[This review was originally posted as part of our Sundance Film Festival 2012 coverage. It is being reposted to coincide with the film's wider theatrical release.]
The found footage horror film is one of the worst things to happen to the genre. Sure, it has its fans -- maybe you are one of them? -- and it has its pleased financial investors, but it has crippled horror. The supernatural is now pedestrian and jump scares are no longer a cheap scare. No, they are now the only scare. I liked Blair Witch Project but none of its imitators, so it's only natural I would approach V/H/S cautiously.
Instead of proving my cynical expectations correct, I found this horror anthology to be one of the most exciting and entertaining horror films in years.
After setting expectations low, V/H/S blows them away with its clever short stories. Each story tackles a genre convention with a sense of style. From a she-devil tearing apart a group of over-sexed frat boys to an unabashedly simple yet effective haunted house tale, V/H/S covers all the horror tropes while adding something new that has been missing from the genre in recent year: surprise.
Shot with webcams, VHS cameras, and iPhones, each segment has its own unique look and, unlike other found footage films, makes the most of its grainy, low-res quality. Digital artifacts are used as foreshadowing, camera stutter is used for effective jump cuts, and it all makes a strangely watchable film despite its decidedly difficult presentation. When CGI beasts and ghost children rear their ugly head, it's all the more believable because of the grounded reality that came before it.
None of this would matter if V/H/S didn't have compelling stories to tell. Fan of Tales from the Crypt and Creepshow will find much to love here. Unlike a Paranormal Activity film that makes you to wait for the good parts at the end, V/H/S is packed with unpleasant surprises and unnervingly tense scenes. Due to its short story format, it's able to dramatically change tone and location as it jumps from location to location. It might be the only found footage, POV film that intelligently uses the format.
"Intelligently" may be too strong a word though, because V/H/S is pretty dumb in many other ways. For example, in what world do people film with VHS cameras when iPhones and cheap HD cameras exist? One of these stories take place in 1998, but others are supposedly modern. It's just weird. It was enough to make me lose all hope for the film in its opening 10 minutes, but it soon won me over in a big way. Once you realize the opening isn't representative of the film, you'll see it's easy to let go of silly details within such silly horror stories.
Full of dark twists and well earned scares, V/H/S is one of those rare horror films, like Blair Witch Project, that you wish you could experience again for a first time. Each director involved brings a masterful touch of suspense, humor, and horror to their story. As a larger narrative, the stories are perfectly juxtaposed to make one of the most thrilling times I've had in the cinema in years. It's nostalgic and wonderfully progressive at the same time. It revives the found footage concept only to bury it for good. Ti West and crew saw it to its end and gave it the perfect send-off.