Four crooks are tasked with breaking into an old man’s house and stealing a rare VHS tape that contains something very important to a mysterious tycoon. However, as they come face to face with the house’s dead occupant and his overfilled VHS collection, they realise this isn’t the simple operation they expected. As they attempt to filter through each and every VHS to find the one they were sent there to retrieve, they uncover more than they’d initially bargained for.
Dreamt up by horror website Bloody Disgusting co-founder Brad Miska, V/H/S establishes itself with a low-key, yet suitably eerie centralised narrative arc concerning the various videos the foursome watch as they ransack the old man’s house. It then, tape by tape, spins off into various short films each directed by a filmmaker somehow associated with the horror field itself, whether it be as a director, writer or producer – e.g., The Innkeeper’s Ti West and A Horrible Way To Die’s Adam Wingard, amongst others.
The segments – five in total – concern different aspects of horror: supernatural, slasher, haunted house, etc. – and all, in their own ways, subvert the tropes and conventions we’ve become used to over the years, both through their interesting concepts and consistent abilities to provoke our pre-conceived ideas of that particular sub-genre of horror. It’a a common theme each thread shares, though, which allows them to fit together in an authentic way.
Unfortunately, as with the vast majority of anthologies, there are one or two threads that don’t work quite as well as others. In the case of V/H/S, it’s the wrap-around arc that lets it down the most and damages some of its overall charm and unconformity. Trite and inevitable, Wingard’s contribution, titled Tape Fifty-Six, never tries to elevate itself to more than its position as the infrastructure to the branches that stem off from it, which are usually decidedly more distinctive and spine-chilling.
It’s a minor set-back, though, and Wingard redeems himself somewhat with the neat tricks he uses to skip from one videotape to the next, one sub-genre to the other. What’s most fun about V/H/S is the way the threads build up and up and up, with each director keen on stretching their abilities, budgets and audience’s reverence more than the last. In fact, the direction and implementation of special effects, taking into consideration the clearly limited budget and tight production schedule, is darn impressive.
This only means that, particularly with Joe Swanberg and Simon Barrett’s stand-out thread The Strange Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger appears towards the end of the anthology – where a young woman is terrorised by an unknown entity in her apartment while her supposed boyfriend observes over Skype - we’re rewarded with one of the most startlingly original pieces of supernatural cinema that has been committed to celluloid in years.
V/H/S not only features some of the most imaginative horror films of our time, but also manages to present these as a collection that continuously defies out expectations and leaves us begging for more. The foundations may be a tad inconsistent, and some of the stories take a bit of time before they find their feet (a noticeable difficulty considering each of their limited run times), but what we have here is an anthology that not only delivers, but one that shows that the horror we know and love may not be dead after all.