'V/H/S': Is There Life Left in Found-Footage Horror?

The answer provided by the indie shocker is a resounding "maybe."

Magnet / Magnolia

It's been well over a decade since America wandered into the woods with The Blair Witch Project. We were first treated to the now-annual tradition of a Paranormal Activity movie three years ago, with installment No. 4 lurking just around the corner. Along the way, there have been Zombie Diaries and Poughkeepsie Tapes, a Chronicle and a Cloverfield, The Devil Inside and Troll Hunters outside. All of which (along with too many others to recount) cumulatively raise the question: Is there any life left in the found-footage horror movie?

The answer offered by V/H/S is provisional at best. An anthology film made up of five independently directed shorts loosely connected by a sixth, it is consistently gruesome, intermittently clever, and occasionally just tiresome. The overarching narrative concerns a handful of miscreant young males who get their jollies by filming themselves smashing up abandoned buildings, assaulting women in parking garages, and trying (without success, thank God) to have sex. This preternaturally unlikable cohort is hired to break into a house inhabited by "some old guy" to steal a VHS cassette. (For those readers unfamiliar with the term, it's a video format that was briefly popular during the period between the Kinetoscope and the DVD.) But the old guy turns out to be dead, and the house contains not one but many videos, none pleasant, which the intruders watch, with (spoiler!) catastrophic results.

Though the opening scenes of this framing tale, directed by Adam Wingard, offer an unsettling portrait of the male gaze (it won't be the last), the main story peters out quickly once its "protagonists" begin their video marathon. And given that the ensuing shorts are connected by so slender a reel, it's perhaps no surprise that they rise and fall largely on their own merits. (At times they seem almost like the mock previews—Machete, Don't, etc.—interspersed through the Tarantino-Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse, though with the ratio between the main story and the interruptive episodes reversed.) About half the shorts have a gory ingenuity to them: a late-night hookup goes horribly awry; a young couple traveling through the Southwest have an unexpected tagalong; a video chat between a med student and his girlfriend is not at all what it appears to be.

There are the germs of interesting ideas here—on voyeurism, on sex, on power—and for aficionados of indie horror, V/H/S offers a kind of mini-film-fest, a series of pre-Halloween amuse-bouches. But taken as a whole the individual films (directed by David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence) are at once too similar and too uneven, and as such are likely to exhaust viewers with a limited appetite for watching cutlery intersect with artery. I count myself in this latter camp: I came, I saw, I hunkered.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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