At a juncture where Hollywood has already parodied horror to death (“Scream,” “Scary Movie”) and taken its conventions to their most bloody (“Saw”) or lo-fi (“Paranormal Activity”) extremes, what space is left for the indie sensibility to make its mark on the genre? “V/H/S” is semi-successful in carving out, or up, some new territory.
The anthology of six short films, each helmed by a different young male director, attempts to infuse horror with a twist: hipster nostalgia for the age of video. Prepare ye for two hours of jittery, low-light, out-of-focus, first-person footage of blase 20- and 30-somethings running, breathing heavy, and slitting open one another’s stomachs and throats.
“The Blair Witch Project” meets mumblecore.
The first short, “Tape 56,” directed by Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”), launches the premise that encircles the other five. Yahoos burglarize a house to steal a rare VHS tape. What they find is a cache of tapes, which they (and therefore the viewer) sit down and watch.
“Amateur Night,” directed by David Bruckner (“The Signal”), as a surreptitiously shot sex tape, is the compilation’s nonpareil. Our nerdy cinematographer, wearing spy-cam glasses, and his two idiot friends, prey upon barflies. “I like you,” purrs one drunk young thing. Back in the motel room, she’s more thing than female, and eviscerates her quarry. The limited point-of-view footage and uncomfortable premise generate a creepy combo of arousal, dread, and horror. It’s the ultimate revenge against pervs making furtive tapes of their sexual escapades.
The second winner, “10/31/98,” directed by a collective called Radio Silence, features four frat guys on Halloween night 1998 hoping for a house party and stumbling into something else. The acting feels genuine, and the hand-held footage aptly captures the frenetic action once all haunted house hell breaks loose.
The other shorts are more hit or miss. “Second Honeymoon,” directed by Ti West, plays on the suspicions of a newlywed couple who chronicle their LA-to-Arizona road trip on video — do they really know and trust each other? While they sleep, a stranger steals their money, then shoots footage of them, using their camera. Next up: Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th,” a paean to “Friday the 13th” and other slashers featuring nubiles skewered and decapitated in the woods. “Wendy, what were you saying before about us all getting killed?,” asks a victim, possibly ironically. The saving grace: The glitchy Jason-like killer flickers in and out, as if existing within the fold of a VHS tape crease. Also forgettable is “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” helmed by mumblecore ringleader Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”), who also stars in “Second Honeymoon.” Here, we eavesdrop on a series of Skype conversations between the girlfriend/victim and her boyfriend. It’s a clever comment on technology and intimacy, but the conceit doesn’t hold our interest.
Which raises the biggest hurdle for “V/H/S.” Each of the shorts must ramp up its own suspense machine in a mere 20 minutes. Then we must reinvest in new plot and characters. Viewed en masse, “V/H/S” can’t generate the necessary suspense, and buy-in, to truly get under your skin.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.