Some anthology films have the innate capacity to withstand the occasional subpar self-contained segment without souring the film’s overall experience. A movie like V/H/S, a gathering of found-footage horror shorts from buzz-worthy names in independent film, feels more like a cinematic experiment or a test in storytelling than a true feature film, so viewing it becomes more about seeing how each director (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and the online film collective Radio Silence) responds to the challenge rather than how the segments come together as a whole. Some of the film’s pieces don’t shine as brightly as others, yet it doesn’t change the fact that watching V/H/S is a gruesome and twisted blast.
Aside from their surface-level similarities (namely, being horror stories told through POV found footage), the segments are loosely tied together by a thin plot involving a gang of low-life criminals hired to steal a mysterious videotape from a spooky, rundown house. All they’re told is that they’ll recognize the desired footage when they see it, so the group begins watching a pile of VHS tapes one by one, witnessing an array of horrific and unnatural events as caught on video.
The uniqueness of each segment’s topic, while feeling slightly like filmmakers making sure not to step on each other’s toes, adds to the suspense and fun of V/H/S, making the start of each tape a sort of guessing game. (What will this story feature? Ghosts? Demonic possession? Werewolves?) All of the directors take a serious crack at bringing something fresh to a worn-out horror subgenre, even if a few of these attempts fall short of the rest. Adam Wingard’s wrap-around segment offers little substance and few thrills, but that can mostly be blamed on its duty to set up the film’s plot as well as its unavoidably fragmented storytelling (it essentially serves as an ongoing intermission between each of the other segments), though the director does play a few tricks with this format to see if you’re paying attention. Surprisingly, and most disappointingly, the segment directed by indie horror golden boy Ti West stands as the film’s weakest. Following a young couple on a road trip to the Grand Canyon, West develops his story slowly, aiming for the same deliberate, slow-burning tension of his last film, The Innkeepers. But despite building up to a moment or two of chilling terror (the unexpected appearance of a switchblade had many gasping), the segment eventually resorts to a weak, predictable climax and caps things off with an eye-rolling twist. Fortunately, the anthology begins and ends with its two strongest and most energetic pieces, directed, respectively, by David Bruckner and Radio Silence, perfectly priming the audience for the ride ahead and sending them off into the night exhilarated.
With the stories being so short, many of the performances get lost in the general rush of horror. Most of the roles only require the actor to spend half of the segment acting like a reprehensible jackass and the other half screaming for mercy, so it’s notable when a performance manages not only to be memorable, but to even outshine (and enhance) a good segment. As the adorably naive Emily, a young woman who Skypes her med school boyfriend after hearing some slightly concerning noises around her new apartment, the doe-eyed Helen Rogers brings a sweet innocence to her role while adding a touch of humor to Joe Swanberg’s delightfully warped segment. More importantly, she enables the audience to not only be disturbed by the supernatural events surrounding her character, but to be upset that these forces would claim such a likable victim.
SXSW runs from March 9—18.