One primary takeaway from The Blair Witch Project, the found-footage horror film that started it all, it was the revelation that under the right circumstances, something as simple and resolutely mundane as a pile of rocks—or a bunch of twigs knotted together—could terrify an audience. And without costing a penny. The conceit has since become to the ’00s and ’10s what slasher movies were to the ’80s, amassing hit franchises (Paranormal Activity, [REC]) along with its own set of clichés, but V/H/S, an unusually strong found-footage anthology from a gifted collective of indie filmmakers, suggests it hasn’t been run into the ground just yet. Though hit-or-miss like all anthologies, V/H/S heightens the gimmick’s strength, using the shorter format to shape intimate, homemade, innovative shock effects, and limiting the time usually given over for mundane filler. It also, in its best moments, makes horror out of the 21st-century obsession with self-documentation.
A half-scary/half-nonsensical wraparound segment (“Tape 56”), directed by Adam Wingard, sends a group of thugs into dark house to retrieve a VHS tape for some unknown benefactor. Once there, they discover a corpse in an easy chair and a large pile of videotapes, including a few stacked atop a VHS player. One by one, those tapes constitute the “real horror” of this anthology: “Amateur Night,” by David Bruckner (The Signal), follows three hard-partying men who rent a hotel room and bring the wrong girl back for sex. “Second Honeymoon,” by Ti West (The House Of The Devil), finds a couple whose romantic Western getaway is spoiled by a fortune teller’s prophesy. “Tuesday The 17th,” by Glenn McQuaid (I Sell The Dead), pulls a gory technological twist on the stranding-horny-kids-in-the-wood premise. “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger,” by Joe Swanberg, deals with a series of Skype calls between a would-be doctor and a woman haunted by bumps in the night. And “10/31/98,” by the group “Radio Silence,” heads to a Halloween party at a deserted house that turns hostile.
Though there seems to have been little communication between the filmmakers—either that, or a blasé attitude about overlapping concepts—several of the entries in V/H/S have a keen interest in examining (or merely exploiting) the way the genre treats women. Bruckner’s contribution, the strongest of the bunch, turns on the obliviousness of men who are so incapable of seeing women as anything other than sex dolls that they miss the feral look of the one they take back to the hotel. Though Swanberg’s clever, resourceful Skype-horror fizzles at the end, it also concerns the subtle (and then not-so-subtle) ways a guy controls his relationship with his girlfriend. V/H/S sags in the middle—West spoils the tension of his disappointing entry with a glib twist, McQuaid never makes sense of the murderous “glitch” in his segment—but it recovers nicely with “10/31/98,” a great case study in how to make a lot out of a small effects budget. All told, V/H/S brings some cohesion to the Wild West of indie horror filmmaking, and seems destined to become a key artifact of a DIY era.