Wednesday, January 16, 2013

V/H/S (2012)

Happy New Year everyone! Welcome to the first post for the year 2013. Apologies for taking a week and a half or so but know that I’ve been spending a lot of time searching and collecting so that I can have lots more to bring you this year. I’ve gotten some nice emails from readers and I thank you all for continuing to read this little ditty. I’m excited for this upcoming year as I have so many films to share with you guys so let’s get started. Now before I begin this review let me assure you that I haven’t abandoned the “80’s” aspect of this blog as I’m sure those of you who read this regularly have noticed that this and the previous posting all have to do with films made since the year 2000. Though I don’t normally spend a lot of time watching more modern films but every once in a while one manages to peak my interest and I seek it out, hoping that I won’t be disappointed. Sometime last year Magnet Releasing starting promoting an independent film called “V/H/S” boasting with confidence to spare that it would be one heck of a film. There were little hints about it on Facebook and I was one of the fish that took the bait and ‘liked’ the film’s page. Soon there were little bits released here and there regarding the directors of the film who included Ti West, one of my current favorites – and little by little I was becoming more and more intrigued. I’m going to admit though that the only reason that I had any interest it at all in this was because it was inadvertently paying homage to every classic horror fan’s long-gone, favorite and beloved format, the Video Home System. And that’s the reason why I’m including it here, as we all know – and recall – how much the VHS format meant (and still does) to an entire generation of devoted horror fans in the 80’s. I started reading about it and did some research and was a little weary to read that the film was a collection of found-footage shorts each helmed by different and current horror director. Now I’m going to stop right here and say that I’m not a fan of found-footage films at all, period. Since The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project did it in the late 90’s – both having paid homage to the 70’s verite shock-fest Cannibal Holocaust, though neither of the film’s directors will openly admit it – there was a resurgence of the style within the last ten years with films like the Paranormal Activity and [REC] series and so on and the more that these films were made, the less impactful and memorable they became until ultimately, the entire sub-genre was run into the ground with such a force that the fire and debris can still be seen from space. I know that’s a little melodramatic but that’s the best way for me to describe it. Just the mention of a found-footage film is an instant turn-off to me, just as the torture-porn sub-genre did years ago. Thank heavens that style has been finally officially laid to rest.

But there was something about this film that wouldn’t let go of my interest. There were little contests and promotions on the film’s Facebook page, everything from ‘create your own V/H/S VHS box’ to comic-style posters with illustrations based on the stories within the film and not for anything, but those little gimmicks were strong enough to keep my attention and for that, I give them props. Then came the news that they would be releasing the film on-demand on local cable/satellite providers. I’d just seen Piranha DD in that same fashion so I was really looking forward to seeing this. But I was disappointed to find out after a couple of months of waiting, that DirecTV was not going to be broadcasting it at all. So I had no choice but to wait for its DVD release, which meant even more waiting. So this past week, I was finally able to watch it via streaming on Netfilx. The film is comprised of five found-footage shorts all tying in with another storyline being recorded in what only I can assume is real-time about a group of bad-guy thugs who get paid to run amok and cause chaos – only to later post it online - to be assigned by an anonymous third party to locate and nab a special videocassette located in a specified house (This piece/narrative in the film is known as “Tape 56”). They bust their way inside to find a dead man sitting in a chair, with several television sets in front of him playing white noise with stacks of unmarked VHS tapes all around. As the others in the group begin to scour the house, they begin to believe that someone or something is with them (is it the old man in the living room?). As this is going on, one of the bad boys stays behind to watch one of the tapes that has already been inserted into one of the players. The others soon come back to the main room and find that their friend and cohort has disappeared (again, could it be the old man?). This narrative here is intertwined with all five stories until it climaxes at the end with the now-zombiefied old man (see? It was him!) having decapitated one of the others and the leader finding his remains only to be attacked and killed by the old man himself, prompting the start of the final tape.

I’m not really fond of horror anthologies, though honestly a few of them coming from the 80’s are actually in my collection – The wonderful Deadtime Stories, After Midnight, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Tales From the Darkside: The Movie in particular. So, that was going to be the implied ‘second strike’ for the film. But, I have to admit that it became something that I wasn’t expecting. At first, I was going to dissect each and every chapter in the film but it might result in something too long to sit through as far as reading goes, but if you all would settle for a quick run-though then I should be able to give it a good run-down.

Amateur Night – Premise: Three friends construct a pair of seemingly normal eyeglasses that are, in fact, home to a small mini-cam in which they rent a hotel room, take on the town with the goal of bringing back women to the room for sex, all to which they plan to document for their own ‘score book’ with the goal of turning it into an amateur porn film. The guys take 2 girls back to their room, one of them named Lily who screams ‘Creepy’ with a capital ‘C’. One of the girls passes out on the bed as she’s filmed and as Lily coaxes two of the heavily inebriated boys into a three-way, she begins to show her true colors. And they are horrifying. Not for anything, but if you really sit and analyze the storyline this second chapter brings us, it is completely and utterly preposterous and comes way out of left field, bordering on silly. So then why were the final five and ½ minutes forever burned into my mind? Because the execution was splendidly done and it was able to suspend you into disbelief due to the story being well set up. Everyone’s had that night out at one point. Everyone’s had that moment when you’re about to score in the most fantastic of ways then ends up not going the way you thought it would. But not everyone has had the fate that these three poor bastards were dealt. It subliminally incorporates that old 80’s slasher-film hypothesis that the promiscuous will get what’s coming to them and that they will get it good. And here, they do. Toss in some great gore effects, the perfect casting of Hannah Fierman as Lily, and some nice (but sadly, brief) gratuitous frontal male nudity (Rrrawr!) and you’ve got the makings of a well-executed not-to-be-soon-forgotten horror gem.  Seriously, it was in my mind for days after.

Second Honeymoon Premise: A married couple, Sam (played by the unbelievably gorgeous Joe Swanberg. I am forever now a devoted fan. Seriously, I want to hang out with this guy) and Stephanie take a trek out West to bask in a second honeymoon. Stephanie takes a camcorder to record their goings on along the way and as they travel from town to town they rent a hotel room and hit the local tourist attractions, including a little spot with a heavy Country-Western theme. It is here where they put some money into a fortune-telling machine inhabited by a mannequin of an old man dressed in Western wear (think Tom Hanks and the movie Big) to which her fortune is revealed to be that she will be soon reunited with a ‘loved one’. Could it be the hooded visitor that came to their hotel room asking Sam for a ride? Could it be that same hooded visitor that breaks into their hotel room as they sleep later on that night just to video themselves caressing Stephanie’s body with a switchblade and steal a hundred bucks out of Sam’s wallet? So when he confronts her the next day about the missing money, the tension between them overtakes the situation and sends their vacation downhill. And when the hooded stranger comes back into the room the next night and (shockingly) offs poor unsuspecting (e.g., sleeping) Sam in a very brutal matter, you suddenly ask yourself who the hell is this person and how is it that they’ve gotten into the room? Before you can finish asking the question, here comes the reveal: The hooded person is actually Stephanie’s lesbian lover who’s followed them with the mission of offing Sam so they can be together. The ‘twist’ ending here didn’t provoke the emotions it should have, though. For starters let me say that I just love Ti West who directed this short. His films The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are a great example of how movies in the new millennium can echo everything we loved about horror films from the 70’s and 80’s and I feel he’s going to become one of the most respected and beloved horror directors of this generation. But I have to say that by the way this story was presented, I would have never known this was the segment he’d directed. When the short ends with Stephanie and her girlfriend fleeing the scene with Stephanie frantically asking 'Did you erase it?', I will be honest and say that I was left with an uncomfortable feeling as it came to a close due to the issue of how the bi-sexuality of the characters was addressed.  Let’s just say if you know of/understood the controversy behind 1992’s Basic Instinct, you’ll know what I’m referring to. 

Tuesday the 17th – Premise: A couple of friends, the absolutely cute Joey (pictured top and right), Wendy, Samantha and “Spider” go down to an old campsite where some murders took place, all guided by Wendy, who says she was there to witness the massacre as it happened. When she tells the group the story of how this killer offed her friends at the same place they’re hiking through, the others immediately dismiss her theories as madness,. The only problem is that the killer can only be seen in Wendy's camera as a figure obscured by tracking errors and we can’t see who he really is. When the entity end up killing Spider and Samantha, Wendy frantically takes Joey back to the lake to reveal to him that she’s lured them there to supposedly once and for all get revenge, with the intention of disposing of the killer herself. Sadly, this is the best part of this segment because as Wendy tries to seduce the slightly dim-witted Joey, he begins to rub his (hot) half-naked body in awkward shyness, tugging at his shorts and grabbing at his crotch. All I can say is that by this time, I’d lost interest in the story and spent the next fifteen minutes or so rewinding this part a few times. When I’d finally had enough, I pushed through the rest of the story and watched as Wendy sets up booby traps around the forest in an attempt to ‘kill’ the unseen force – but not after it slashes Joey’s throat – only to be ultimately killed herself by the same evil force she’s hunting. I didn’t care for this story very much, if I cared for it any at all. The previous two installments had some kind of originality and genuine scares to them, yet this one felt way too amateur to be included in a feature film as this. It felt like it had been put together by a high school AV club at the last minute and rushed to meet some sort of deadline. I didn’t feel anything for any of the characters – well, except Joey during that one sequence where he gropes himself – and I was actually very happy that they all met their demise. I was even happier when the segment came to a close. I was so unexpectedly put off by this one that I almost turned the film off altogether, but something told me keep going. I’d stay clear of this one, though.

The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger – Premise: We are watching a Skype conversation between a woman named Emily and her boyfriend James, who is a doctor-to-be. They are talking back and forth about an accident that happened to her when she was a little girl, and that weird things are happening to her in her apartment. She mentions to him that she has some kind of growth in her arm and concerned about it, she takes to it with a scalpel, trying to remove it herself with grisly results. James reprimands her as she now believes her apartment is haunted. The next few minutes are some of the most confusing and bizarre sequences I’ve probably ever sat in front of. Something about aliens impregnating women and James being a cohort and Emily being a host for alien impregnation. I don’t know, It was so completely painful that I almost shut the movie off, but something again told me to hold on. Granted, the actor playing James was really good looking and we got to see him with his shirt off for a while, but that wasn’t enough for me to keep any sort of interest, which was slowly now beginning to frustrate me as this and the previous story had faltered to keep up the originality and dynamic of the stories that preceded it. It was confusing enough to the point where once the film had ended, I had to go to the Wikipedia link online for the film to read and understand just what it was that I’d sat through. This installment ends with James diagnosing Emily with schizophrenia and hooking up with a different girl via the same type of video-chat whom the aliens have chosen as a new host and who are now doing experiments on. The worst part of this was to read that this had been directed by Joe Swanberg, the same guy who played Sam in the “Second Honeymoon” short. Yikes.

10/31/98 – Premise: Four friends (one dressed as a nanny cam) are invited to a Halloween party and end up at what appears to be the wrong address. They go inside the house and weird paranormal things start happening to the point to where they conclude - and are convinced - that they’ve been duped into attending a haunted attraction for Halloween. The house is well kept and well set up, the décor is outright eerie, and the fact that they can’t find anyone in the house begins to freak them out. Well, that is until they get upstairs to the attic and walk in on a group of men shouting Bible verses at a woman bound by ropes. The guys think it is part of the attraction and join in on the chanting until one of the men – who happens to be their friend - begins to scream at them to get out. What they’ve actually walked in on is an exorcism that's well underway and let’s just say that the devil isn’t happy tonight. It is here that the story gets going and going it does. It immediately turns into a roller coaster ride of chills and spills and I’ve got to say, this was the most fun I’ve had watching any sort of found footage ever. It didn’t really scare me, but it sure as hell kept my interest up until the very end. I’ve never heard of the directing quartet known as Radio Silence, but let me say that they left their mark on me with this little piece of tape. The fellas think the poor girl is the victim and they try and rescue her, managing to get her out of the house as the house itself is now possessed, only to find later that she truly is a minion of the prince of darkness and she’s turned against them, despite their attempts to save her life. So what does she do? She teleports out of the car they’re in that's on the way to the hospital, causing it to stall onto some train tracks just as a train is careening toward them. And just as this chapter is about to close in the most violent manner, with the guys screaming at the top of their lungs, the tape comes to a stop, leaving us hanging. This was probably my favorite of the group of tales as it was so well done, set up and executed and the effects were fantastic (e.g. the arms protruding from the walls. Excellent!)

One of the things I feel needs to be said about the film, and it’s actually something that should be duly noted, is that a film of this nature should have failed miserably regarding content and execution. But, it doesn’t. It absolutely works. I was actually very impressed when the credits rolled and was very satisfied with the overall presentation of the material. Of course, I’m going to stick to my guns when I say that with the omission of “Tuesday the 17th” and the alien story, the film would be close to perfect. Granted that the running time on the film is nearly two hours, cutting those two stories would bring the overall film to more of a standard and more viewer-friendly running time. There are a lot of unknowns in the cast and that’s another factor that makes the overall anthology work as a whole. Even though two of the stories weren’t to my liking, I do have to say that all of the directors did a good job. The only note that I have regarding the technical aspects of the film were the slight over-usage of the “video effects” that both connected the stores and that were present during most of the shorts did get a little cumbersome as they were presented here as part 'main part of the cast' instead of just using them sparingly. The homage to the Video Home System itself was noted throughout the film, especially during the narrative segments and it was great to see VCR’s lined up everywhere. I think it’s a travesty that VHS was phased out during the start of the new century. It’s great to see that there are other people in the world besides myself – especially people in the film industry – that still appreciate the format and are determined to keep its memory and legacy alive. I was reading an article online as I’m writing this that there is going to be a sequel, V/H/S 2 or better yet, S-VHS. On the sole merit of this film being what it was, I’m going to give the next collection in the series a chance. If I would have seen this just a few months sooner, V/H/S would have been included in my entry for the best of the 21st century so far. This is one not to be missed. Good job, Magnet!