Totally off-topic: V/H/S review


Last year I wrote a blog post called amateur hour at the haunted house in which I expressed an appreciation of the horror genre but lamented the fact that mainstream horror fare has largely ceased to be frightening. This has led me to increasingly seek out lower budget and indie movies and games.

At around the same time I started hearing about a movie called V/H/S, a found footage horror anthology composed of shorts directed by a variety of up and coming indie horror directors. The movie uses a framing story of a group of thugs and petty criminals who are paid to break into a rural house and steal a VHS tape for unknown reasons. Once there they discover a dead guy sitting in an armchair in front of a bank of static-filled TVs and a pile of tapes, all of which turn out to contain recordings of people running afoul of supernatural entities, usually dying horribly in the process. It’s a pretty clever idea for a movie and I’m surprised no one has tried to turn it into a TV series.

As with any short story collection the shorts vary greatly in quality. The dud is undoubtedly the third tale, Tuesday the 17th, directed by Glenn McQuaid. It builds up a fairly interesting premise- a remote wooded area inhabited by a traditional slasher villain who can only be seen on video tape- but quickly becomes laughable due to hammy acting, unrealistic dialogue, poor special effects of both the digital and practical variety and some goofy Road Runner-esque traps.

But when V/H/S is firing on all cylinders it manages to be both scarier and more creative than any horror movie in recent memory. The first-person found footage format is cleverly used, for example by obscuring the identity of the person holding the camera in one memorable scene, and the directors show an admirable willingness to employ subtlety instead of jump scares and torture porn. Oh, there’s gore in this movie- lots and lots of it- but it’s usually preceded by a period in which the fear comes from something or someone being just a little bit off. The first story is particularly strong in this regard, ratcheting up the tension more and more in one of the most excruciating build ups I’ve ever seen in a horror film. I also want to give a shout out to the fourth story, presented as a series of Skype conversations between two characters, that appears at first to be a traditional haunted house yarn before going in a far weirder direction. I’m not entirely sure this one works completely due to some dodgy makeup (most of the effects budget seems to have been spent on the first segment, as it’s the only one with completely solid CG and makeup) but it’s a cool little Twilight Zone-ish story none the less.

There’s a certain rule in found footage horror that you don’t show the monster, starting with The Blair Witch Project and it’s famously absent witch. V/H/S demonstrates why this is perhaps not a rule that film makers working in the genre need to stick to, as the monsters and ghosts that the directors had the budget to portray convincingly become ten times scarier when shot on grainy hand held cameras. Watching as a man is ripped apart by a fanged monstrosity is par for the course when its rendered in crisp HD; shoot that same scene in a way that makes it look like the old home movies mouldering away in your basement and you really get a sense of how terrifying a situation like that would be in real life.

Unfortunately even the good shorts tend to display some of the usual horror movie cliches, primarily unlikable and/or idiotic characters. I don’t know why horror writers continue to assume audiences want to see assholes run away from monsters but they keep making movies where the protagonists are unsympathetic shit-heads. That trope is in full effect here with a good 75% of the characters consisting of drunken, braying frat boy stereotypes. Horror Idiot Syndrome is also in effect way too often, perhaps due to the truncated nature of the stories. We get the industry standard “why doesn’t she just leave the haunted house” dilemma and characters repeatedly fail to react to strange behavior that should be sending up huge red flags (if you and your friends are alone in the woods with someone you don’t know very well and they announce that you’re all going to die, fucking run). In one story the characters end up in a motel room with an unexpectedly aggressive guest and for some reason fail to run out the door despite having ample opportunity to do so while the creature is distracted; in another they’re on the verge of escaping a house where some obviously messed up shit is going on but then decide to go back in to stage a rescue attempt instead of just calling the police. People trip over their own feet and fall down stairs, characters fumble with doorknobs as though they’re trying to unlock an esoteric mechanical puzzle box.

Despite all of this I enjoyed watching V/H/S and  heartily recommend that horror fans check it out just for the novelty of seeing a film with an ounce of imagination for once. It’s rare for me to watch a film that truly scares me any more, and V/H/S managed to do so. I’d recommend checking it out even just for the first story, which manages to justify the whole production on its own.

…… Is what I would be saying if not for this movie’s other big problem.

I’m not the first person to notice that V/H/S has a bit of a weird attitude when it comes to women. Not counting the framing story all but one of the shorts involve women who are monsters, murderers, duplicitous or outright evil. If they don’t actively murder the the heroes- most of whom are men- they facilitate their deaths for their own means, or serve as its catalyst in some way. A brief run-down (spoilers):

In “Amateur Night” three misogynistic assholes go to a bar looking for some casual sex and bring two women back to a motel room. One of them, who has been acting palpably odd and unsettling since they first laid eyes on her, turns out to be some sort of succubus creature who messily eviscerates two of our heroes and carries the third one off after sprouting bat wings.

In “Second Honeymoon” a man and woman retrace the steps of their first honeymoon near the grand canyon. One night a woman wearing a mask enters their motel room and begins menacing them with a knife while they sleep and generally trolling them. The next day the husband and wife argue a bit and have some very minor marital disagreements. That night someone who we assume is the masked woman returns to the motel room and slits the husband’s throat. It turns out it was actually the wife, who then makes out with the masked woman. Then they drive off together.

In “Tuesday the 17th” three people go hiking in the woods with a mutual sort-of friend. She acts weird and creepy. It turns out her friends were murdered there several years ago by a supernatural killer and she brought the three other characters along to lure him out and attempt to kill him. They all get stabbed to death.

“The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger” is the only story that breaks the trend. It involves the female protagonist, along with possibly many more women, being victimized by a man collaborating with a supernatural force.

In “10/31/89” a group of friends (all dudes) go looking for a Halloween party and end up at a spooky house where a woman is about to be sacrificed. They go to great personal risk to save her but she turns out to be some sort of demon who stalls their car on a railroad track. She teleports away and they get hit by a train.

To summarize: all but one of the female characters in this movie are evil and/or dangerous. Only one of their victims is a woman. The rest are all men.

I’m not suggesting that V/H/S has some sort of sinister ulterior motive- as far as I can tell all of the shorts were made independently with no real creative control from the two show-runners- but that perhaps makes the misogynistic content of so many of the storylines even more eyebrow-raising. What does it say about our culture that when given the chance to tell any story they wanted to seven dudes (one of the stories was made by a group of four) all converged on the idea of women as deceitful, vicious monsters who prey on men?

Given that everyone behind the camera on this project was a man I get the feeling it was created in a particularly dudebro-heavy atmosphere, clouds of testosterone wafting about and muddling the director’s brains. A sequel is coming out in June that according to festival reviews avoids these problems entirely while also bringing a much more even level of quality.


3 thoughts on “Totally off-topic: V/H/S review

  1. Pingback: Horror movies! | Doing In The Wizard

  2. Zort

    Speaking of portrayals of women, have you noticed how Patrick Rothfuss almost never uses a female character when a male could fit the part? Kinda distracting. Men Are Generic, Women Are Special as they say.

  3. braak

    The choice to have women turn out to be secret monsters — and the Horror Idiot/Asshole Phenomenon — are, I sometimes think, fairly well-related and, if not coming from a good place, are often not coming from a consciously bad one.

    I think that in many of these cases, the choice to have the woman turn out to be a monster has less to do with a character’s femaleness, than to do with her perceived weakness (which, yea, I know is a function of femaleness in patriarchal societies, I think it IS misogynist, I just think it’s misogynist in a very specific way). If you look at the Horror Assholes who pick up the weird girl for sex, and you strip out the “male/female” characteristics, you end up with: “Two assholes attempt to take advantage of someone demonstrably weaker than themselves, only the weaker entity turns out to be a horrible monster that kills them”, which is a pretty standard structure for a horror story (“unthinking arrogance is punished”), and it could fit just as well with any element that had a presupposed quality of physical weakness.

    I think that actually probably applies to a lot of these stories, and while I don’t think it’s less misogynist, I think it’s actually more of a side-effect of the way that horror works in a patriachal culture. Because our culture views women immediately as victims, or as vulnerable, the horror trope of “the vulnerable character becomes a monster” latches onto female characters more often in cases like this.


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