The so-called Found Footage film has now become its own genre following the smash successes enjoyed by “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) and “Paranormal Activity” (2007). “V/H/S” adds a new wrinkle to this by turning to a much older and underutilized concept, the anthology film.
The movie begins when a bunch of videotaping male jerks are hired to break into a desolate house — aren’t all houses desolate in horror films? — to steal a rare tape. Instead they confront a dead body, an old VHS player hooked up to a television and miles of cryptic footage.
As they ransack the house, the guys throw on a bunch of tapes into the player. Thus the film is given over to five short horror “videos” either by known genre filmmakers or newcomers to the form. (Well, technically there are six if you include the wraparound segment.)
Each and every short features the many glitches and crappy visuals one associates with shooting run-and-gun with old analog camcorders, which gives the shorts a deliberately dated quality.
It’s a mixed bag of tricks and, consciously or not, the films are assembled in ascending order of worthiness with the last one being a rare original.
The bracketing story, Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56” about the malevolent video freaks who burglarize the house, is the weakest. But then it is designed mostly to set up the other shorts.
By itself it’s pretty tasteless as it involves dirty tricks played on women by guys who have grown up watching too much Internet porn. Not that this will bother the young male viewers of “V/H/S.”
Things pick up with David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” (written by Bruckner and Nicholas Tecosky) where another group of young, heavily drinking males tape their exploits during a night of bar-hopping and an abrasive behavior toward women.
They get lucky when a pair of girls agree to accompany them back to their cheap motel. Only you notice — but the guys clearly do not — that one girl (Hannah Fierman, who is something of a contortionist) acts and looks like someone you’d want to steer clear of.
She sizes up the men as if they were meat and I’m not talking about lustful intentions. No, I mean meat. The carnage that follows with severed body parts and blood splattered everywhere is every motel keeper’s worst nightmare.
In the final shots the girl has a mysterious split in her forehead which makes her less of a succubus and more of an otherworldly alien. Nicely, this is never explained away.
In “Second Honeymoon,” veteran chiller maker Ti West directs mumblecore indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg playing a husband who takes his wife (Sophia Takal) on this vacation. The writer-director claims he and his three actors were the only crew as they took off into the Arizona desert for a “weekend getaway.”
There’s plenty of build-up to a somewhat puzzling though not entirely credible shock ending involving the wife and a mysterious intruder (Kate Lyn Sheil), who like characters in all the film insists on recording her misdeeds with a video camera. Oh yes, and there are more cheap motel rooms.
Writer-director Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th” takes the cliché situation of four sexually active young people driving into a backwoods where terrible murders have taken place. Motivations are never clear though especially with one girl.
What is unique here is the nature of the supernatural slasher. It comes off as an image blur, a jumpy figure that seems like something out of a J-horror movie that has blasted out of the video world itself. Otherwise, the short is too sketchy to build up much suspense or mood.
Swanberg himself then tries his hand at spookiness and succeeds rather well with “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She was Younger.” The short was written by Simon Barrett.
The unique ingredient here is Skype technology that allows a woman in an apartment seemingly haunted by the ghost of a young girl to have Internet video chats with a boyfriend in another city.
Naturally he is witness to increasingly scary events where he cannot intervene or protect his girlfriend. It’s genuinely effective right up to yet another puzzling ending.
These seem to be themes here — bad motel rooms and ill-conceived endings.
A final segment, “10/3/98/,” is the best by far. It’s made by a Los Angeles quartet of experimental filmmakers known as Radio Silence — Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella. The first three play the main characters, who on Halloween head out with costumes and video cameras to a party at a “haunted house.”
They get lost in iffy L.A. neighborhoods before finding the venue. Either they’re early or the party got cancelled as the place seemingly is deserted. Then they stumble upon a cult preparing a human sacrifice — but mistake this for a really top-notch Halloween stunt. Big mistake.
What happens next opens the film up to great visual effects far surpassing anything in the other shorts, plus a genuinely terrific ending.
You wonder if this was the only sequence that had a real budget. Everything else does look like a weekend getaway with a tiny crew and maxed-out credit cards.
Opens: October 5, 2012 (Magnet Releasing)
Production companies: Magnet Releasing the The Collective in association with Bloody Disgusting
Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
Screenwriters: Simon Barrett, David Bruckner & Nicholas Tecosky, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Chad Villella
Anthology concept by: Brd Miska
Producers: Gary Binkow, Braf Miska, Roxanne Benjamin
Executive producers: Tom Owen, Zak Zeman
Directors of photography: Adam Wingard, Andrew Droz Palermo, Michael J. Wilson, Victoria K. Warren, Ti West, Eric Branco, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez
Editors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
R rating, 115 minutes