V/H/S: Sundance Film Review

VHS Sundance Film 2012
A compilation tape of horror shorts by some of the genre’s young turks.

The horror anthology film, helmed by six directors, follows a group of petty criminals who invade a private home to retrieve a videotape for a mysterious client.

PARK CITY -- Many found-footage-format horror films can trace their DNA to the 1999 Sundance breakout The Blair Witch Project, which attributed mysterious events in rural Maryland to supernatural influences. While some productions have gone bigger-budget (Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity franchise), V/H/S sticks to its indie roots, featuring a compilation of shorts wrapped into a framing film that sets the context for the rediscovered footage.

The project’s name-brand horror directors -- including Ti West (The Inkeepers) and Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die), as well as their genre followings --  were no doubt strong selling points among Sundance Film Festival bidders, with Magnolia Pictures acquiring North American rights for slightly more than $1 million to put the film out theatrically and via VOD. Magnolia has a successful track record with this type of hybrid release strategy, and a targeted marketing push could see good theatrical returns as well.

Filmmaker Wingard provides the wrapper, Tape Fifty-Six, featuring a group of petty criminals (known for staging break-ins and video-recording their exploits) who invade a private home to retrieve a videotape for a mysterious client. The house is mostly deserted, however, except for an upstairs room containing a dead man’s body in an armchair facing a bank of TVs and video decks. While one of them remains behind in the room, the others search the house and basement for the tape. While he waits for his cohorts to return, the remaining guy begins playing the tapes piled up in front of the TVs.

First up is the segment Amateur Night, by David Bruckner (The Signal).Three college guys out for a night of drinking and carousing meet up with a group of girls, most of whom are disinterested in their juvenile antics with the exception of two -- the hot chick and the strange chick.

Back at their hotel room, the alpha jock begins putting the moves on the hot girl while the nerdy guy tries to chat up the strange girl with impossibly large eyes who doesn’t say much to him beyond “I like you.” When the hot chick passes out, the jock turns his attention to the other woman, who seems receptive at first, but turns out to be deadly serious. With a sickening sound, her teeth tear into his neck, shredding muscles and arteries. His buddies panic, shutting themselves in the bathroom. In order to escape, they’ll have to get past her and make it out the door -- if they get that far.

In between segments, the action returns to the framing film as the men continue to search the house, making increasingly creepy discoveries. In 10/31/98, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, four guys going to a Halloween party pick the wrong address, entering a home that’s strangely unoccupied and certainly not hosting a party. Searching the house, they discover a disturbing scene in the attic, where a group of men appears to be torturing a young woman. At first they assume it’s a scene enacted for party entertainment, but quickly realize that the girl is actually a captive.

Overcoming her assailants, they rescue the victim and carry her out of the attic as the structure of the house begins to shift, objects levitate and grasping hands emerge from the walls. Once they finally escape the home, they hustle the woman into their car, discovering too late that she poses a far greater threat than the men who held her captive.

Additional segments include Second Honeymoon, featuring a couple’s romantic road trip gone very wrong, directed by West and starring Sophia Takal and filmmaker-actor Joe Swanberg; ghost story The Strange Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, directed by Swanberg and Simon Barrett; and Tuesday the 17th by Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), a classic cabin in the woods short featuring a virtual killer on the hunt for several college kids. Tape Fifty-Six concludes V/H/S with very adverse outcomes for the home-invaders.

Production values overall are somewhat rough, as befits low-budget horror, with plenty of shaky-camera sequences, variable lighting and fairly basic special effects. Refreshingly, V/H/S promises no more than it delivers, always a plus with genre fare. The film is co-produced by The Collective, a company that holds a partial ownership stake in horror website Bloodydisgusting.com, as well as Bloody Disgusting co-founder Brad Miska.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Park City at Midnight
Production companies: The Collective and Bloody Disgusting
Cast: Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Sophia Takal, Kate Lyn Sheil, Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes
Directors: Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, Ti West
Screenwriters: Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, Ti West, Nicholas Tecosky, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Chad Villella   
Producers: Gary Binkow, Brad Miska, Roxanne Benjamin  
Executive producers: Gary Tom Owen, Zak Zeman
Director of photography: Victoria K. Warren
Editors: David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Chad Villella
Sales: WME Global
No rating, 104 minutes