V/H/S

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A number of obvious positives came from the onslaught of found footage films – it opened the door for new voices in genre cinema who could make a legitimate movie on a shoestring and cash in on the trend (counterpoint being every fool with a camera thought they could do it); studios and directors could make movies with little budget and almost guarantee a considerable profit (counterpoint being that it encouraged a host of copycats with a reduction in quality); it offered both long-standing and original voices a new creative outlet along with near full creative control thanks to the money involved being so low and the inherent restrictions forcing filmmakers to think outside the box (this didn’t last long). VHS came in the middle of the Found Footage run of infamy and ticks each of the positives above in some way. Up and coming directors such as Adam Wingard, Ti West, David Bruckner, and Radio Silence had a podium to shout from, showing us what delights and horrors lurked under their kilts, and a near certainty that they would reach a larger audience than they had up to that point. Did they use that power for good?

VHS is an anthology film, and as such there is a mixed bag; different stories, different styles, some segments good, other segments not so good. The gristle tying it all together is the use of found footage, each story peppered with gore and shocks. The wraparound conceit follows a group of hoodlums who, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial KIller style film their adventures. Their latest mission is unusual – an unseen benefactor pays them to break into a house to steal a single VHS tape. The gang discovers a corpse in a room filled with screens, and videotapes by the box load scattered around the house. While they start collecting the tapes, one guy decides to pop one in and watch. Each tape reveals a new story, and at the end of each new story one of the gang members vanishes – maybe that corpse isn’t so dead?

As with most wraparound stories, there isn’t much substance or payoff, but given the short running time there’s still intrigue and scares. It’s far from the worst wraparound, and it actually tonally fits with the rest of the content. The first story – Amateur Night – follows a trio of scumbags who bring a couple of young women back to a motel room with the intention of secretly filming them having sex. They quickly find their chauvinist ways turned back upon them as one of the women has plans of her own. It’s a fun, masochistic twist on the ‘boys will be boys’ events of recent history, it’s a sleazy tale with a sting. Ti West, probably the most accomplished director of the bunch, gives us a simple near – one room story as a married couple head on a Second Honeymoon. In their motel room, a disoriented woman knocks and asks the husband if he can give her a ride the following day – he refuses. Later that night the woman breaks into the room, turns on the camera, and films herself on the sleeping couple’s bed with a knife, before stealing some money. The next night she has followed them to their next destination. Again, there’s not much to it, but Ti West makes anything watchable and as always there is a twist of sorts.

Tuesday The 17th may be my favourite of the bunch – a camping trip gone wrong like so many others in Horror history. A group of friends has been convinced to go on the trip by a new friend and on the trip the new friend begins to tell them of how all her friends were killed at the same place one year earlier. Before long, a near-invisible killer, cloaked almost like the Predator begins picking them off. The killer is called The Glitch, and it’s a great idea, a figure which literally glitches across the screen, appearing suddenly behind characters, wobbling in and out of vision in static waves. The plot is light, but the idea and execution of the creature is good fun. The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger is a Joe Swanberg helmed Skype chat style short. It details the chats Emily has with her boyfriend James as she becomes increasingly unhinged – believing her room is haunted and that the lump in her arm is something sinister. I’d forgotten about this segment more than any other, but it has its moments.

The final story is the effects and tricks bonanza. Radio Silence’s 10/31/98 follows four friends heading to a Halloween party, but ending up in the wrong place. Stumbling upon some sort of, what they believe to be, demonic ritual or exorcism the boys fight back against ghostly arms and unseen forces. It’s a lot of fun but again there’s some sort of ‘women cannot be trusted’ vibe going on –  running theme in a number of the shorts. The wraparound concludes and the film ends. As a whole, I didn’t find any of the segments notably weak – each has a charm and each is solid, with some being more inventive or interesting than others. I don’t know if the woman thing was intentional or sub-conscious or me reading too much into it, but it becomes noticeable. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll probably see it or go looking for it. On the flip side, the men in several cases are portrayed as dicks or morons too, though each segment is brief enough that the strength of the idea overrides the dislike of any character. The Found Footage approach is used differently in each piece and it doesn’t becomes tiresome or nauseating, each director making sure there’s a stylistic and relevant reason for it. Anthology films are quick and easy watches and can make for a decent introduction to horror. Also, you shouldn’t get through Halloween without watching at least one or two. If you haven’t seen V/H/S, it’s one of the stronger recent efforts.

Let us know in the comments what you think of V/H/S!

The Guest

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Adam Wingard may be heralded as one of the most successful and promising young upstarts of horror, but it’s clear he has more up his sleeve. The Guest is a throwback to another time – a time when any number of movies about creepy neighbours, babysitters, distant family members would come into the homes and lives of an innocent family and slowly unleash terror. The Guest is many things, horror included, but it also has plenty of action, uncomfortable laughs, tragedy, knowing nods to past classics, and some great performances.

The Guest sees a mysterious young man paying visit to a grieving family. Their son was a soldier but lost his life in Afghanistan, and the man who stops by introduces himself as a soldier and friend of their son. He has come to help look after the family, knowing they would struggle if their son was killed – he is the model guest, sweet, helpful, and interested in helping out any way he can. As is the case with such films, David (The Guest) isn’t being entirely honest and eventually suspicion creeps in leading to the twist and thrilling climax.

Although the story follows the usual expected plot for such films – nothing I’ve said above is really a spoiler (what follows may be spoiler territory) – though the twist is not what you’d expect, almost sci-fi in nature. The twist is fine and explains David’s various skills, but doesn’t really make sense. After all the good things he does for the family I don’t buy that he would be forced to kill them – it’s the fact that he seems so kind and goes over and above for them that makes the final act more ludicrous and tragic. It doesn’t harm the film much, just makes it less credible. Apparently there had been additional scenes which further explored David’s background but the director preferred the ambiguity. In the hands of a lesser director or worse cast it could have been a more noticeable problem, but Stevens gives a career best performance, Monroe is solid as always, and everyone else performs well. While this eventually becomes like a slasher movie, its roots are more firmly in the thriller genre. The action scenes are swift and often brutal, not overly bloody and more akin to something like Die Hard. It’s a film which most genre fans will enjoy and doesn’t suffer from dipping its toes in multiple pools.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of The Guest!

Blair Witch

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I’ve been a The Blair Witch Project fan and defender since day 1; I still think it’s terrifying. It was with both great interest and apprehension when I saw this sequel being announced – found footage has basically had its moment in the commercial sun for now so what more could this movie possibly add? Having said that, A Horrible Way To Die, The Guest, VHS, were all films I enjoyed so at least I was confident in the pedigree and talent involved. I see he has also just announced he’s remaking the glorious I Saw The Devil. Is there a German word for being both worried and excited at the same time? Whatever this is, that was me. Anticifearmeich? That’ll do.

We start, as we often do with these sorts of movies, by meeting the ill-fated group in the middle of a plot-building conversation. They have just received an odd email containing some blurry video clips which feature someone running, or possibly being pursued through an old house. The recipient of the email is James, the younger brother of Heather Donahue – one of the three people who disappeared years earlier near Burketsville. It’s the first new footage, or lead, in her disappearance in a long time. James is now an adult himself, and decides to allow his friend Lisa to document his research as part of a student film she is making. James, Lisa, and their friends Peter and Ashley prepare to embark on the same trail that Heather, Josh, and Mike set off on all those years ago – in search for closure or explanation or entertainment. This time though they are coming in more fully prepared – GPS, High Def cameras, cellphones, a drone camera, and even pulling in a couple of locals to help – Lane and Talia who sent the found footage in the first place and claim to be very familiar with the woods and their history. Unfortunately, the y don’t inform the local authorities or anyone else of their plans, or even bring some pebbles to mark their way. You know the moment they enter the woods that they won’t be getting out.

There is a sense of familiarity and inevitability in Blair Witch – both positive and negative. It is a true sequel, but it feels like a reboot. The scares and atmosphere are evocative of the original, but there isn’t anything new or interesting enough to terrify as the original did. There is plenty of meandering through the woods, arguments and tension, and before long the noises outside the tent start and all hell breaks loose. There are innovative moments here but they aren’t fully explored – the loss of time and the related paradoxes, the festering wound, the potential of the drone. Naturally these would be difficult to expand upon given the format and as they stand they provide a further air of mystery, but I would have liked a little more. I don’t have much to say about the characters – none of them are as irritating as many can be in this sort of film, but none of them stand out in any meaningful way. Winguard doesn’t get the opportunity to unleash much of his usual flair and wit until the final act, but there are mini scares and laughs throughout – if you were bored by the first, then maybe this one will hold your interest better.

Once we reach that final act we get into good old ‘picking off one by one’ territory. It approaches being pulsating, it is certainly exciting and mixes action and horror with claustrophobia and the fear of expanse. The film is more visceral and we see more violence on screen than anything covered in the original, though nothing is too extreme as the camera only glimpses or sideswipes the chaos. There is one criminal disappoint towards the end as certain things are revealed on camera – I’ve never been a full advocate of the ‘less you show the scarier it is’ school of thought, but it does apply aptly here. he stupid thing is that I’m happy with the idea of the reveal, but not the execution – there’s a multitude of ways that the reveals could have employed but they went for the most ridiculous and when it is for something so big it leaves a stain that can’t be removed from the film.

If you’re a fan of the original you’re going to see this, in fact I’m sure you probably have already. It hasn’t, and isn’t going to change the world like the original did. It wasn’t successful enough to get anyone interested in making another one, but it is another stepping stone in Wingard’s career. It’s a higher echelon found-footage movie but it doesn’t come close to matching the chills of its mummy or any of the true greats of the genre; it’s just another decent horror movie.