V/H/S (Magnet Releasing, R)

Oftefilm vhs_75n, the characters holding the cameras are sexist pigs who have no problem lingering on women in a sleazy, exploitative way.

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I think it’s time to draw a line in the sand and say that I am officially done with found footage movies. I’m not saying that I will never see another, but I will never give one the benefit of the doubt again. I’m all for young, independent filmmakers having a creative, marketable way to break into the industry; I just don’t like the movies. I appreciated Blair Witch and I enjoyed Cloverfield as an amusement park ride in a movie theater. Since then, I have quickly soured on the format. I keep wanting one to turn me around and change my mind about the genre, but it just hasn’t happened yet.

V/H/S may be the messiest, ugliest example of the genre since Cannibal Holocaust. It got a lot of positive word of mouth from film festivals earlier this year, and the trailer looked legitimately scary. For me, the biggest selling point was that it was an anthology film, something that always interests me, even if most anthology films fall short. Each segment was made by a different director, each of whom is an interesting up-and-comer in the horror genre. For example, there’s Adam Wingard, who made a film called You’re Next, which every horror fan worth their salt has been dying to see for over a year. (It’s not getting a release until August 2013.) I went in to V/H/S expecting and wanting to have a good time and actually be a little freaked out by the end, and I was disappointed.

The problem with anthology films is that there are always segments that are better or worse than others. I won’t go into too much detail on each segment, but here is the basic rundown: The film is held together by the story of a group of guys who obsessively film things and post the videos on the internet. They are told to go to a big, creepy house and retrieve a single VHS tape. There, they find a huge collection of tapes, and watch some of them in hopes of figuring out which one they are supposed to take. The tapes they watch make up the rest of the film.

The first one, Amateur Night, involves a group of drunk frat guys trying to pick up some women. Second Honeymoon focuses on a married couple on a road trip, encountering some legitimately unnerving stuff at a motel. The infuriatingly titled Tuesday the 17th is about a group of teenagers who go into the woods and may or may not get killed off one by one by a mysterious killer. (There was a movie in the ’80s called Saturday the 14th. Taking the joke forward a few days does not make it a different joke. A better title is The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, which is a ghost story recorded as a series of Skype videos. I don’t know how Skype videos end up on a VHS tape, but who cares.)

The final segment, 10/31/98, follows a group of friends on Halloween going to a big, spooky house for what they think is going to be a crazy party. Of course, all sorts of hell breaks loose. It borrows some imagery from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, but there is so much going on, it ends up being pretty fun. The filmmakers did the smart thing in saving the best segment for last.

Going back over these stories in my mind, what struck me was that each one has at least one really cool element, idea, or moment. It makes me sad to realize this, because the truth is that the movie as a whole still didn’t work for me. Unfortunately, I can’t really discuss the things I liked because they would constitute spoilers, even though it turns out most of them are in the trailer.

The movie is just under two hours long, which is way too long. The only director involved whose work I know is Ti West, who came to fame in horror circles a few years ago with his film House of the Devil. He has a distinct style in which the majority of the movie is agonizingly slow and uneventful, until the final moments when everything goes batshit crazy. I like that style, but here, every single segment follows that same formula, and it gets incredibly tedious.

One problem is that almost every character in the movie is deplorable to one extent or another. I didn’t dislike the guys in 10/31/98, and the couple in Second Honeymoon seemed normal, if not especially interesting. Everyone else was either dumb, poorly written or acted, or just a terrible person. The worst are the jackasses in the main story arc. We are introduced to them filming themselves as they run up to a girl in a parking lot, grab her, and force her to expose her breasts. If that sounds like behavior that completely turns you against these people, then congratulations, you are a human being. Yet we have to constantly go back to these ass-clowns throughout the movie. When they are not being repugnant, they are being boring. I hated their story.

The real problem with found footage horror movies is that they accentuate the negative clichés of the genre. They make it easy for the filmmaker to use cheap jump scares instead of creating real tension. Often, the characters holding the cameras are sexist pigs who have no problem lingering on women in a sleazy, exploitative way. And by the very nature of the format, characters have to make dumb decisions. So many of these films strain credibility to keep the characters filming, when there is no reason for them not to drop the camera and run away. They require bad expositional dialogue such as, “We’re here to get one specific VHS tape, and then we get a big payday.” That was a paraphrase, which was probably better than the actual line in the movie.

I know a lot of people will like this film, and I’m happy for them; there is certainly fun to be had. If you see the new Paranormal Activity movies every year and they scare the crap out of you, V/H/S will probably blow your mind. There are so many good bits in V/H/S, it makes the film’s overall failure even more disappointing. | Sean Lass

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