Sunday, April 5, 2015

Netflix Picks: V/H/S

Posted By on Sun, Apr 5, 2015 at 7:56 AM

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V/H/S is a found-footage horror anthology film – a genre description likely to send the average viewer running for safer fare. But think about it: it's hard to find 116 minutes of horror that doesn't rest on inane backstory, rote idyllic setting and static characters. Horror without the in-fill cuts right to the bone and/or point. And while the Paranormal Activity films beat found-footage horror into a bloody pulp before V/H/S came out in 2012, it's still worth watching.

The frame narrative, Tape 56, is directed by Adam Wingard. It centers around a group of criminals (Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Kentucker Audley and Wingard) who sell their videotaped exploits on the web – vandalism, destruction of property, pulling women's shirts up and presumably other garden-variety hooliganism. But an anonymous party has offered them big money to steal a particular VHS tape from a house. When they break in, the rooms and cabinets are empty, but for a mess of things in the basement. They discover the owner (Frank Stack) dead in a chair in front of a tower of TVs, tapes piled on the floor. One by one, they watch the tapes, then vanish. Something else is in the house, and the dead guy isn't staying where they left him.

David Bruckner's Amateur Night is the first tape. Shane (Mike Donlan), Patrick (Joe Sykes) and Clint (Drew Sawyer) just scored a pair of spy-camera glasses, and they're going to make a covert porno. They prowl from bar to bar looking for hook-ups to bring back to their hotel room, eventually meeting Lisa (Jas Sams) and Lily (Hannah Fierman). The five of them wind up back at the guys' hotel room, but Lisa’s passed out. When Patrick makes unwelcome advances on Lily, she turns violent and eviscerates Clint and Patrick and chases Shane into the night, turning into a bat-creature and carrying him away. There's not much horror for the buildup, but it's a gory-good time. Bonus points to Fierman for a solid monster performance.

The next tape is Second Honeymoon by Ti West. Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) are driving to the Grand Canyon. After an ominous fortune from a “wild west” vending machine, they meet a creepy girl (Kate Lyn Sheil) in their motel parking lot who asks for a ride the next morning, ultimately wandering off. That night, she breaks into the motel room and films the sleeping couple, caressing Stephanie with a switchblade and stealing Sam's money. Sam realizes his money's gone while he and Stephanie are out the next day, but otherwise they are unaware of the girl. She strikes the next night. Her motivations shouldn't be spoiled – this is a personal favorite clip, and the twist is chilling. (But not as chilling as the idea of finding video of you sleeping on your camera in the morning.)

Then comes Tuesday the 17th (Glenn McQuaid), standard slasher fare. Wendy (Norma C. Quinones) wants revenge on a supernatural killer called the Glitch (Bryce Burke), so named because he appears pixelated and glitched on camera. Some years ago, he killed a group of her friends at a lake – Wendy was the only survivor. She brings jock Joey (Drew Moerlein), nerd Spider (Jason Yachanin) and cheerleader Samantha (Jeannine Yoder) to the lake as bait. This, of course, turns out to be a terrible idea. Wendy's traps can't stop the Glitch; whenever she looks away, he disappears. It's a neat idea, but it feels too similar to the internet-generated Slender Man, which rose to prominence before V/H/S came out. It's also forgettable, especially between two well-written clips.

The second of of said clips is Joe Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger, which feels different from the rest of the films. It's a series of video chats between Emily (Helen Rogers) and her medical student boyfriend, James (Daniel Kaufman). Emily has ghosts in her apartment and a lump on her arm she can't stop picking at. She calls James late at night, asking him to help her communicate with the little boy she keeps seeing. Emily and James reveal this has happened before, when Emily was a kid – both the strange injury and apparitions. The big reveal arrives like a shot glass full of liquid nitrogen – Swanberg's story is horrifying and one of the best here.

And where would we be without a Halloween story? 10/31/98 was directed and acted by Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella and non-actor Justin Martinez). Matt, Tyler, Chad and Paul’s (Paul Natonek) quest for a killer halloween party is filmed from the nanny cam in Tyler's teddy bear costume. They take a wrong turn and arrive at a huge, haunted house, where they hunt for the party. In the attic, they interrupt a cult ritual in progress, complete with a girl (Nicole Erb) tied to the rafters. But it's the wrong night for four bros to play hero; the ritual was an exorcism, and whatever possessed that girl is powerful and murderous. The acting is passable and plausible – it's not hard to portray a crew of party-ready bros – and the visual effects are ambitious. Sure, the CG looks cheap, but the grainy camera and fast pace are forgiving. More than the other shorts, 10/31/98 feels like normal people stumbling into trouble they don't deserve and can't deal with.

V/H/S lives by its style, and that will turn some viewers off. It feels illicit and homemade, like you're watching an unmarked copy of the unreleased Nine Inch Nails Broken movie your friend found in a pawn shop. The acting lacks professional polish; it floats in some places (10/31/98) and sinks in others (Tuesday the 17th). And it's clear the film had a small budget. Some segments have more camera-shake than others – the great curse of found-footage film. The opening scenes are shaky, though the camera steadies inside the house. Tuesday the 17th is bad, especially when the action gears up. But Amateur Night is the worst offender. Sure, it's a cool idea to shoot a film on a spy cam in a pair of glasses, but the resulting footage shakes like mad – there's no excuse when 10/31/98 is as stable as it is. But that said, it captures the home-movie spirit just right. It's not another Blair Witch Project, but it's sure as hell better than Cloverfield.

V/H/S as a whole is better than the sum of its parts. Second Honeymoon stands out for tone and terror both. 10/31/98 is a great haunted house segment, and if it's not the scariest clip, it's certainly the most fun. The Sick Thing gives a good sense of helplessness – not a home run, but a clean double, aided by a nearly-still camera. Amateur Night and Tuesday the 17th are passable but unremarkable. The standouts outnumber the weaker films, though. And the grimy framing plot has just the right atmosphere to prime viewers and keep the tension from sloping off. Overall, V/H/S trims the fat from the horror movie experience to good effect.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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