V/H/S (USA, 2012)
Too often horror films fall apart upon close scrutiny, and the at-a-glance thrilling (and downright joyful)
found-footage V/H/S, a film based on the found-footage conceit, is no exception: why would a Skype chat be transferred to VHS tape? Especially one that, we are given to understand in the narrative, was never recorded? Why does no one start questioning the disappearance of friends in a house already containing a dead body until most of them are gone? Why are all straight, white men so relentlessly privileged as to think they can videotape all things, all the time, including their own sexual assaults? Why are women consistently going along with such demands, or going along with them for long enough? Who invited those guys to that party in the first place? Why are they destroying that house? What are they doing to that woman? How was that head staying balanced on the neck if it had already been dismembered? If you were going to bring all your friends to the woods to watch them die, wouldn’t you, like, not explain that to them in advance?
It’s frustrating when genuine leaps forward in a genre are still saddled with silliness, but there it its, I guess: horror movies. Anyway, the moments that work in this six-piece anthology are the ones to relish. A man has died, but you are in no position to do anything about it, so you must act as if it is not unusual. A creature has eaten several of your friends and now wants to give you a blow job. A disturbing intrusion—a powerless, wandering girl—has ended, so does not matter, but still happened. A long-distance relationship conducted largely over videochat seems to be upheld by a controlling and emotionally distant med student. A bunch of fun-loving guys down for a party haphazardly enter what they perceive to be a Haunted House but which, in fact, is a house that is haunted. It is So. Much. Fun.
Deep and abiding are the small contributions to underlying tensions: the unrelenting violence and anger of young men alone in an abandoned pre-fab. The excessive drunkenness of a narrator in danger. Ti West makes several stunning contributions to base creepiness in his short segment: an extended rumination on the germiness of hotel bedspreads does not go to waste when, later, a character wantonly disregards same. A couple stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon for a bit too long, and one loses sight of the other. Such moments throughout the film, emerging as they do from six different directorial visions, make V/H/S work, as a whole, even if they barely motivate individual plot development. Some tensions form a sub-narrative: almost every segment contains a sexual assault of one kind or another. These establish anxiety, and also raise the stakes on the retribution eventually taken against the doers: men are skeevy but then they die.
Five of the films unfold within the context of the sixth. This meta-narrative that aims to tie them together is the weakest, getting by on clever dialogue instead of, you know, logical plot development. Most of the five primary segments—West’s plodding, thoughtful one, included—rely on the horror-movie version of the nick-of-time parachute found under the seat (A Stephen King concoction, if I’m recalling correctly). A tidy plot device swoops in at the end with too-little set-up, leaving too many questions unanswered, but enough bodies in waste to forestall further asking. Lesbians? Vampires? Aliens? Oh wait, what’s going on: is this house haunted? The ride is thrilling, sure, but the ache from the whiplash endures.
The final segment, by a group called Radio Silence, is the most compelling, for all these reasons and more, which I think are worth bringing up. A group of four friends go out to a Halloween party, but although the lights are on, the house they arrive at is empty. They find a back entrance, confused, and their gradual realization (false, it turns out) that someone has set up a haunted house for their enjoyment is stunning filmmaking. Really. Their joy at discovery, couple by the viewer’s awareness that THIS IS A HORROR MOVIE, are some of the most charming moments put to screen in any genre of film in years. (Watch Mountain Devil Prank Fails Horribly, the group’s previous found-footage project, here. It’s great.) But when they find “the party” it’s not what they hoped for: a group of men have tied up a woman and, somewhat ambiguously, appear to be performing some kind of exorcism on her. Our hapless heroes attempt to save her, despite that this clearly upsets the house, and that’s when things get a little fuzzy. Is she a demon? A ghost? Has she died, or disappeared? When she turns on them, the segment ends, leaving these questions: How did they know about the party? Why would the house try to stop them from removing her if she retained control anyway? Who is evil, and when, and why?
You may notice, as I did, that these questions aren’t interesting. The fascinating ones that could have emerged from this segment include: Do intentions matter in questions of good vs. evil? How awesome is it when even inoffensive happy-go-lucky dudes meet horrible ends? How many times can we cross the joy/terror divide before each lose effectiveness? But the segment doesn’t cohere long enough for these questions to form.
Still: the segment seemed to congeal differently for myself than it did my male viewing companion, and other men who’ve seen the film. They seemed to agree that the attic men were performing an exorcism, a situation in which it is logical that they would have tied up their subject. I dissent: We’re working with an unreliable narrator, moreover in an unreliable house. I have no alternative explanation for what may have been going on there, but I know this: There were not quite enough clues for me to buy “exorcism” as an explanation, only enough for me to buy “pretend exorcism.” Of course, this is not enough information to draw conclusions from—and I’d question the reliability of Radio Silence here, too—but if we’re posing interesting questions I think this one applies: is it possible that masculine viewers and feminine viewers just plain old read horror differently? And if so—even more fascinating—how can that be made more explicit and, of course, more affecting.
It’s the question I’ve been pondering for the last few days, on my own. I’d love to hear from other women who’ve seen the film (Comments! Are! Awesome!) but I can also understand why they wouldn’t: It’s hard to watch so many dudes being such jerks for entertainment when we get it so often for free.
And to that point, a final thought: It is admittedly some kind of step forward to be utilizing audience discomfort with sexual harassment and rape threats within a horror narrative, but these also re-establish places in the popular imagination where sexual harassment and rape threats are acceptable, even necessary. Even when used thoughtfully, this presumption presents a significant political problem. Since gender-based violence and sexual harassment will not go unpunished, in the end, why should we bother eliminating them now?
I’d submit that maybe some film viewers are weighing in on the industry-wide presumption that certain kinds of gender-based violence and sexual harassment are acceptable in the horror genre—by not watching horror films. They’ll miss the joy of Radio Silence and the serene creepiness of Ti West (David Bruckner’s great “Amateur Night” deserves mention here, too, as does the technically clever “Tuesday the 17th” by Glenn McQuaid), but as much fun as the film is, V/H/S makes it totally clear why people stay away from horror.
1. Interesting point just raised by an experimental film-making friend: that the use of the term “found-footage” without pretty thorough explanation as a conceit within horror film is a co-optation of the term from legitimately found-footage experimental films. I mean: we use it as shorthand anyway, right, but in an effort to more concisely use only the right language to describe matters that exist in or get made up about the world, I’ve changed this text accordingly.