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A shaky attempt at anthology horror

“V/H/S” centers on the concept of anthology horror but with the added element of a found-footage style film. The wraparound story, “Tape 56,” sets up the idea of seeing the various stories and the effect they seem to have on a group of guys sent to steal this tape from a home.

In the opening, we see the guys are total tools, making “reality porn” by attacking women and lifting their shirts, wrecking stuff with bats and generally being the kind of guys everyone else hates. One of the group says he can make more money by stealing a tape for a guy he knows, but they have to break into a home to get it.

The group takes the job and gets into the house, but things start to get weird when they find a seemingly dead, old smelly guy in a chair with a bank of TV sets in front of him. There are a lot of tapes to go through to find the right one, and this is the setup of how the various stories in the film come to be seen. There are six total vignettes, including the wraparound. Some of these stories work and others are less successful.

We open with “Amateur Night,” a story about a very creepy girl. Next is “Second Honeymoon,” about a couple on a road trip. Third up is “Tuesday the 17th” in which a group of friends go to a secluded lake, which is never a good thing. Fourth is “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” which takes place over the course of several Skype calls. The last of the tales before the wrap up was “10/31/98” in which a group of friends looking for a Halloween party enter the wrong house, the really wrong house. (Warning, some spoilers ahead.)

The first story, “Amateur Night,” worked very well. It was intriguing enough to keep me interested and centers on a group of three immature guys in a motel room who embed a camera in the glasses of one of their number, Clint (Drew Sawyer). They intend to record their exploits for the evening, including any sex they plan on having later after a night of bar hopping. They find two women to bring back, including a very unsettling young woman with gigantic eyes named Lily (Hannah Fierman). They should have known something was wrong with her, but hey, drunk dudes. Things get pretty horrific at the hotel room, and I really liked the ending. Fierman was a standout here.

“Second Honeymoon” was problematic in the setup, but the payoff was nice. More on that later.

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” had the same problem. It had a nice idea and a decent creepy overtone, but a couple of the things that occurred made me roll my eyes. The story takes place over a series of Skype calls between Emily (Helen Rogers) and her boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman), a soon-to-be doctor. Emily speaks to James about a strange bruise on her arm and some unusual goings on in her apartment. James calms her by telling her he will be with her soon. Things escalate with odd-looking children appearing in her home, which James apparently sees as well. Emily then begins digging at her bruise with a scalpel, at which point James tells her to leave it alone; he will look at it when he sees her. Things go from bad to worse for her. I will say that the Skype aspect totally worked here as it never came out of this perspective. Not switching to some other camera aspect gave the story a very voyeuristic feeling that I really liked. The dim lighting worked very well, adding a general unease to all of their calls.

“10/31/98” was the toughest for me because it had an opportunity to be great. It had some really nice moments and an unsettling feeling as the story pressed on. A group of four costumed friends, including one dressed as a nanny-cam (hence the entire evening being recorded), are looking for a Halloween party they’ve been invited to. They think they’ve found the right home and all enter, ready to have a great time. They have not found the right house, and things start to get weird. The guys think the house has been set up as a haunted attraction; however, things turn bad as they realize there’s something awful going on in the attic. The effects worked here, allowing for a couple of scary moments. The dread you feel as the men approach the attic, even though they don’t seem to feel any dread, works well.

The wraparound story didn’t work at all for me. I needed a little more build up and a lot less camera shake. I got that the guys were jerks and that they were breaking into a house to steal a tape, but beyond that, nothing happened in the way of explanation. There was some odd naked guy walking about, the dead guy wasn’t really dead, and our burglars don’t meet with kind fates, but that’s it. This part of the narrative needed a little more to get me hooked.

As I said, “Second Honeymoon” had a good payoff, but the problems with the setup took away from the ending. The young couple, Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal), are staying in a fleabag motel. They are approached by a woman (off camera) asking for a ride, and Sam refuses her. Later, their motel room is broken into by someone who then uses their video camera to record his or her exploits. Neither Sam nor Stephanie budge from sleep, even with a strong camera light being shoved into their faces (I partially understand why, but it was too much). Although the end works, I would have liked a little more back story to give the end what it needed to make the best impact.

“Tuesday the 17th” is the third story, and for me, this was the weakest. It centers on a group of friends going to a secluded lake that Wendy (Norma C. Quinones), the new friend, traveled to when she was a girl. Wendy starts uttering odd things relating to a series of homicides that occurred at the lake when she was young, thus freaking out the rest of the group. Bad things begin to happen, and it seems Wendy has not been entirely honest about her motives. Although it was a decent idea, the story was very uneven, and the acting didn’t hit the target here. It also lacked a sufficient punch at the end.

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” had a few narrative problems. Emily digs into her own arm to get at whatever is causing her bruise. This smacks of mental problems, or not, but I don’t think it worked except to be shocking. The bruise is an actual plot point, but the digging at the bruise needed to be eliminated or used to show Emily’s possible insanity. It seems James has seen the children in her apartment, which gives credence to what’s going on in her life, but it would have worked better if he claimed that he didn’t see them. The payoff would have been nicer.

“10/31/98,” the last story before the last part of the wraparound, was a very lost opportunity. It had some really nice moments (as noted), but it lost the chance to tell a much more intriguing tale about the woman who is saved from the guys in the attic. I would have liked to have seen the story pick up a tad later, cutting out some of the setup and allowing for the story to be fleshed out a bit more in the house.

The gore factor here is mid-range, some blood and guts (literally) in the stories, but nothing crazy. There’s also some nudity, both female and male.

I can see what “V/H/S” was shooting for, and it did hit the target in many areas, but the uneven storytelling and some more uneven acting made it a tough sell for me.

The stories of “V/H/S” were written by Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Nicholas Tecosky, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Simon Barrett, Radio Silence, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella, with a concept from Brad Miska. They were directed by Adam Wingard, Bruckner, West, McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Silence, Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett, Martinez and Villella. The movie stars Calvin Reeder, Hannah Fierman, Drew Sawyer, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Norma C. Quinones, Helen Rogers, Daniel Kaufman and Villella.

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