I was eager to see V/H/S. Anthologies don’t usually get much fanfare in the US, but this one popped up on my radar a few months ago, and when I saw that it was out on Netflix, I couldn’t resist. I was especially hopeful that Ti West’s short, “Second Honeymoon,” would live up to the better-than-average The Innkeepers, which I reviewed a while back. So, although I swore to myself that I’d be in bed by now, I want to get the review out there while it’s still fresh in my mind.
Anthologies are difficult in any medium, I’d imagine, because of the inherent problems of corralling a bunch of egos and their disparate approaches to their art into a coherent, unified whole. V/H/S deserves some credit for its approach to this problem: it creates a frame narrative that involves a bunch of idiot burglars, tasked with finding a particular tape in the home of an old man whom they discover, when they break in, to be already dead. They don’t know what tape they’re looking for–one of them got an anonymous request and promise of payment on delivery–so they have to watch them all. Their story, directed by Wingard, serves as the organizing framework for the other shorts, each of which is presented as found footage on one of the various tapes the burglars watch.
Except for West, I knew nothing about any of the directors prior to this film. The jury’s still out on whether or not I’ll look into the rest of their filmographies. West’s short, “Second Honeymoon,” is the second in the anthology. For the record, the other shorts were directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and a group called Radio Silence (which consists of Bettinelli-Olpin and three others). Nothing in the collection is particularly standout; West’s short, in fact, is among the more disappointing of the bunch. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the very first story, Bruckner’s “Amateur Night.” I can’t say much without ruining it, but it’s an interesting take on a familiar monster. Aside from that, Swanberg’s piece, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” is interesting in its way, and unique among the shorts for being the only one presented entirely as conversations on Skype (or the generic Hollywood non-copyright-infringing equivalent). How those conversations found their way onto an outdated analog cassette is anybody’s guess.
But, sadly, the bad far outweighs the good. [Minor spoilers ahead] First and foremost, what the hell is going on with gender in this movie? I try to avoid getting caught up in gender criticism (largely because it’s not my area and I’m simply not that informed), but even I have to ask: do these directors hate women? In nearly every case, women are antagonists here. One of them is sort of out to be a hero, but she deliberately causes the deaths of two men and another woman to get what she wants. One woman is a murderous traitor. Another is a helpless sacrifice who inexplicably becomes a ghost (?) and kills the people who tried to save her. All the men, meanwhile, are drunken college-aged idiots (with two notable exceptions). In three of the five shorts, in fact, the men are literally drunken college idiots, and their, I dunno–undergraduateness?–is precisely what gets them into trouble (a horror trope that I’m sick to death of and would be thrilled if it never happened again). Most of them are ultra-horny, drug-addled idiots, with violence simmering just beneath their fratty surfaces. In fact, the very first scenes of the film (part of the frame narrative) involve the would-be tape-stealers filming sex acts with women without the latter’s consent (in one case, the sex act is without consent; in another, the filming).
Here we have the ultimate distillation of the gender stereotypes for which horror is, sadly, so well-known: men are stupid brutes who live only for sex, punctuated with violence; women are helpless in the face of male aggression (unless they happen to be supernatural women, or just crazy, in which case they get the upper hand). In a chapter of the book Haunting Experiences (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2007), folklorist Jeanie Banks Thomas identifies two similar figures in traditional ghost narratives, the “extreme guy” and the “deviant femme” (83-110), who follow similar patterns. The reason for the similarity between traditional narratives and this example of popular culture, I’ll leave to abler minds than my own to work out; but I’m annoyed to see such familiar drivel in a contemporary horror film.
V/H/S is worth a watch. It’s violent, it’s abrupt, and it’s entirely POV. Blair Witch it ain’t, but you may find something you like, if you don’t expect too much. 78/100.