Review of V/H/S

VHSShould this be the review where I delve into the found footage phenomena and provide insightful analysis on its effectiveness at establishing horror? Uh..nah!  Maybe instead, I can go into what works and what doesn’t work when using the found footage style of filmmaking to make a haunted house film?  Nah to that as well.  Truth be told, I am no expert on these things. Moreover, a lot that depends on personal preference.  Quite often it boils down to a) You like found-footage films. b) you do not like found footage films.

For me it’s hit or miss. V/H/S, the film under review, is a found footage film.  For the most part, it is a miss.

Since some of you might be unfamiliar with the found footage subgenre, an explanation is in order. I was about to do some explaining but then I thought, “to hell with that”, why not find a description and then quote it? I think, therefore I do.  So here is a definition/description from Wikipedia:

Found footage is a subgenre in films in which all or a substantial part of a fictional film is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings. The events on screen are typically seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, often accompanied by their real-time off-camera commentary. For added realism, the cinematography may be done by the actors themselves as they perform, and shaky camera work and naturalistic acting are routinely employed. The footage may be presented as if it were “raw” and complete, or as if it had been edited into a narrative by those who “found” it.

The most common use of the technique is in horror films (e.g., Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, [REC], Cloverfield), where the footage is purported to be the only surviving record of the events, with the participants now missing or dead.

Fun House was the first horror movie I saw in the theater. I saw it was with my dad. In the film the characters are murdered, one by one.  Only one person, a girl, is left at the film’s end. After the movie, my  dad had told me that he knew she would live because someone has to survive to tell the story. He was correct. But with found-footage films, a sole survivor is no longer necessary. The camera is left behind to detail the events. If part of the story is “missing”, that supposedly only adds to the overall mystery.

Found-footage films are supposed to look “real”. That is, they are made with an intentional amateurish quality so that they appear to be made in real time and not according to a script.  Therefore when something horrific happens, the intended illusion is that it is happening “for real”.  I get all that. But to me, V/H/S is largely unwatchable. Too much shaking, too many haphazard shots, too much , too much too much. And besides, what’s with the letter –forward slash – letter –forward slash title. Can’t a simple “VHS” do? I guess not.

I am writing this review on account of the two haunted house films that appear in this anthology.   There are six films in all, with one being the film that ties the rest together.

The “tie-together” film is Tape 56/frame narrative. A group of petty thugs break into a house in an attempt to steal a VHS tape for which someone is willing to pay a lot of money. The man who lives there is a tape hoarder. But the intruders find him dead in his chair, in front of a TV, in a room with hundreds of tapes. The intruders started playing some tapes. The tapes they play make up the rest of the stories in this film. So what we have here is five found footage films inside one found footage film.  How….arty?  Mmmm…mmeh.

Anyway, let’s get to the relevant films. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” directed by Joe Swanburg, is about a woman who lives in a haunted apartment. The whole story plays out on video chat. Emily occupies the big square of the chat and we see chat partner James in the smaller square.  James (along with us the viewers) bears witness to the haunting when he sees the video images of young ghostly girls creeping around behind Emily.  This is an okay film story wise. The typical annoyances that are built into  found footage films are kept to a minimal. Still, viewers have to put up with straying camera angles now and then. We have to watch the main chat screen succumb to the pixilation errors. I hate when this happens when I am on a video chat so I certainly don’t want to watch it happen in a film I am paying to watch.

10/31/98 is the better of the two haunted house films. Directed by a group collectively known as Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez & Chad Villella), the film is about a trio of young men who arrive at a huge, multi room/multi floor house for a Halloween party. All the rooms are lit up, but where are the guests? They decide to explore the confines. They make it to the topmost part of the house and they stumble on something very disturbing. After this they make a run for it. This is when the house itself freaks out.  Through the shaky, mobile camera, we see arms reaching out from the walls. We see dishes rise off the table. In every hall, every room, as they run, run  run, we see something creepy and unnatural. It’s almost like a Halloween haunted house attraction, only this place has some real magic going on.  I love it all– except for the shaky camera. If only for a camera that was held still and directed properly, then maybe I can better see those lovely haunting antics. But no, can’t have that. After all, this is a found-footage film.

My favorite of all the stories is not a haunted house film. It is Amateur Night, directed byVHS2 Bruckner. Three guys go bar hopping and bring home two women. One of them happens to be a succubus. Once they learn of her demonic tendencies, the rest of the night doesn’t go so well.  Loved the film but once again, the shaky camera ruins the whole thing.

Perhaps some people feel that the shaky camera work enhances the horrific realism. I am not one of those people. However, there are some found footage films that I really like. One film really pays off with this technique. While some don’t consider it a haunted house film, I do. If memory serves me correctly, the shakiness is kept to a minimum, if it’s even there at all. I’ve been meaning to review this film for some time. I will do so. Soon. And then and only then will its title be revealed.


Review of The Houses October Built


houses_october_builtWe’re still in October, right? Oh yeah, we’ve left that month of Halloween shenanigans long ago. We’ve already said our thanks in November, went a jingling all the way through December and then somehow ended up in a different year – 2016. Being that it is late January, why am I reviewing a movie about five friends on a road trip seeking out the ultimate Halloween attraction – the haunt to end all haunts? Shouldn’t I have reviewed The Houses October Built in, well, October? I suppose so. But perhaps, if anything, this January review of an October based film will help to take your mind back to a warmer season while you momentarily escape the bitter and miserable cold. Plus, there are no holidays on the immediate horizon. Yeah, yeah, there’s Valentine’s Day coming up around the corner, but who wants a pink-tinted day of lovey-dovey when they can be revisiting Halloween?

The Houses October Built is a “found footage” film, modelled after The Blair Witch Project. It’s the same plot formula – a group of kids go on an adventure, seeking to find the location of rumored site of terror, only to get in over their heads. In the Blair Witch Project, the site is a witch’s house in the middle of the woods. In The Houses October Built, the site is a haunted attraction that takes terror to the extreme. While touring the haunted attractions of Texas in their RV, they get wind of an attraction that is by invite only. It operates secretly and is not bound by rules, ethics and regulations. You know, those “killjoys”. But in the end, things other than “joy” might end up dead. Through word of mouth, chat-groups, email and Facebook, they come across clues that hopefully will lead them to their coveted destination. Little do they realize that the extreme haunt has already begun. They are the-house-october-built-headerbeing stalked by masquerading performers from the haunted houses they have frequented. These stalking occurrences happen repeatedly – from town to town, at this festival, at that campground, on this road, inside their RV. What is going on?

My impressions of this movie are perhaps as strange as the film itself. At first, I decided that I didn’t like it. But I kept thinking about the film, revisiting certain scenes in my head. So then I asked myself, “Hey self, if you dislike this film, why do you keep dwelling on it?” To answer the question, I had to reassess my evaluation. I returned for a second viewing and “skim-watched” the film. After this, I decided that I did, in fact, enjoy the film.

I’ll try to make sense of all this. Wish me luck – here I go!

Sometimes these “found footage” films rub me the wrong way, but not always. I loved Paranormal Activity and while I did not have a love affair with The Blair Witch Project, I didn’t hate it either. The filming of The Houses October Built was choppy. Too often the camera just shut down during some tense nighttime scene only for the film to pick up again the next day on a sunny road. But I get it. It’s supposed to mimic the video recordings of your average tourists on a road trip; unprofessional and at times random. But every so often I felt that it was too self-conscious as a “found footage” film. When the five friends converse in their recreational vehicle – sometimes the scene seems natural and sometimes it does not. Now and then I was left with an ever so slight taste of “Reality TV.” Just so you know, I loathe Reality TV as much as I loathe liver. This is partially due to the interspersing of filmed interviews with the proprietors of haunted attractions. During these interviews, they admit to the existence of “shady” goings-on among the backwoods actors. I guess I prefer the old style. I prefer a reel of storytelling film over chopped up “candid” videos that try to portray “real life drama.” For me, when a film makes no attempt to be anything else other than the piece of fiction that it is, the drama seems more real than a pseudo-documentary that tries so hard to “dramatize the reality.”

The Houses October Built does not always succumb to these trappings. But its overall style does become distracting at times. Now, how about I throw an oxymoron at you?This style of moviemaking enhances the scare factor when the friends begin to encounter the costumed haunters afterhours. The amateur video-capturing from these consumer-based cameras brings out more of the “freak” from these freaks. The cameras highlight them in an uncanny way.

houses-october-built-01What’s scary about these encounters is this – we’re not sure if these costumed stalkers are merely role playing or if they are in fact surrendering to their horror show persona. Then we are left to ask – are the people that are behind the masks scarier than the monsters they are portraying? While the friends sit around the campfire, a man in white makeup appears from the surrounding woods. He says he works at the nearby haunt but he lives in the woods. There’s something creepy about him. He takes offense at one of the friend’s “backwoods” comment. Then there’s the clown who assaults them in a parking lot, claiming that they were improperly videotaping. There’s the girl with a porcelain face mask that wanders into their trailer. She sits, shifts her eyeballs, and does not answer any of their questions. She then screams and quietly leaves the vehicle. Weird stuff and there’s a whole lot more.

These freaks from the haunts – these are the things that stuck with me when the film was over. In this way I am plagued with the same set of circumstances as the five movie-makers. But not exactly – my life isn’t act risk. (Well hopefully not).

Overall this is a scary and very original film. At times the “found footage” format is distracting but at other times it helps to set a bizarre tone.

Now I shall digress into another topic. I ask myself, “Hey self, is this film appropriate for this blog?” And I ask you, “Does this movie qualify as a Haunted House film?”   Definitely not is the usual sense. It is not centered on one huge house. There are no ghosts or paranormal phenomena. It’s a movie about the haunted houses that are the recreational attractions for the thrill seekers. But, a haunted house is a haunted house, right? You say “right.” I knew you would see it my way! So yes, self, this movie fits right into the theme of this blog.