In my formative teen years, I watched a re-run of the 1976 TV movie, Helter Skelter, and my love of verisimilitude in horror began. So any movie that uses the “found footage” conceit is intriguing to me right out of the gate. Simply on that level, I enjoyed V/H/S, an anthology of six short horror stories presented as VHS tapes found in a mysterious old man’s house. But ultimately V/H/S was unsatisfying, and unlike other found footage movies I enjoy enough to revisit, one viewing of this movie is enough for me.
I think the problem has more to do with the anthology structure than the stories themselves. First, it requires each story to be short, which leaves almost no room for character development or the building of a mythology, two key components to a good “found footage” story.
The Blair Witch Project is the gold standard for these kinds of movies, and the reason why it worked is that we got to know the three kids very well (through character development) and we got to understand the threat they faced (through mythology building). The stories in V/H/S are all missing at least one of these components and often both. For example, there’s the story of the couple on the road-trip. Yes, we get to know them a little, but the threat they face is perfunctory right until the very end. Combine that with a twist that comes completely out of nowhere and contradicts what little character development there was, and this viewer was yanked right out of the movie.
The second problem with mixing an anthology structure with found footage is what I’ll call the compounding of irresolution. Another key trope of the found footage genre is an unresolved story. The stereotypical “abrupt ending” is an example of this, though it’s not necessary (see The Poughkeepsie Tapes for a counter-example). This lack of resolution creates a nice sense of mystery that (when it works well) will lend itself to multiple viewings. It’s the feeling that if I just watch it enough times I can gather clues to figure out the mystery. It’s compelling when it’s done right.
But V/H/S is comprised of six stories (including the frame story), each of which is left unresolved. That’s a lot of irresolution to ask a viewer to endure. (Not to mention that this lack of resolution can hardly be earned in a 20-minute story.) I found myself disengaging from the viewing experience more and more as this fundamental story problem compounded with each new “tape.”
Now to be fair, there’s a lot of cool stuff in this movie. Some very creepy moments, inventive story twists, fun horror set-pieces, and truly memorable visuals. Some examples include the surprise aerial footage in one of the early stories, the video-distortion killer in the woods, the hands coming out of the walls, and the ghost children haunting the girl’s apartment.
I do believe anthology in horror can work. Trick ‘r Treat is a great recent example. But it’s not enough to simply staple together a collection of short films. The skilled filmmaker will also consider the relationship of those individual stories to each other and to the whole. The whole must be more than the sum of its parts or else the result will be dissatisfying and forgettable—my final verdict on V/H/S.