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 Innkeepers

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Ti West has been making ripples in the horror world for almost twenty years, with a number of low budget indie entries being well received in the horror community – with The House Of The Devil the praise went farther afield. With The Innkeepers, Ti West tells an updated version of the classic haunted house story, moving the action to a hotel in the midst of closing down, and featuring much of his trademark humour, character focus, and building of tension.

Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are the two leads and take up most of the running time together. They have a certain chemistry which will be familiar to anyone forced to work in a confined space day in day out with the same person or group of people. As characters, they hit if off and clash like an affable old married couple, and as actors we believe that they have been through some boring shit together. They are twenty-somethings working purely to pay the bills and for something to do, with marginally grander schemes and hopes, biding their time in an old Hotel in its final weekend before closure. Aside from their shared flitting aimlessness, both are amateur ghost enthusiasts and have been hoping to record some paranormal activity in their last night on the job – the hotel having a history of spooky encounters and a sordid past. Stumbling upon their relative seclusion and ghost-hunting is a faded Hollywood starlet played by Kelly McGillis (in another interesting horror role for the actress). She just wants a room for the night and doesn’t want to be disturbed, especially by Paxton’s Claire who is a bit of a fangirl. Luke (Healy) and Claire use their ghost-hunting equipment and soon begin to pick up creepy voices and music before the apparitions reveal themselves.

While not West’s breakthrough movie, this is the one which garnered him the most critical attention and became his biggest hit. The film has an old-fashioned horror feel, a subtle, creeping approach to scares, and using atmosphere over jumps and gore. The script and direction are light and playful both honouring the history of haunted house movies while giving them a modern gloss and respect. Once the second half reveals come and the mythology of the house is made known, the scares come faster after the largely comedic, slacker style first half. The three main performances are solid and likable, Paxton and Healy are easy to relate to, and even though there’s nothing new here it feels fresh, especially in an era of loud bang scares and CG blood spatter. It isn’t going to change anyone’s life, but it’s a fun movie for those who don’t mind a bit of backstory and set up before the pay-off.

Let us know in the comments what you think of The Innkeepers!

 

The House Of The Devil

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Ti West has been carving a name for himself in the horror world for quite a few years now, earning critical praise if not quite the commercial recognition he deserves. In a run that any director should be proud of, West crafted this nifty little throwback to the Seventies slasher, with nods to many classics, and showing an eye for flair, and for creating tension similar to those masters De Palma, Carpenter, and Hitchcock. From the setting to the soundtrack to the camerawork to the title credits, House Of The Devil is a fun, loving dedication to an interesting time in horror – one ripe for ridicule, but also for respect.

Instant Transportation

I love the introduction to House Of The West instantly transporting you to a more simple, better time for horror. We get an authentic retro opening credits sequence with big Yellow writing, hilarious, apt zoom shots and freeze frames, and 80s music blasting out of a walkman. There’s a case for saying that this intro is the best part of the movie, and it’s difficult to argue against that, but to say what follows isn’t great would be a foolish disservice. The retro look and feel is seen throughout, thanks to filming with 16mm and keeping a number of techniques familiar to 70s and 80s horror fans prevalent throughout. It’s not just in the stylistic approach – the hair and clothes and vehicles etc are all authentic, but in an interesting twist it takes the slasher sub-genre and gives it the slow-burning treatment. Aside from a few obvious classic, the slasher is more about gore and over the top kills and buck a minute thrills than creating tension or atmosphere. West keeps the kills and blood to a minimum until the conclusion, and even though there are few answers or reveals until close to the end, we are shown enough, and know enough that something isn’t right.

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West’s direction is assured, that’s easily enough established in the opening moments, so what of the rest of the cast? We have a pleasing range of familiar icons and fresh faces, and there are no let downs. A trait of the cheapest and sleaziest, and even the most popular horror films of the 70s and 80s were the less than stellar performances from less than household names – there would usually be a decent leading lady, and one reputable actor surrounded by people who had just enrolled in Acting 101 never mind those who had graduated from it. Dee Wallace appears in an early, minor role to set the tone of horror pedigree, but it is a soft spoken Tom Noohan who leads the way, a man known for many creepy roles. His wife in the film is played by another less known horror actress Mary Woronov, and they make a formidable pairing, both charming and affable and unnerving like a certain other sociable couple from Rosemary’s Baby, hint hint. Added to the cast in lesser roles are AJ Bowen who is gradually making his name known in horror circles, and Greta Gerwig who it seems just needs the right film to hit the big time after a number of well received performances. Our Scream Queen though is played by Jocelin Donahue who does a great job as both plucky heroine, 80s college girl, and distressed damsel, fighting, kicking, stabbing her way through a chaotic conclusion. For sections of the film she is alone and has to act by herself, managing to hold this scenes without issue.

Fine Carnage

These sections all lead towards a final vague reveal and some fine carnage. The only scene of violence before the final section is a pretty shocking gun-blast to the face for one unfortunate victim, but those last moments are a gripping mix of chase and torture, yet another game of cat and mouse in a large, shadow and secret filled house, but rather than simply re-tread old ground, West tries to actually make things scary rather than gory. The film and the payoff may not be perfect for all horror fans, but I was happy. Without giving away any spoilers, there is a reason behind all the violence and it’s fairly stock horror stuff, and even though there are brief hints throughout, it isn’t truly reveled until the final moments. Definitely a film which horror aficionados will appreciate more than the casual fan, but there is plenty to love here for those not accustomed to hockey masks and human centipedes.

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Have you seen The House Of The Devil? What did you make of the retro stylings of the movie and do you think it will be a future cult hit? Let us know in the comments!