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
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,
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.
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.