As the last couple weeks of 2012 wind down and I look back on The Cabin in the Woods, Detention,
and ParaNorman, then...yeah, it's been a hell of a year for the genre. I just don't think of them as horror. Informed by horror, drawing deeply from horror, sure, but horror themselves...? Not really. Come to think of it, it took me till now to find an out-and-out horror flick I could point to as my favorite from the class of 2012. If you'd told me this time last year that I'd be championing a found footage horror anthology, I'd probably slug you in the solar plexus, and yet, here we are. V/H/S is by far the most grueling, most disturbing, and most intense horror film that I've come across this year, there hasn't been a genre anthology anywhere near this league for several years now, and I'm struggling to think of a more effective or more inspired use of the found footage concept to date.
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In fact, I kind of want to end the review there. Before I shoved V/H/S into my Blu-ray deck -- and, yeah, it's kind of funny typing that out -- I knew precisely two things about it. I'd heard about the insanely positive buzz from Sundance, where one person passed out in the middle of its midnight premiere. I'd seen the list of directors who contributed to the anthology, among them Adam Wingard (Home Sick; A Horrible Way to Die), David Bruckner (The Signal), Ti West (The House of the Devil), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), hyperprolific Joe Swanberg making his genre debut, and the Radio Silence collective. ...and, well, I guess I figured a VHS tape played into that somehow. Honestly, I think going in somewhat blind like that had a lot of do with how much I dug V/H/S. It's not so much that this collection of shorts rely on twists, exactly. It's just that with, say, a vampire movie, a slasher flick, or a zombie epic, you know a lot of the beats before you've even see a frame of it. Part of the fun with V/H/S is that I had no idea what to expect. I didn't have some sort of clean, clearly defined classification for each of the six segments that make up the film. V/H/S gains a lot from storming in blind and watching a premise gradually take shape. Even just a high level overview of each segment stomps all over that. The less you know going in, the better.
It's not giving anything away to say how eclectic these six segments -- or five segments with a wraparound, if you wanna count 'em that way -- are. They span all sorts of subgenres, from haunted houses to '80s slashers to straight-up creature features. They each
have their own unique approach to the found footage concept, winning me over a hell of a lot more than feature-length dreck like Paranormal Activity ever have. Some segments are more tragic character pieces, while others are littered with red shirts lining up for the slaughter. Several have a darkly depraved sense of humor, and...well, they all rip out your jugular sooner or later. As different as these segments are in so many ways, they gel together as an anthology exceptionally well. There really isn't a misfire among them all either. I mean, I like some more than others, sure, but there's not a straight-up disappointment anywhere in here.
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If V/H/S makes one miscalculation, it's with the framing device. On its own, the wraparound story about a bunch of smash-happy thugs breaking into a house in search of some mythical VHS cassette is fine. Still, having two segments in a row with a bunch of loudmouthed, boorish, sexploitative, raging assholes feels like it's mashing the same familiar note over and over again, and when it climaxes in an incredibly similar yet far less impressive way as another of the shorts...well, the whole thing just seems unnecessary. I don't need an introduction to the tape; just gimme the damned thing. Some occasionally sloppy acting can also get in the way, although that's not entirely out of place with the slasher riff of "Tuesday the 17th". I can twist the things that bugged me about Ti West's "Second Honeymoon" -- the most subdued segment of the lot -- and say they're the best things about the short. So, yeah, I don't have a lot of complaints.
V/H/S definitely benefits from its half-battalion of sharp, smart writers and directors behind the camera. I find it interesting that many of these shorts deliver sex and nudity, but there's nothing even a little bit alluring about it. We're talking about condemnation rather than double-digit-IQ, voyeuristic exploitation. I can't help but laugh when I come across message board posts of people scowling at V/H/S for being misogynistic when, to my mind, it's the complete opposite. A studio horror film would make it a point to overexplain all the havoc that's being wrought. V/H/S opts instead to keep viewers at arm's length. There's a layer of mystery in not knowing what the hell's going on...of not even knowing what form the inevitable threat would take. That, coupled with the sense of reality from the found footage approach and the brutal, intense, visceral, unnerving violence that follows...it's wildly effective. One of the downsides about subjecting myself to so much horror is that I get kind of deadened to it after a while, with pretty much nothing leaving a meaningful impression, but V/H/S fucked. me. up. Far and away my favorite horror movie from 2012 and very Highly Recommended.
I mean, the movie's not called V/H/S because it's pretty. The overarching premise of the whole thing is that these burglars are tearing through a compilation of fucked-up videos that've been making the rounds between traders, and you're looking on as they watch 'em on VHS. If the end result were sparkling, glossy, high-definition eye candy, then they'd be doing it wrong.
So, yeah, the quality is all over the place, with each segment having its own very distinct look(s). Some are still reasonably sharp and nicely defined; others look like a ninth-generation bootleg. Some have impressively vivid colors; others are dull and washed-out. Tracking errors, dropouts, glitchy DV recordings, hyperpixelated Skype video chats, heavy moire distortion and aliasing, wildly uneven focus, anemic black levels, pasty fleshtones...a lot of effort went into making V/H/S look this authentically brutal. Make no mistake that this is an essential and inexorable element of the storytelling, though,
not at all to be confused with some sort of cornball gimmick. That it's so rough-hewn makes V/H/S feel that much more unnervingly real, and the sputters and stutters in the video help shape a chaotic sort of pace. There are definitely moments where there's no doubt that I'm watching honest-to-God HD video, even if it is kind of put through the wringer, so it's worth the extra couple of bucks to opt for this Blu-ray release over the DVD.
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The AVC encode for V/H/S spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the movie's presented on Blu-ray at its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Oh, and if you're wondering about the score in the sidebar, I tried to find a middle ground between the accuracy of the presentation and how rough it deliberately looks, but that number's pretty much meaningless.
If you're wondering how the whole VHS deal meshes with 5.1 audio, then...well, your first guess was right. V/H/S is basically a stereo-plus-sub soundtrack. The subwoofer gets a hell of a lot more of a workout than what I strolled in expecting to hear. On the other hand, I don't think I noticed the surrounds being active at all until "Tuesday the 17th" rolled around, and that's, what, an hour in? Again, though, keeping everything rooted up front with maybe a little bleed into the surrounds is totally appropriate. A staggering amount of effort also went into battering this 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which is riddled with background noise, the deafening roar of wind blowing into a camera's onboard mic, distorted dialogue, and a handful of lines that are pretty much impossible to make out. The sound design is artfully, meticulously, and deliberately messy, and I pretty much love every second of it. You have to grade by a different set of rules here, obviously, but as intensely stylized as it is, I think V/H/S might get the nod as my favorite sounding horror release of the year. There's so much I adore about V/H/S, and its flawlessly flawed soundtrack ranks very close to the top of that list.
No dubs or alternate mixes this time around. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH) and Spanish.
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (4 min.; HD): Yeah, we're all better off this way. There's a "...what?" alternate ending for "10/31/98", and even though I completely get that jarring tonal shift it's going for, it's just a colosally bad idea. "Tuesday the 17th" tosses on a vloggy framing device along with a couple of outtakes. That's mostly terrible too, although it is kind of intriguing to see the original look of the footage before it was digitally beaten to Hell and back.
- Interviews (42 min.; HD): V/H/S' interviews lead off with a pair of Skype video chats, appropriately enough, with Joe Swanberg. The director of "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" speaks with his leading lady, Helen Rogers, as well as writer Simon Barrett. These are terrific, insightful conversations that are
teeming with personality, so I guess you can add "skilled interviewer" to the list of eight thousand other things Swanberg does so well.
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There are also six traditional interviews, clocking in right at a half hour in all: executive producers Brad Miska and Zak Zeman, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, writer/director Ti West, multihyphenate filmmakers Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, man of many talents Glenn McQuaid and writer/director David Bruckner, and finally actor/director Joe Swanberg and a return visit by Simon Barrett. The evolution and execution of the project in Miska and Zeman's interview is the standout for me, but all of these conversations are well-worth setting aside the time to give a listen. For instance, you get to hear about the mindset behind making an '80s-style slasher where you don't get some sort of iconic killer and "10/31/98" getting transferred from high-def to Hi-8 to get the look just right.
- "Amateur Night" - Balloon Night (4 min.; HD): The only real making-of featurette on V/H/S is this look at how "Amateur Night"'s final shots were assembled. There are experiments with a camera phone, styrofoam, and...yeah, balloons, just like the title says, and you can also look forward to some pretty slick before-and-after VFX comparisons.
- AXSTV: A Look at V/H/S (5 min.; HD): This promotional featurette teases at the general concept and has the small army of directors each introducing their segments. Pretty solid as this sort of thing goes, but it's meant more for folks who haven't just finished watching the movie.
- Image Galleries: V/H/S' behind-the-scenes photo gallery features just shy of a hundred different shots. A separate gallery documents the design of the creature from "Amateur Night", driven primarily by sketches and conceptual art.
- Audio Commentary: Just the list of the members of the cast and crew featured in this commentary is review-length: Brad Miska, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Helen Rogers, Joe Swanberg, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella, David Bruckner, Gary Binkow, and Roxanne Benjamin. With that many people on the bill, I figured this commentary would be two hours of chaos, but as it turns out...? It's pretty much perfect. The conversation overall is a hell of a lot of fun, there really aren't a lot of problems with folks stepping all over each other when they speak, and the presence of an even dozen different filmmakers ensures that there's never any dead air. There are kind of too many highlights to list here, but to rattle off a few anyway, we learn what Lily in "Amateur Night" and a foreign exchange student have in common, the fortune that's read in "Second Honeymoon" is the actual one the machine spat out, the visual update that "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" has gotten now that it's on home video, and many notes about the way-more-extensive-than-I-thought visual effects wizardry throughout "10/31/98". Definitely the best of the disc's extras.
The Final Word
I had high expectations and all that, but still, I had no idea walking in that V/H/S would far and away be my favorite horror film from the class of 2012. This is easily the most masterful use of found footage in the genre to date. If there's another horror flick from this year that's anywhere near this grueling and intense, I apparently missed it. Impressively clever and endlessly inspired, V/H/S also ranks among the most consistent horror anthologies I've ever stumbled across too. Essential viewing for genre fanatics tired of the same stale routine. Highly Recommended.
Totally Random, But...
Seriously, though, hearing MU330 blasting on a car stereo completely made my week. The great thing about a period piece set in 1998 is that you can get away with third-wave ska on the soundtrack.