An anthology of found-footage horror shorts made by a bunch of dudes who, though they unmistakably love their genre of choice, are scarcely masters of it, V/H/S exudes, sometimes extraordinarily, a neophyte’s sense of courage and cluelessness. The arc that flimsily unites these stories is Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56,” in which a bunch of jackasses break into a spooky house to retrieve a mysterious VHS tape, and as two head for the basement, one hunkers down inside a rotting corpse’s TV room to devour a series of snuff-y home videos that would make Bob Saget apoplectic. Throughout, the dominant and predictable theme is that of boys being boys and girls going wild, though less expected is the consistently fun articulation of analog’s limitations and flaws as its own freakout.
First out of the gate is David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night,” which suggests a retelling of Prince Harry’s Las Vegas sexcapade, with a bunch of drunk and coke-addled fucktards, one wearing camera-implanted glasses, bringing back the wrong girl to their hotel room. The short seems to come down to a bunch of doofuses being punished for one of them committing a thought crime, but it gets considerable mileage out of Hannah Fierman’s bug-eyed gaze, freakish silhouette, and three words you’ll struggle to even whisper to your honey ever again.
“10/31/98” also chronicles a bunch of dorks meeting their doom at the hands of a seeming innocent. This time the setting is a possible haunted house, where a Halloween party may or may not be happening and where the ceremony the costumed leads stumble upon may or may not be a satanic ritual. Like “Amateur Night,” the short starves for context, with the obligatory punchline weakly presented as its own reward, but there’s no doubting the winning spectacle of lo-fi F/X that the directing collective of Radio Silence uses to get their characters there.
Because of its haunted-manse setting and supernatural angle, the anthology-capping short suggests Ti West’s handiwork. But the rising master of horror behind The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers is, in fact, behind “Second Honeymoon,” the story of a young couple (Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal) that, while vacationing near the Grand Canyon, receives a visitor in their hotel room come night time. Mischief leads to bloodshed and, finally, flipness, unless one generously reads the finale as a conscious rebuke of mumblecore maven Swanberg’s video-obsessed, getting-girls-naked personae.
Swanberg mans “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” which ingeniously fuses the multi-planed aesthetic of his LOL with a Lovely Molly-like plot that skirts offensiveness through its surprising reveal. When Emily (Helen Rogers) video-chats with her boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman) and reports that her apartment is haunted, a computer becomes his (and our) access point into the carnival of horrors that ensue. There will be breasts, and fuzzy plot details, but the terror of psychological conditioning is as potently felt as one of the more horrifying scares this aficionado of horror has ever been subjected to by the movies.
The sustained uneasiness of Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th,” in which a girl takes three friends into the woods that surround her hometown, alone marks it as a highlight of V/H/S, but what makes it truly special is its subjective, thematically resonant treatment of technology. The clichés of VHS playback used to superficially connect this anthology’s shorts here express the post-traumatic stress and looming horror of a final girl returning to the scene of some earlier massacre. McQuaid, like his fellow directors, may seem nostalgic for the days of analogue recording, but he also understands that the horrors of no-image blue screen, tracking, and feedback are best forgotten.