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Movie Curiosities: V/H/S

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Well, we're now a week into October. Who's ready for some horror? V/H/S is one of the better-kept secrets in the arthouse film underground right now, with a ton of coverage in movie geek fansites all across the 'Net. Indeed, the film was produced by Brad "Mr. Disgusting" Miska and Tom Owen, the founders of a prominent horror movie news site called "Bloody Disgusting." Yet in spite of its prominence in the festival circuit and the blogosphere, the film has gotten practically zero mainstream attention as far as I can tell. I expect that this is partly because Hollywood execs have a famously short attention span, such that none of them probably remember what a VHS tape is, much less how to sell a movie centered around them.

For those of you born after the 20th century, movies weren't always sold to home theater viewers by way of DVD. Instead, movies had to be recorded onto a kind of magnetic tape which was stored in plastic cassettes. These were called VHS tapes. And if you've never had to wait for a movie to completely rewind before ejecting it, trust me when I say how spoiled you are.

Anyway, here's a horror movie anthology made in tribute to this forgotten old relic of my childhood. Throw in a very intriguing central premise with a ton of hype behind it, and I was all too happy to give it a watch.

Unfortunately, I don't remember a whole lot of the last hour. My memories of the film itself are mostly blurred by overwhelming pain and unyielding misery.

Ladies and gentlemen, this was very nearly the film that broke me. This was nearly the very first time I ever walked out on a film partway through. I almost wish I had, for I haven't felt so nauseous, so dizzy, so disoriented, or so racked with overwhelming pain since my first hangover.

In spite of all that, I soldiered on and stayed through to the end. Why? Well, it's mostly because I really wanted to like the film. No, I'm serious. There was so much about this movie to like that I wanted to enjoy as much of it as I could without looking at the screen. I know that sounds stupid, but hear me out.

The film centers around a group of idiots who get hired to break into a house and steal a particular VHS tape. So they arrive at the house only to find that the house is filled with VHS tapes and our protagonists don't know exactly which one they're looking for. So they look through some of the tapes, only to find that each of them depicts something terrible.

Oh, and there's a dead man that they find in front of several TVs. Did I mention the dead man?

Naturally, the movie's "anthology" aspect is comprised of the VHS tapes. Through them, our crew bears witness to:

  1. Some drunk college-age guys who rig a pair of glasses with a hidden camera so they can film themselves having sex with unknowing young women
  2. A young married couple who film themselves on a road trip to somewhere in the southwestern U.S.
  3. A standard "slasher in the woods kills off dumb teens" story
  4. A young woman who may or may not be living in a haunted apartment
  5. Some guys on their way to a Halloween party, only to stumble across a genuine haunted house

First of all, it's worth pointing out that this film is positively lousy with characters who are unlikeable, annoying, or just plain stupid. There's at least one in every story. Even in the main story, our crew is made of some guys who normally work by sexually assaulting women (without prior knowledge or consent, I might add) on camera for the benefit of some reality porn site. Then again, the creative plot twists and clever scares don't really depend on how likeable the characters are. In fact, watching these awful human beings get killed in gruesome ways is part of the fun.

I quite honestly thought that the anthology stories were all effective in their own ways. Strangely enough, the weakest one of the bunch was actually the primary overarching story. While the smaller stories took standard premises and took them into strange and unexpected directions, the main story took an original and intriguing premise only to do precisely nothing with it. That said, the attempted VHS robbery is being taped over one member's ill-fated attempt at making a sex tape, and our brief glimpses of that little incident provide some much-needed comic relief.

The anthology stories have their own failings, of course, but they're the kinds of failings that are common to every "found footage" horror film. Inconsistent editing, the strange inclusion of scored music, the question of how this footage ever wound up on a movie screen when all of the main characters are long dead, and so on. But this movie adds a new question to the list: How did these all end up on VHS tapes? Most of them clearly take place when digital cameras were the norm, so are we really meant to believe that someone transferred all of these videos onto tape for whatever reason? In fact, story #4 is told via webcam chat. How the hell did that end up on VHS? Furthermore, how did all of these completely different tapes from completely different sources all come together under this one roof?

In spite of all these unanswered questions, this was still a very creative and suspenseful movie with outstanding special effects and a lot of wonderful twists. That's the reason why I wanted to stay. Why did I want to leave? The cinematography.

I really want to stress this next point. I know it may come off as hyperbole, but it's not a statement made lightly and I completely stand by it. I say to you now, dear reader -- no joke, no contest, and no exaggeration -- that this is the worst goddamn camerawork in the history of cinema.

I know that shoddy camerawork is a hallmark of "found footage" movies, since it adds to the illusion that someone was actually filming with a cheap handheld camcorder. Even so, this is on a whole 'nother level. I don't care if you've seen The Blair Witch Project. I don't care if you've seen Cloverfield. I've seen both of those notoriously hard-to-watch movies, and I say without any hesitation that the camerawork in V/H/S is way, way fucking worse.

Bear in mind, this isn't just the shaky cam, though oh my god. It's an understatement to say that the shaky cam in this movie is absolutely atrocious from start to finish. It eventually got to the point where I had to look away from the screen every time the cameraman was running from some unseen menace, which happens at least once -- and often more than once -- in every single storyline except for #2. It gets very sickening very quickly, and I mean that literally.

But even worse than the shaky cam is in the built-in flaws. Far too often, the film plays in such a way that it looks like there are frames missing, which gives the illusion of choppy animation. We've also got plenty of mechanical glitches and pixelation, both of which are actually woven into the narratives of stories #4 and #5. Of course, it also doesn't help that the editing frequently cut from one scene to another without any warning, much less any guarantee that the scenes will be related in some way. Yes, I know that this technically adds to the illusion that these are amateur films on tape, but there's a damn good reason why professional films aren't made like this!

To recap, the movie is filmed in such a way that it's shaky, choppy, and glitchy, with scene transitions that barely deserve to be called as such. Needless to say, those who are prone to nausea should not see this movie. Those who are prone to epileptic seizures should not see this movie. Anyone with a full stomach should not see this movie. Anyone without a ready supply of aspirin and/or dramamine should not see this movie.

In fact, just do yourself a favor and don't see this movie.

I wish so badly that I could recommend V/H/S. This story had a wonderful central premise for a horror anthology, and the vignettes are all nicely creative in their own ways. The film even makes great use of its shoestring budget, treating us to special effects that are outstanding across the board. Of course, it also helps that the movie is remarkably scary in places and its use of suspense is remarkable. Unfortunately -- and I seriously cannot stress enough just how unfortunate this is -- it's all for naught. The absolutely horrible camerawork and editing render the whole thing completely unwatchable.

I'm not joking in the slightest when I say that the experience of sitting through this film was physically painful. As such, there's absolutely no way I can recommend this movie.

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