Like this year’s “The Cabin in the Woods” upended the kids-in-the-woods horror genre, “V/H/S” flips found-footage on its head once and for all in original ways. This nifty horror-anthology nasty is a collection of five found-footage tales, written and directed by a new generation of nine rising indie-horror filmmakers, including Adam Wingard (2011’s not-yet-released “You’re Next”), David Bruckner (2007’s “The Signal”), Ti West (2009’s “The House of the Devil”), Glenn McQuaid (2008’s “I Sell the Dead”), Joe Swanberg (2011’s “Autoerotic”), and the group Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella). Each tale diverges from the last with their own little horrific delights, and all nine talents make it a compulsively watchable collective work.
“V/H/S” centers on Wingard’s wraparound, “Tape Fifty-Six,” about a group of horrible hooligans (Wingard, Calvin Reeder, Kentucker Audley, Lane Hughes), who regularly videotape themselves assaulting strangers and vandalizing buildings. They get an offer from a mysterious client to break into an old man’s house and steal one VHS tape but have to go through a bunch to find the right one. Gee, didn’t these punks know Blu-ray discs are now in? That’s where the anthology part comes in.
First up is “Amateur Night” from Bruckner. It involves a trio of vulgar frat types (Drew Sawyer, Mike Donlan, Joe Sykes) that try out a hidden camera in their fellow geek’s eyeglasses. They aim to pick up chicks and make their own porn, but end up getting their just desserts from a strange, wide-eyed young woman. Bruckner figures in the POV aesthetic the best and ends up delivering one of the five’s strongest. The second tape, “Second Honeymoon,” finds a good-natured couple (Sophia Takal, director Swanberg) recording their second honeymoon in the West. Once they get a weird knock on their hotel-room door from a girl who just wants a ride, the romance ends there. West’s contribution depends on his typical slow-burn pacing and suspense, leading to a disturbing payoff that dares you to pick out plot holes.
McQuaid helms the third, “Tuesday the 17th,” a playful twist on four friends going into the lakeside woods. It starts off familiar like a “Friday the 13th” sequel, but the girl driving has ulterior motives, and the camcorder plays an important role, as the killer can only be fuzzily seen on camera. In Swanberg and writer Simon Barrett’s fourth segment, “The Strange Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” sweet, pixie-haired Emily (Helen Rogers) and her boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufmann) are having a video chat. Although the project’s shaky-cam aesthetic is given a rest here, the old flashing of a Polaroid camera in a dark room feels overused. Otherwise, it’s a lot of creepy, hand-in-front-of-your-eyes fun, with the revealing of an unsettling (if illogical) revelation.
Last but certainly the best, Radio Silence’s “10/31/98” has four buddies on their way to a Halloween costume party in a house that seems to be empty. Wandering around, they think it might be a haunted funhouse, until they walk in on a ritualistic sacrifice in the attic that looks too real to be fake. Made with the most effects (which are seamless by the way), this story has plenty of freaky frights and just keeps on escalating.
Could any of these stories work as features? Probably not, but treated as shorts, each is sustained with nightmarish suspense as we wait for the other shoe to drop. The whole experience is practically like watching a collection of snuff films or frightening YouTube videos, even if you must make giant leaps of faith for all of it to work. Though every tape is pretty poorly shot, none of them are more nausea-inducing than “The Blair Witch Project” or any other found-footage pic. This is carefully crafted stuff.
Cleverly conceived and ingeniously executed, “V/H/S” is a masterstroke of sick fun that will fit in nicely with “Creepshow,” “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie,” “Tales from the Hood,” and “Trick ‘r Treat.” Even though the filmmakers could have separated the wheat from the chaff (the payoff to the wraparound being the weakest), “V/H/S” is a neat package that should thrill horror fans and those that are sick of the found-footage genre’s old tricks.
116 min., rated R.
Grade: B +