V/H/S review: The buzz was way more exciting (and likable)

As a big fan of horror, as well as the found-footage subgenre, I was really excited to see V/H/S, a found-footage horror anthology. After it screened at Sundance, it got a lot of buzz -- people were passing out, leaving the theater, men and women gnashing their teeth, etc. So you can imagine my disappointment when I realized I was glad I'd stayed home and paid about half the price of a theater ticket to get it on demand. Despite a few genuinely scary moments, it was hard to get past the fact that I wanted every single character in V/H/S to die a horrible death so I wouldn't have to watch them anymore.

If you have your heart absolutely set on seeing V/H/S, then by all means, see it. But if you're on the fence or having any doubts, let me share what I didn't like, and maybe you'll share my opinion. (If not, that's also cool.)

My problems with V/H/S started within the first ten minutes of the first segment, "Tape 56." For one thing, and maybe I'm just an old pearl-clutching biddy, the twentysomething dudes who are trashing things for the sake of trashing things -- I'm sorry, but they're in their twenties, and this is all they can find to do? -- and using the word "fuck" as a prefix and suffix for every word they say are not going to curry favor with me. Ten minutes in, I want them all to be viciously murdered, just so I don't have to hear the word "fuck" anymore. And I love the word "fuck"! But I don't like to hear it abused like this, thrown around wantonly, its glorious impact and value discarded like spit. The hazards of being unscripted.

I also don't particularly enjoy watching delinquent ne'er-do-wells breaking the law for fun. ("Oh god -- youths!") I had the same problem with Attack the Block -- why should I care about characters who are giving me no reason to like them? In Attack the Block, this issue is resolved. In V/H/S, it's not. In fact, on top of being remorseless brats, the first characters we meet (who are also the glue that binds the movie together between segments) are amateur "reality pornographers." Joe Francis wannabes (BARF), assaulting an unsuspecting woman in a parking garage and forcefully pinning her arms behind her back while exposing her breasts for the camera. And then saying "We should be doing up-skirt shots, you guys." Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen!

In the midst of so much character-hate, there is one redeeming instance in the second segment, "Amateur Night," when a drunken male douche chooses not to rape a drunken female douche who has passed out, although he has to be reminded by his fellow douches not to do it. (When traveling in packs, drunken douches often follow the lead of the alpha douche.) Of course, he then takes it upon himself to have sex with the other female in the room, who (spoiler) turns into a succubus and rips him to shreds. So, that was a relief. Watching terrible characters meeting a horrific fate can be fun, for sure, but usually there's someone else around to like. Not in V/H/S.

Then there's the whole "crazy bitches being crazy" thing. While there is definitely a fair share of horrible male characters in V/H/S (i.e., all of them), the way the women are portrayed was problematic for me. At times, it felt like this movie was conceived by a frustrated 15-year-old boy with a camcorder and a pirated copy of Final Draft. If the girls weren't there to be sexual objects, they were the monsters ruining everything for everybody. The one exception was the horribly titled segment, "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger." While Emily was a victim, she was a victim of terrifying weirdness, which is perfectly acceptable in a movie about terrifying weirdness. I'd even give a pass to the end of that segment, when she is beaten by the boyfriend who did the terrifying weirdness to her, in an attempt to cover up said weirdness, because the gender roles could have easily been reversed. But she did have to show her boobs on Skype first.

I will say that V/H/S definitely has very cool, creepy scenes in it. The stories, when discounting the characters, were actually interesting. "The Sick Thing" was good, reminiscent of The X-Files. But my favorite was "10/31/98," about four guys in Halloween costumes in a house of horrors. (One of them was the Unabomber! Oh, 1998!) The found-footage style served this segment really well. What I like about found-footage is that when something scary starts happening, and it's not cinematically shot, it looks less like a special effect and more like a supernatural thing happening in a natural setting. (See: Paranormal Activity.) That's what we got in that segment (and in "Amateur Night"), and I dug that. I was also a fan of the killer in "Tuesday the 17th." Very creepy and effective, and, of course, I was happy to see all those idiots die.

And that is the crux of my V/H/S criticism -- decent horror stories in a fun format, ruined by astoundingly unlikable characters. If you want to see it for yourself, don't let me stop you. In fact, here is a positive review for a counterpoint. However, take advantage of being able to stay home and spend less money to see it on demand. Personally, I've always preferred watching found-footage movies at home, late at night, when there is no "walk to the parking lot, drive home" buffer, and I can really freak myself out. V/H/S didn't accomplish that for me, but it might for you.

Photo credit: V/H/S Official Site


  1. I understand that character criticism. I know that the horror genre loves the “they deserve it” cast of characters, but there has to be something likable about them to care when they die (or survive). Those stakes matter. A lot. It seems to be more and more extreme lately too.

    Also, who puts a Skype call on VHS?

  2. For the most part I agree. The end-caps were not good. I did like the first story with the guys that pick up the girl at the bar. Mostly because it ratchets up the tension well. And then aside from that it was mostly not good, with a few decent parts. Not sure why someone would record skype sessions on their mac and then transfer them to VHS tape…

    And the one in the woods was just AWFUL. 

  3. Every time I hear a story about some horror movie where “previous audiences passed out with freight”, I know the marketing department is in full BS mode.  They used to go crazy with claims like that back in the 60s and 70s, but thankfully the industry as mostly moved on.

    1. To be fair, my grandmother literally ran home in fright after seeing the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame at a theater. She was 8 or 9 at the time though, and I think Raiders of the Lost Ark scarred more kids than most horror movies could.

  4. Nope, you haven’t put me off V/H/S; I love to watch films where delinquent ne’er-do-wells die horrible messy deaths. I make bets with my husband as to who will die first.  And if the movie is funny too, all the better.  I loved ‘Tucker and Dale vs. Evil’. 

    1. I love to watch films where delinquent ne’er-do-wells die horrible messy deaths.

      I always thought that MST3K should have a film category called Bad Girls Die By The Train Tracks.

  5. This is a legitimate criticism — some people watch scary movies to be scared and some people watch scary movies to see douchebags die horribly.  I understand the appeal of the latter, because, in real life, douchebags live eternally and never meet their day of reckoning.  Not my personal preference, however.  I’d rather be chilled alone in the dark by a scary movie, than trading barbs about it with drunken friends.

    I just had an unintentional double-feature of “Cabin In The Woods” and “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.”  Both of these movies were trying to achieve the same ironic commentary on Nut-With-Knife movies, but “Tucker & Dale” was the winner here.  I enjoy Joss Whedon, but his characters were necessarily iconic teenage slaughter-fodder and I disliked everyone in the movie immensely with the exception of the monsters.  “Tucker & Dale” had the same hateful teenage douchebags, but gave us an affectionate portrayal of the title characters.  I actually cared when they were threatened.  I even gasped once.  It’s a better film, in my book.

    1. Tucker & Dale is hilarious but I thought Cabin was better. The conceit that the people in every horror movie you’ve ever seen were actually victims of a high-tech group feeding ancient Gods is awesome. 

  6. Hah! I was the Unabomber for Halloween in 1998! Even won my school’s costume contest (pre-Columbine, back when schools as a rule didn’t have sticks up their asses about such things)!

  7. Now now, these characters all sound like well adjusted economic agents. This isn’t about good characters for horror or torture porn or whatever, this is about our ideals as a society. Our ideal person is one of perfect individualist hedonism. I mean, psychopathy has somehow gained poor connotations, but it expresses the idea quite well. You have to live your dreams. You have to pursue your lifestyle. The system demands that you be a hermetic module, isolated, perfect, relocatable and substitutable. Pursue the Buddhist ideal of freedom from love.

  8. Magnet had a pretty cool promotional idea for the film that i was lucky enough to be a part of, which was to commission a series of poster images from comic book creators, a new one for each segment of the film. I really enjoyed working on it, and was in top-notch company with great artists like James Stokoe, Jason Latour, RM Guera, and Esad Ribic. Click the link below if you’d like to check ’em out!


  9. I’m trying to remember the last horror anthology film that had likeable people in the wrapper. As established in Dead of Night and continued by Amicus, they all feature dispicable people and the stories are about what happened to “punish” those people. V/H/S breaks from this a bit, in that the people in the wrapper have nothing to do with the stories, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re never supposed to like those in the wrapper.

    I’d like to hear other suggestions for a wrapper story that could frame several found footage shorts while still qualifying as a gruesome short of its own. I’ll grant the wrapper was the weakest part of V/H/S, but I’ve known people like that, and dug the part where the guy’s head moves to the side and we see the corpse isn’t in the chair anymore.

    LATER: After quick perusal of the IMDB “50 Best Horror Anthology Films”, only “Trick R Treat”, “Cat’s Eye”, and “Twilight Zone: The Movie” had likeable people in the wrapper.

    I don’t know if it applies universally, but William Gaines (EC Comics) explained that showing the gruesome fates as “punishment” helped them skirt some of the loudest objections to the genre. So V/H/S also departs a bit by having bad things happen to blameless people, but that’s much more common.

    1. I saw Sinister last night, and while I’m glad it wasn’t a found footage, guy moving into a house and finding a box of movies would make for a fine wrapper. 

      Sinister was great, by the way. First time I had trouble sleeping after a movie since the first Paranormal Activity. 

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