Film is dead. Or is dying. Or is an old folk’s home hooked up to a machine. Or something. (Was I supposed to wear black to the funeral?) The tangibility of film, undoubtedly, is disappearing. As a medium, the transition to digital is terrifying to some and embraced by others. Even as a culture, things are being called into question, and nails are (prematurely) being hammered into the coffin. With that, the film world, dying or being resurrected (You decide!), is producing some fascinating, vexing, and perplexing responses. In one corner, you have pop-auteur Quentin Tarantino saying he’s essentially quitting filmmaking, saying digital [projection?] is “television in public”. In another corner, you have Leos Carax’s gorgeous, complex, surreal masterpiece Holy Motors, which seems to document cinematic and performance history from the beginning, but also perform a wistful eulogy for celluloid. And then you have a little film called V/H/S, an anthology horror film which shouldn’t work, shouldn’t be good, and damn well shouldn’t be nearly as compelling as it is.
Consisting of five vignettes and one “framework”, V/H/S is not my cup of tea. It’s a found footage film. I have no affinity for the style, as I find it generally lacking in substance and too reliant on teenage misogyny and sloppy improvisation and editing. That it is a horror film is not inherently bad; I like a good horror film. But putting found footage and horror together has, lately, been kind of disastrous. I never cared for Paranormal Activity, and when I woke up from my nap during the film, I found out there was a fifth one in the works. The Devil Inside might be the most infamous mainstream, wide released internet commercial ever. Apollo 18, Paranormal Entity, etc. all basically play to the same elements, with no style or panache, never mind insight. What shocked me about V/H/S, more than its lurid short stories, was its subversion of… so many different aspects of the style, the medium, the genre, and the times we live in.
Magnetic Tape as Memory and Nostalgia
The film is built around a very loose framework, which is, in a way, a segment on its own. Called “Tape 56”, a group of male delinquents (shocking) break into a house in search for a specific tape. When they retrieve the tape, they will be compensated with money. While in the dark house, they come across a bounty of other tapes, and, as curiosity killed the cat, they begin watching them. And on each, there is a segment of the film.
Most of the segments have no specific time or setting, but the information can be inferred by the technology that is used to film each story. “Tape 56” is filmed with a shoulder mount camcorder, probably one reminiscent of the 1980s (where the style recalls some of the ‘80s grunge of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers). “Amateur Night” is filmed with a tiny spy camera in the nose of a pair of Woody Allen-ish looking glasses. “Second Honeymoon” and “Tuesday the 17th” are filmed with your typical DV camera. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is told via a Skype webcam session. And “10/31/98” is told through a tape camcorder from, you guessed it, the late ‘90s, but as a “nanny cam”.
What does all this mean? There’s a certain, deliberate nostalgia, for all of its anachronisms, instead of lessening the film’s quality, enhance it. Yeah, the quality is poor, but it’s supposed to be. You have to wonder, how do some of these formats, from the glasses camera to the Skype conversation, even get on a VHS tape? It all seems to the concept of the tangibility of film. For all of film’s (as an artistic medium) evolution, from celluloid to digital, from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray, it’s still the artistic medium that matters. But there’s a wistfulness about the production of the film. The democratization of film isn’t the issue; it’s the permanency of it. Even though these anachronistic set pieces and devices shouldn’t work, the desire to keep them existing is so powerful that they appear on rocking, old school VHS tapes. It isn’t only the concept of how these shorts were filmed that matters; it is also how they are addressed in each segment. The glasses are more voyeuristic than most found footage films dare to be, especially in the middle of subverting a trope; the DV recorders hold secrets, and in “Tuesday the 17th” they address the technical fallacies of the device (tracking issues and pixelization); the Skype conversation works to show the evolution of emotional intimacy over the web; and the nanny cam again works as voyeurism, but as a way to “protect your loved ones” on tape. The female lead in “Second Honeymoon” even says that her purpose is to keep the memories of the road trip.
That such devices and mediums are either evolving into more complex, “better” things or disappearing altogether, is something that V/H/S wants to address. Maybe it’s simultaneously yearning for the simplicity, even the corniness of the past while embracing the future of how films are made digitally. Maybe it does not want to let go of the memories stored on magnetic tape. Maybe V/H/S is nostalgia manifested.
Realism as Artifice
One of the big selling points of found footage films is that the film is told from specific perspectives and that it provides a sense of realism. It’s the bastard child of cinema verite filmmaking and narrative filmmaking. Instead of actors breaking that imaginary fourth wall, the “found footage” serves as more of an openly transparent fourth wall, and one that has no qualms with letting its audience in on the action. Found footage is like “American neo-realism”: generally portraying middle class people (sometimes lower class) doing very naturalistic actions in maybe somewhat unnatural situations. (My analogy would work better if the peasants had the cameras, no?) So, most of the found footage horror, for all of its implausibility, is supposed to seem real. It is supposed to walk that fine line of realism and fantastical horror, from the banal conversations in Paranormal Activity to the natural lack of direction in The Blair Witch Project: it’s supposed to be “real”. On some levels, it may succeed: When my sister went to see Blair Witch upon its original release, she came back from the theater, petrified and asking my mother desperately if the “historical background” of the film was real.
V/H/S does not exactly have no regard for the realism in found footage, but it intentionally subverts that idea. In comparison to most found footage horror films, what you see in this one is entirely implausible. A demon woman killing your friends as she has sex with them, a headless zombie, a supernatural serial killer that destroys the line between seeing and believing (all those tracking errors!), a woman being used as an alien incubator, an exorcism. The only segment of the bunch that seems a remote possibility is Ti West’s emotionally and suspenseful bounded “Second Honeymoon”, where a man is murdered by his wife’s lesbian lover while on a road trip.
What is more, each segment begins normally enough (as with all horror films), but allowing its anachronistic prop to be part of that normality. Sex cam voyeurism is commonplace to the douche bags in “Amateur Night”, whether the actual use of the glasses is an experiment or not. Being hoodlums and recording the adventures is commonplace. Recording your friends on a road trip (and leading them to their death!) is routine. Skyping with your significant other. Going to a Halloween party/watching over your kid with a monitor. All of these are presented as something we would expect from the characters.
The normalcy of it all shows in the film’s execution, or rather the execution of each segment by the respective characters. Needless to say, it is very poor. It’s grainy, sporadically filmed, shaky, a nightmare… But purposefully. Common for the style, this transcends “bad cinematography”. But it is, in my belief, completely supposed to. These are your everyday schlubs, horn dogs, lovers, etc. and they have no desire to adhere to the aesthetic principals that many filmmakers hold themselves to. They are normal people having a good time. And it shows. The deliriousness of some segments (“Tape 56”, “Amateur Night”) contrasted against the comparatively sereneness of others (“Second Honeymoon”, “Tuesday the 17th”, “That Sick Thing…”) makes it look like the mash up, compilation video it’s supposed to be. Or, rather, the random selection of videos that just happen to be there. That complete lack of awareness for consistency works in the film’s favor in subverting its supposed realism.
With the “Second Honeymoon” segment aside, the blatant disregard for realism is fascinating. Here you have a style of filmmaking that is intentionally created to form a certain kind of intimacy with the viewer, and in that you have completely ridiculous situations. It isn’t merely the supernatural aspect of it, but the way the artifice affects the medium and affects the storytelling. The found footage is immediately used to gain a sense of trust, but the trust is bent in half when it is present with wild characters and actions. What V/H/S is able to accomplish is revealing the fraudulence of “found footage” itself. It shatters the illusory nature. It works to tear away the curtain and show the fakery behind something that is used to be “real”. If found footage is the Wizard of Oz of filmmaking, V/H/S is the rather sadistic Dorothy.
Medium as Narrative Device
It is inherent that the camera in a found footage film plays a direct part in the film. As opposed to the camera being a spectator that records the actions, situations, and images in any given film, found footage puts you right there, not only a medium through which the story is told, but as a character as well. Found footage gives you a specific perspective, generally from one character, but the difference being is that that perspective, despite the fact that it is essentially linked to the carrier and works as the eyes of that character, is actually an objective look at what is occurring. It happens to be a rather paradoxical thing in found footage cinema: it’s supposed to be a character, and yet it works objectively (unlike the camera in Antonioni’s Blowup).
Despite the paradoxical quality of found footage, walking the line between the objective and the subjective, in V/H/S it takes on another duty: the narrative device. This is fairly prevalent in found footage films, but again, many do not address it with the same or with as much self-awareness as this does. Not only is a VHS tape a MacGuffin for the first segment, the moment a tape is popped in, the tape itself, the medium on which the story has been recorded, it suddenly becomes self-reflexive and works as the narrative device that pushes the characters. Much like the idea of the magnetic tape working as nostalgia, the tape works as the thing through which the actions are found. The stories are not merely just stories, but documentation of what has once occurred and what affects the hoodlums in “Tape 56”.
“Tape 56” is interesting all by itself (although it is my least favorite of the segments). It is the framework through which the film is told, which means that as opposed to being one straight segment, it bounces back and forth between the tapes found and the characters in the segment. Thus, the VHS tapes that hold the rest of the segments of the film all have their own influences on a character or characters in “Tape 56”. Generally speaking, though, the effect is superficially minimal. It isn’t necessarily the reactions which are proof that the medium works as the narrative device; in fact, it’s just the opposite.
That there is a blue screen and a constant jumping around between previous stupid things the guys have done serves as your device. The VHS tapes, all of them, work as a record of the past and of the present. The guy trying to secretly make a sex tape (all the while using that lame “The red light means it’s off!” excuse), the garage assault, and the breaking and entering are parts of a whole that serve both as the format through which the film is told as well as the driving force.
Magnetic tape has a finite length in a cassette, which means that the jumping back and forth to what may be the present and what may be the past inherently forces the film and the story to drive forward. The film must continue running through until the end. That is what I mean by medium as narrative device.
But with the other segments implementing anachronistic technology, what does that mean for them? It means the same thing. The story is help on tapes, making the tangible medium the device by pushing it forward mechanically. Not to mention that the rest of the devices all have a specific limit through which they can record and by what means. And while each character holds the camera, it becomes character driven, thus connecting the links between medium as character and not just innocuous spectator. The camera as character is then active in the decisions made, shaping the film.
Even its fly on the wall nature works to push the story forward. If every experience for the characters then has a certain kind of immediacy in an environment where it tends to be the boring routine, recording it then places meaning upon each action.
Like the tape in each VHS cassette, the story won’t stop and can’t stop. It must go on.
V/H/S is not an inherently “good” movie, but it is compelling enough that much of its disregard is unwarranted. The fear factor is negligible (though I am not really the best to ask), and some segments are significantly better than others. But the anthological nature of the film, for all of its inconsistency and frantic randomness does everything to make the film more interesting and worthy of a watch. The film seems to represent not only a bizarre experiment done by Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, and Radio Silence, but as discernible and physical evidence that film, however you want to define it, is changing. While it does everything to subvert the found footage style, it works to make the medium represent wistful nostalgia, to further blur the lines between realism and artifice, and to make the medium itself drive the story and not just tell it. While perhaps not as essentially entertaining as, say, The Cabin in the Woods, V/H/S is another horror film from 2012 that does far more than most expect it to. To some extent, it does more: it takes full advantage of its own style and medium. It looks at its own LCD monitor and history. It looks the audience right in the eye, thereby allowing the audience to look at itself.