31 Days of Fright: V/H/S

The bookend of V/H/S doesn't care if you are kind and rewind.

The bookend of V/H/S doesn’t care if you are kind and rewind.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! I just finished watching V/H/S, an anthology horror film directed by six separate horror directors and requested by my very own brother, Andrew Munday. Andrew is a high school teacher, but he is also the viewer of an astounding number of horror movies. When tasked with recommending just one, he was overwhelmed with choice, reluctantly settling on V/H/S – though I admit this might be a total misremembering on my part. The movie was rented from Queen Video.

What happens:

V/H/S, which hit movie theatres in 2012, was intended as a showcase of found-footage horror film – sort of a Whitman’s sampler of some of the best modern American horror directors. The directors involved all had at least one impressive horror film to their name: Adam Wingard had directed You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die, David Bruckner had directed The Signal, Ti West had directed The House of the Devil, Glenn McQuaid had made I Sell the Dead, and Joe Swanberg had directed many films, including Silver Bullets. (Collective Radio Silence had no feature credits to their group name yet.) The result is an interesting if not entirely effective creation in which – like most anthology films – some of the parts are much better than others (or the whole).

Like most anthology films, V/H/S begins with a bookending piece, directed by Adam Wingard. (Not that most of them are directed by Adam Wingard. That comma is important!) Complete with tracking problems and VHS static, the video shows a series of clips of white male scofflaws as they sexually assault an unsuspecting woman, lifting her shirt for their video camera, then smash an abandoned property to pieces with baseball bats. In the midst of the wanton destruction and disregard for women, the video cuts back and forth from a secret sex tape one of the low-level criminals made with his girlfriend – one that she was unaware he was filming. (These guys are very charming.) Finally, the series of filmed misdemeanours settles on a narrative. The gathered criminals talk about raising money – they get $50 from a reality porn site every time they film some poor, unsuspecting woman’s breasts, but they’ll have to move into upskirt videos if they want to make some real dough. But then Gary (Calvin Reeder), who seems to be their ringleader, announces a new scheme.

Someone he knows is offering him a lot of money just to break into a house and steal one particular VHS tape. They arrive at the house but see an old man sleeping inside. Obviously, they’ll have to remain quiet when stealing the tape. Once inside, they realize the old man is not sleeping, but is dead, seated in front of a wall of television sets all playing static, like a guest on MTV’s Remote Control. The moustachioed Gary finds a stash of unmarked VHS tapes and one of their gang tests one out to see if it’s the tape they’re looking for. Instead, we see our first anthology installment – “Amateur Night,” directed by David Bruckner.


Getting ready to bro out in V/H/S.

Shane, Patrick, and Clint are three frat bros who rent a motel room, no doubt for sexually nefarious purposes. They gift Clint (Drew Sayer) with some Rivers Cuomo glasses and inform him they are actually video glasses with which they hope to record a pornographic film tonight. They hit the clubs and eventually, Shane (Mile Donlan), their resident alpha male, starts making time with a redheaded woman named Lisa (Jas Sams), and the three men and Lisa’s friends share shots of Irish whiskey. One of Lisa’s group, an intense young woman with dark hair and large eyes named Lily (Hannah Fierman), corners Clint and keeps telling him, “I like you.” Though Clint runs to the washroom at one point with qualms about what they’re planning to do, I still couldn’t wait for these guys to die.

The night gets messy and security ejects the group from the bar. In the back of Patrick’s car, Shane, Lisa, and Lily snort coke. They arrive back at the motel where Shane and Lisa start making out on one of the beds while Patrick (Joe Sykes) laughs like a hyena. Lily hisses like a cat at him in return. Lisa passes out, which enrages Shane, and he tries his best shake her awake. When that fails, he starts putting the moves on Lily, pushing Clint out of the way. He does, however, want Clint to film him as he starts to kiss Lily and remove her clothes. While taking off her underwear, he doesn’t seem to notice her bizarre, claw-like feet, but Clint certainly does. Clint also notices her black tongue.

Shane and Lily begin to have sex, and it seems she wants Clint to join in. At first, he does, but then Patrick starts to disrobe, so Clint – feeling strange about it – retreats to the bathroom. Before long, the normally laughing Patrick rushes into the washroom with a bloody palm. Lily bit him, he claims. When they look out into the motel room again, Lily has turned into a vampire-type thing and starts attacking Shane. Patrick, totally nude, and Clint hide in the washroom again. They peek their heads out only to see Lily feeding Shane his own severed penis. Unsure of what to do and panicking, Patrick removes the shower rod and wields it like a weapon. While Patrick takes on Lily, Clint attempts to wake and escape with Lisa.

Patrick swings at Lily with the rod, but he’s no match for her. Patrick is handily murdered and Clint, covered in blood, hides behind the bed. When he pokes his head around the bed corner, he spies Lily draining the blood from Patrick before either tearing off his genitals or out his heart. She pukes up a little blood on Patrick’s body and Clint takes the opportunity to flee the motel room. He runs so fast, he trips down the stairs and suffers a compound fracture in his wrist. Lily soon arrives in the stairwell and licks some of the blood from him. Her face now appearing more demonic, Lily again leans over Clint and whispers, “I like you.” She tries to perform oral sex on Clint, but he snivels and has a hard time getting aroused, understandably. Rejected, she cowers in the corner and Clint rushes for help from the hotel office. Before any bystanders can figure out what’s going on, Clint is lifted into the air above the city. Lily has turned into some sort of flying demon and has carried him into the sky as if she were a hawk and he were a small rat. His glasses drop from his face and hit the ground, ending the video.

She likes you, yeah, yeah, yeah. And with a like like that, you know you should be glad.

She likes you, yeah, yeah, yeah. And with a ‘like’ like that, you know you should be glad.

Back in the old man’s house, Gary has found more unmarked VHS tapes. He instructs Zak (Lane Hughes) to find a bag so they can take them all and sort them later. Zack thinks he sees the dead old man moving around in the storage room, but Gary is certain his mind is playing tricks on him. Another of their group starts another VHS tape, leading into “Second Honeymoon,” a short directed by Ti West.

A young married couple, Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal), embark on a road trip across the American southwest with a camcorder running to record their precious memories. They see abandoned cars, pet donkeys, and discuss whether or not Sam could pull off cowboy attire. At a tourist trap amusement park named “Wild West Junction,” they find a fortune telling machine. The old animatronic prospector inside the booth, Pappy, offers some words of advice, then spits out a paper fortune. The printout tells Sam a number of things, including that a friend is trying to take advantage of his good nature, but Stephanie de-emphasizes that negative aspect of the reading.

Later that night, Sam tries to record Stephanie in a state of undress – a recurring theme in found footage movies – when they hear a knock at the door. He looks through the peephole and shrugs. “It’s a girl.” A college-aged woman dressed in black pants and a black hoodie comes to their door and asks if they could give her a ride tomorrow. Sam shuts her down before he can even find out where she’s going. They consider calling the police, but just deadbolt the door and agree to call the police if she’s still lingering around in the morning. For reasons not entirely clear, they fall asleep in separate twin beds.

The camera turns on again and viewers watch Sam, fast asleep in his bed. But then the camera turns to Stephanie, also sleeping in bed. Who is operating the camera? This unspoken question becomes more dire once the operator pulls the covers from Stephanie, then brandishes a switchblade near her bottom. Stephanie stirs and pulls the covers back on, and the intruder goes to Sam’s pants and removes the money from his wallet. And for good measure, the trespasser then dips his toothbrush in the toilet.

Sam and Stephanie, visiting all the cheapest motels in the American southwest.

Sam and Stephanie, visiting all the cheapest motels in the American southwest.

The next day, Sam accuses Stephanie of taking the $100 he had in his wallet. They visit the Grand Canyon and take photos by some vaguely precarious spots. Sam decides they should go to Vegas to round out the trip. That night, the intruder again enters, filming Sam while he sleeps. But this time, the intruder stabs Sam in the throat and slices him until his pillow is soaked in dark blood. The camera then cuts to the intruder removing her mask – revealing the girl who asked for a ride the other night – and washing off the knife in the bathroom sink. While the tap runs, the killer and Stephanie kiss in front of the mirror. The end of the video shows Stephanie asking her secret murderer/girlfriend if she erased the video. (I guess the answer to that question is “no.”)

The viewer of that VHS tape marvels at what he’s just witnessed, but there’s no time to think about it – we’re already onto the next segment: “Tuesday the 17th,” directed by Glenn McQuaid. The video begins with four friends, alpha male Joey (Drew Moerlein), nerdlinger Spider (Jason Yachanin), cheerleader Samantha (Jeannine Elizabeth Yoder), and the trip instigator, Wendy (Norma C. Quinones), as they drive to a camping spot. Upon Wendy’s suggestion, they’re travelling to a lake that Wendy visits annually. As with every one of the found footage films, the boys are 100% awful, surreptitiously filming Samantha’s cleavage and referring to her as a “blonde crackwhore” behind her back. Things get strange when Wendy asks Joey to film a crumbling wall in the woods, and a mutilated woman’s body cuts into the video tape for a second. This happens again, when Joey films the lake and a dead man’s body is briefly seen under the water. Beyond the camera tricks, the group does come across an ominous dead animal, its intestines spilling out.

At one point, Wendy turns to Joey and cryptically says, “You’re all going to die up here.” Joey lets it drop until a bit later. They all start smoking a “J” – even Spider, who is reluctant at first, as he doesn’t want to get “the fear.” Joey asks Wendy what she meant back there, and Wendy begins to tell a story of something that happened to her at the lake years ago. The whole group starts to get spooked, but Wendy says she was just joking. Joey strips down naked and swims in the lake while Spider and Samantha leave the group, retreating to the forest. Samantha goes to the washroom behind a tree, and once she returns she begins to rehearse a cheerleading routine for Spider. Suddenly a figure runs up from the forest – half visible, half obscured by video tracking errors, like a glitch in the Matrix – and throws a knife through the back of her head so that it protrudes through her eye socket. Spider runs for his life, but the glitchy figure knocks him to the ground and stabs him repeatedly in the forehead before dragging his body away.

Joey, towelled off, but unaware of the spirit over his shoulder.

Joey, towelled off, but unaware of the spirit over his shoulder.

Wendy finds the blood-stained camera and – strangely nonplussed – brings it to Joey. At first she tries to engage Joey in a little exhibitionist sexual activity. But he refuses because he’s starting to get scared: he remembers something about the murders up by this lake. Wendy then confesses that she brought Joey and her other friends to the campground as bait. She had been to this lake before and was the only survivor of a massacre. She knows the killer can be “in two places at once,” but no one believes her. This trip is an attempt to draw him out. While she explains, the figure, head seemingly wrapped in red, sneaks up behind Joey and slashes his throat.

Wendy, however, has rigged the area with booby traps, and the killer is nearly snared in two of them. But he still cannot be fully seen, even while filmed in close-up: “Why can’t I film you!?” she yells. Wendy is cut by the glitchy killer after the second booby trap and she runs away. She comes across Joey again, staggering around, bleeding, until he drops dead. The killer walks up to Wendy and her final trap, which I can only describe as a sort of spring-loaded iron maiden, activates, impaling the killer. “I beat you,” Wendy cheers. But when she turns from the trap, the killer has disappeared. Next she sees him, he is up in a nearby tree. The tracking-error killer leaps from the tree, beats her with her own camera, then eviscerates her, uncoiling her intestines onto the forest floor. Wendy starts to convulse and the video ends.

The next VHS tape our criminals discover is “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” directed by Joe Swanberg. The video is comprised of a series of Skype chats between Emily (Helen Rogers) and her med-school boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman). The Skype chats starts with Emily joking about how she can’t wait until James becomes a doctor, as she aims to become a “kept woman.” She also mentions a mysterious bruise on her arm. Then she strips for him, I guess to make the long-distance relationship a little less lonely. Emily follows this by giving James a virtual tour of her apartment. She stops at a spot in the living room, which is where claims to have heard mysterious footprints. Emily, you see, believes her apartment is haunted.

Emily next Skypes James mid-haunting. She believes there’s something at the door, so she brings her laptop with her. An ominous sound rings through the hallway, but no ghosts are to be seen. Emily notes that it feels familiar to when she and James were much younger and Emily had injured herself. She had a feeling of being haunted that last time she and James were apart for an extended period of time. Mid-conversation, we see a ghost child run into her room then slam the door shut as it runs out. The next day, James isn’t sure he saw a ghost – ”I think I saw something, but it could have been a breeze” – so Emily begins to doubt herself. But the lump on her arm seems to be getting more swollen. As a future doctor, James advises her to leave her arm alone. Emily wants to investigate the apartment: maybe a child died in her place, and maybe her landlord would know about it.

The most supernatural part of this segment is how bare James's computer desktop is.

The most unsettling part of this segment is how bare James’s computer desktop is.

Emily Skypes with James again during a new haunting. She has no flashlight, so she uses a Polaroid camera to light her way into the living room. The flashes reveal the ghost kid and Emily runs in fear when she sees him. James, as ever, forgets to record their session, so she’s left with no proof of the ghost. When Emily next video chats with him during the daytime, she says she met with her landlord, who claims he’s only ever rented to students. No small children. Emily has also quite overtly not left he lump on her arm alone. As she shows James, she has cut into the lump with an X-acto knife and has been digging around inside her arm. (Yikes.) James tells Emily she shouldn’t be doing that. He has her clean the wound and tells her not to poke at it until he arrives in a week or so.

Again during a night haunting, Emily video chats with James. She’s sure the ghost child is outside her room, and she wants James to help her talk with him. She’s going to open the door and close her eyes so she’s not scared, but James will need to guide her in what to say. The ghost is nowhere to be found, however, until Emily turns to face the webcam and the ghost girl appears behind her. Then other ghost children appear, as well! Emily turns around and a bright light flashes, knocking her unconscious. James, meanwhile, in his lower-right-hand-corner video box, disappears from view. He reappears in the larger video screen moments later, tending to the unconscious Emily. James cuts into Emily’s abdomen and pulls out a half-alien fetus from inside her. James complains to the ghost children – now more accurately alien children – that they can’t do this forever. “How many times do we have to do this? She thinks I’m in Michigan!” He notes that they’ll have to make her abdominal injuries look like an accident, so he’ll have to break some of her bones.

Next video chat we see, Emily has a black eye and broken arm. She tells James that she’s seen Dr. Aberdeen, a psychiatrist that James himself recommended, and she’s been diagnosed as “schizoaffective” – showing signs of a mild form of schizophrenia – which explains so much about her life. Tearfully, Emily offers to break up with James: “You deserve to be with someone normal.” James reassures her, like Hootie and the Blowfish, that he only wants to be with her. Emily signs off by saying she loves him, which he doesn’t really respond to. James then opens a new video chat window with another woman, also under the impression that James is her long-distance boyfriend. She, too, removes her top and complains about a mysterious bump on her arm. Fade to black.

The bookend video draws to a close when Gary gathers all the video tapes and looks for his friend Zak. In fact, all the other members of his crew haven’t been seen in some time. Searching through the house, he finds Zak’s headless body in a stairwell. Then he finds the head. He turns and the supposedly dead old man from the other room is up and walking again. He stalks down the stairs after him. Gary runs and injures himself in a topple down the stairs. The old man approaches. When his face looms close to the camera, it is clear he has become some sort of zombie. Gary screams and the final video, “10/3/98,” directed by Radio Silence, begins to play on its own.

On Halloween in 1998, friends Chad (Chad Villella , dressed as the Unabomber), Matt (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin , dressed as a pirate), Paul (Paul Natonek, dressed as a soldier), and Tyler (Tyler Gillett, dressed as a teddy bear, complete with a nanny cam that is filming the night’s events) head out for a Halloween rager. They drive out to an unfamiliar part of town, blasting late-90s ska the whole ride. They arrive at what they think is someone named Justin’s place, but the large house is seemingly empty, despite having all the lights on. They let themselves in and begin to experience weirdness – a ghostly crone bangs against a window, arms seem to reach out from the walls at them. They figure Justin must have set the house up as one of those haunted houses you might see in Niagara Falls, and they play along.

Muffled sounds emanate from the floors above, so they ascend the house to its very top. As they reach closer to the top, the muffled sounds more clearly become chants – some sort of call and response. When they enter the attic, they see a number of people performing an exorcism on a young woman who has been tied to the ceiling with thick rope. The boys assume it’s a joke and chant along with them, but the lead exorcist turns to them to shout, “Who are you? What are you doing here!?” (Clearly, they are at the wrong Halloween party.) The preacher guy slaps the bound woman, and the boys, being gentlemen, attempt to intervene. That’s when some of the other gathered exorcism attendees are thrown around the attic by unseen forces.

Not the kind of Halloween party our heroes were anticipating.

Not the kind of Halloween party our heroes were anticipating.

Freaked out, the guys run downstairs, and it’s only at the front door – when Tyler hears the woman screaming – that he decides they can’t leave. They return to the attic and tackle the preacher guy while some of them work to free the woman. They carry her down the stairs as the house begins to run wild with supernatural phenomena – doorways collapsing, arms reaching out from walls, birds flying through doorways, and pots and pans floating mid-air. They dodge a well-choreographed series of paranormal attacks and escape through the basement, carrying the woman to the backseat of their car. Driving away frantically, Matt and Tyler try to reassure the woman in the backseat while Chad and Paul attempt to find a hospital. But soon the car stops responding. It grinds to a halt on a railroad track and the young woman disappears from Matt’s arms, reappearing like a ghost in front of the vehicle. A train begins to barrel down on the car, and the four guys realize the doors won’t unlock. The tracking starts to fail as the train smashes into their car.

One of our young criminals, in the midst of a breaking-and-VHS-viewing.

One of our young criminals, in the midst of a breaking-and-VHS-viewing.

Takeaway points:

  • The problem with found footage films is that the protagonists – with some exception – are typically terrible people who we in the audience don’t really identify with. Filmmakers have to devise a reason as to why people would be filming a certain situation and in many cases – the shorts in V/H/S being prime examples – they resort to these people partaking in illegal voyeurism or being complete narcissists. Either way, not people you’re particularly fond of. Who are we to feel for as the audience? The criminals who sexually assault random women in a parking garage? The frat dudes who are trying secretly film their sexual encounters? Maybe the creepy teenage campers who denigrate their female friends? Or the friend who lured them to the camp to put them in mortal danger? Viewers can’t wait for these people to be gruesomely murdered. The Halloween partygoers in the final video seem nice enough (ska music notwithstanding), but developing empathy for characters is one reason “That Sick Thing …” works so well. We kind of like Emily, and so, we become scared as her haunting becomes more real and more sinister.
  • Another thing about found footage films is that if the film features a man and a woman, the man is definitely going to attempt to persuade the woman to strip or have sex on camera at some point. I’m not sure why nearly every filmmaker feels the need to include this scene – its inclusion has become tedious at this point. It happened in Paranormal Activity. It happens in “Second Honeymoon,” it happens in “Amateur Night,” it happens in “That Sick Thing” … it even happens in the bookending video! I just fear it’s not as novel idea as some people think.
  • The film inspired two sequels, V/H/S/2 and V/H/S: Viral. Of the two, I’d be most curious to see V/H/S/2, as it features segments by Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), Gareth Evans (The Raid), and even Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale (The Blair Witch Project)!

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: V/H/S is, like all anthology films, a real mixed bag. I thought three of the videos – four, if you count the bookend – were fairly weak. The only ones I thought were truly scary were “Tuesday the 17th” and “That Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” And though “Tuesday” scared me with its glitchy killer, the performances were pretty awful and hard to take seriously. (But I couldn’t deny how creepy that half-there murderer looked; it was a bad short with a visually arresting killer.) “That Sick Thing” is the only one of the anthology segments that I believe approaches greatness. It’s also one of the more unsettling ones. That’s not a great ratio of scary to “meh,” so I have to settle on “terrible.”

Even two brightly coloured tank tops can't protect Emily from the sinister forces at work.

Even two brightly coloured tank tops can’t protect Emily from the sinister forces at work.

Best outfit: Emily definitely has the best style of our victims in V/H/S. Who else would think to wear two tank tops, yet also combine puce with bright yellow?

Best line: “Dude, you’re trippin’. I don’t blame you. That’s what trippers do.” – Gary, criminal, philosopher

Best kill: An excellent question, as there is no shortage of kills in V/H/S. Seeing Sam have his throat slowly and gruesomely cut in “Second Honeymoon” was a shade too real for me to enjoy. I think the glitchy killer stabbing Spider repeatedly in the forehead – who does that? – was much better. Though the murder is vying for first place with the kill immediately previous, when the murderer tosses a knife though Samantha’s eye from the rear.

Unexpected cameo: Several of the film directors appear in the videos. Adam Wingard, director of the bookend, and Simon Barrett, writer of both the bookend and “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” play two of the criminals in the bookend video. And the four gentlemen from Radio Silence play themselves in the final video. Joe Swanberg, who directed the “The Sick Thing …,” plays Sam in “Second Honeymoon.” Glenn McQuaid plays the dead guy floating in the river in his segment, “Tuesday the 17th.”

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Amusement park fortune tellers 100% speak the truth.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Schizoaffective

Next up: Alice, Sweet Alice (1976).