V/H/S: Viral

Vicious Circles
The latest wraparound story wisely breaks with the old format and tries something new, with generally successful results. One dark night, a sinister ice cream van leads the police on a chase through the city, while the general public circles like sharks, smartphones in hand, hoping to land the ultimate viral video and be briefly Youtube-famous. The story focuses mainly on a dude who thinks the van snatched his girlfriend, but other characters pop in here and there, making the mayhem into an effective ensemble piece that grows increasingly end-of-the-world-ish. The moral is that our voyeurism may be our undoing, and it’s delivered via decent acting and some freaky gore. Way to up the ante! A-

Dante the Great
Say hello to the gritty reboot of Now You See Me. A trailer-trash magician happens upon a black cloak that allows him to perform real magic -- but the garment demands human sacrifice in return. Interestingly, this is presented as a faux documentary, complete with stock footage and smug interviewees. Probably the best approach to what is, a heart, a profoundly ridiculous story. By the time the climax hits, with SWAT team guys getting ripped apart and two characters flinging magic tricks at each other, we realize we’ve been humbugged. The nonstop special effects are very good but almost too slick, and the filmmakers totally cheat with their handheld footage: certain shots occur when there is no one who could possibly be filming them. Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s laziness. C+

Parallel Monsters
This one’s got a sci-fi twist, and is actually my favorite of the Viral bunch for how far it takes its premise. It’s about a guy who invents a gateway to a parallel universe. He comes face to face with another version of himself, and they agree to explore each other’s lives for fifteen minutes. The fun, if you can call it that, comes from the, shall we say, provocative ways in which the B-universe differs from ours. It made me chuckle like a weirdo when...well, I won’t spoil anything. But I liked how the entry presented the B-universe’s, um, abnormalities without explaining them. No need. After all, it’s all perfectly them. And the unhappy ending proceeds with a dark and grisly logic. Good effects, lots of surprises, and a playfully over-the-top aesthetic make for quite the roller-coaster ride. A

Why must some filmmakers act like fucking thirteen-year-old boys behind the camera? I ask you. “Boneshaker” follows some douchebags who head to Tijuana to film their bitchin’ skateboarding video. Some occult crap happens and the gringos are attacked by a horde of zombie cultists or something. The film quickly devolves into an endless orgy of first-person murder, a cheerless video game in which the “heroes” behave like, well, video game characters, apparently thrilled by the prospect of beating Mexicans to death. There’s even gangsta rap on the soundtrack. It’s boring, then it’s stupidly violent, then the violence gets boring. And it’s a bit racist too. So I won’t waste any more time on it. D+

Gorgeous Vortex
Bonus round! This short film was cut from the final anthology and appears as an easter egg on the DVD. Having hunted it down, I found it visually striking, but I can see why they gave it the axe. It is insufferably avant-garde. It has no dialogue and basically no plot...just a series of artsy, sorta-connected scenes and images. There is a gorgeous supermodel drifting through urban decay. There are creepers with white stocking masks. There is oral sex. There are many, many shots of dead and/or kidnapped women. A hideous monster turns up near the end, why not? The director definitely has a major fetish for high heels. And half of it isn’t even found-footage. Many of the images are evocative, and the score is quite good...but it’s just too obtuse. It obviously wants to be “interpreted,” but I’m not sure there’s much to interpret. Just well-shot vacuity. B-

Overall Grade: I’d say V/H/S: Viral is by far the weirdest and most unpredictable of the series. And that’s good! I much prefer it over the same old ghosts and jumpscares. You can’t accuse this threequel of recyling.’s not scary. At any point. Lack of actual horror is pretty damn significant. They’ve gotta balance the fear and the creativity to really hit gold. B

Will there be any more entries in the V/H/S series? Maybe. Like The ABCs of Death, it’s a decent showcase for filmmakers, and while it’s not nearly as sophisticated, it offers up some nice nuggets of low-budget fear. Found-footage may be going the way of the VHS tape, but in this little haven, perhaps it can still thrive. We’ll see.

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