'VHYes': Film Review

Nate Gold/Oscilloscope Laboratories
A hipster-retro 'Kentucky Fried Movie' with a phantasmagoric twist.
1/17/2020

Jack Henry Robbins, son of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, looks at the world through a short-attention-span montage of faux '80s television clips.

Is it just an Eighties-drunk exercise in pastiche, or perhaps an experiment in slow-burn psychological horror for the Adult Swim crowd? Could it even be a disguised indictment of a generation that sat watching infomercials and dopey porn while its democracy passed the point of no return? Jack Henry Robbins' VHYes is a bit of all that, poured into a form that begs for midnight-movie consumption. The son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, Robbins briefly enlists both parents onscreen here, while relying more heavily on a small array of comic performers familiar from TV. Though hardly groundbreaking in either its content or its aesthetics, the film is more serious than it initially lets on, and can only benefit from the VHS nostalgia that has, often irrationally, taken root in some quarters.

Shot entirely on VHS and Betamax, the pic's conceit is that it is the result of a Christmas gift whose recipient should have been more careful: When pre-teen Ralph (Mason McNulty) starts experimenting with his family's new video camera in December 1987, he unwittingly uses the tape of his parents' wedding as he runs around filming everything from fights between his dinosaur toys to his attempts to shoot off fireworks with best pal Josh (Rahm Braslaw).

(Those who've actually used a camcorder may wonder how he managed to leave big swaths of wedding footage intact while recording stuff before and after; the not terribly-offensive cheat is necessary to support a theme the film will eventually get around to.)

Very quickly, Ralph realizes he can use a cable to record what's on TV; he plugs in and records a spree of channel-surfing that is hardly dictated by the merits of whatever happens to be onscreen.

The clunky programs we witness sprinkle familiar faces among actors who look like they were plucked from the actual period. Thomas Lennon plays the co-host of a TV shopping network, currently hawking a Confederate Army memorial pen; the inimitably nerdy Mark Proksch plays an expert on an Antiques Roadshow-like program who explains the suspiciously bizarre origins of ordinary-looking artifacts.

We see aerobics classes, nightly news and cop shows. We sit in on a Bob Ross-style painting tutorial that gets less Bob Ross-like with each passing minute. Its host Joan (Kerri Kenney) doesn't only host Painting With Joan, but stranger programs, like the unsettling Sleeping With Joan, which is pretty much the opposite of the gently wholesome Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep.

While Joan and others give things an air of drug-addled discomfort, some program snippets contain hints of a more clear-eyed world view. The perfunctory scripts of porn films we see are built not around hunky cable-repair guys or pizza-delivery dudes, but scientists researching global warming, or blonde lesbian aliens who are forced to navigate American attitudes toward illegal immigration. Stranger and more on-target is a current-events talk show whose guest starts expounding on "Tape Narcissism": a phenomenon of indiscriminate self-documentation she feels will lead its victims to psychosis. To the show's host, her predictions sound so hyperbolic as to be insane; to us, she's describing the age of social media.

So it goes, with occasional clips in which Ralph documents bits of domestic discomfort he doesn't quite understand. Viewers who stick with the ADHD skit-like material will be divided about whether this familial theme ties things together satisfactorily — and about whether sticking to a single target, a la Between Two Ferns, makes more sense for those who would mine clunky idioms for laugh. For those on the fence, a detour into found-footage horror will only complicate the question.

Production company: Hot Winter Films
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Cast: Mason McNulty, Rahm Braslaw, Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch
Director: Jack Henry Robbins
Screenwriters: Nunzio Randazzo, Jack Henry Robbins
Producer: Delaney Schenker
Director of photography: Nate Gold
Production designer: Tyler Jensen
Editor: Avner Shiloah

72 minutes