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‘V/H/S’ Review: Horror Movie Life Lessons

How a movie I didn’t expect to legitimately like won me over in the end

I have no idea what it is about horror movies that piques my interest.

Well, okay, that’s a bit of a lie. I like the edge-of-my-seat anxiousness, the predictability (especially when it seems predictable but really, really isn’t) and on some level even the gore. But I don’t know what it is that makes me like it so much, to the point where I can completely forego good plots for the sake of good horror – the way I never do with other genres. I practically collect shitty horror movies.

So imagine my joy when I found V/H/S on Netflix, a 2012 movie with a mildly tame plot about a group of thieves who stumble upon a box of horrifying video tapes. And then imagine my surprise when, against all odds, I found myself enjoying the movie not because it was so bad it was good, but because it was actually good.

The best thing about V/H/S is its ability to tie various overdone horror movie tropes and urban myths together in a cohesive, entertaining manner. The film is in found footage format, but it’s done in a way so that we’re watching found footage of people watching found footage. They tie in old horror stories – the lone camper who wakes up to find pictures of herself sleeping on her camera, the lakefront with a dark, evil secret, the exorcism gone wrong – and spin it in new and creative ways.

The shaky camera can get annoyingly nausea-inducing from time to time, and some shorts are definitely better than others. But overall, the simplicity of a film that doesn’t try to be overly pretentious or gimmicky, but instead presents its stories honestly and plainly, makes it a fun watch.

"Just like that, you're gonna leave me in here with this dead fucker?"

“Just like that, you’re gonna leave me in here with this dead fucker?”

The movie starts out with the aforementioned group of delinquents running around vandalizing shit and assaulting women for kicks – and, as we learn through one of their recorded conversations, because they get paid $50 by a porn company for every woman they expose. One of the men, however, is fed up with the measly amount of wages, and tells his friends about a well-paying job some unnamed guy had hired him for; all they have to do is break into one house, steal one VHS tape, and collect their bounty.

It’s not that simple, though, because this is a horror movie and bad shit has to happen in a horror movie. The house they go to is completely empty, save for the corpse of an old man sitting in an armchair in front of several static-y TV sets. The “one VHS tape” they’ve been hired to retrieve ends up being one needle in a haystack of VHS tapes. And as the robbers start watching the tapes, five short stories unfold.

Here’s another thing I like about horror films: there’s always a moral to learn. And because this is technically six movie bits – the five VHS tapes that the group (and the audience) watches, and then the criminals’ own story about what happens to them – for the price of one, there’s a total of six life lessons to take with you by the end. 

Amateur Night

"I like you."

“I like you.”

Three annoyingly drunk frat guys named Shane, Patrick, and Clint go to a bunch of bars before bringing two girls – Lily and Lisa – back to their hotel room to hook up. The tryst doesn’t go as planned because one of the girls turns out to be some weird succubus predator and starts gorging herself on two of the hapless men before dragging the third off to her lair because she’s got a little crush on him.

Moral of the story: If a pretty Southern girl comes up to you in a bar and says she likes you, she is a winged demon creature from hell that’s going to eat your (admittedly douchey) friends and then kidnap you. DO NOT ENGAGE.

Second Honeymoon

"Did you erase the tape?"

“Did you erase the tape?”

This one was my favorite of the five shorts. A married couple, Sam and Stephanie, are filming themselves on their second honeymoon roadtrip. The segment starts off pretty languidly, which I really appreciated because the slow build allowed me to get to know the characters and be genuinely surprised when it escalated so quickly before the end.

Moral of the storyUm. If you’re unhappy with your marriage and you’ve got a secret lover on the side, be the bigger person and just divorce the guy. Do not, I repeat, do not ask him to go out on a roadtrip with you and then conspire with your secret lover to stab him repeatedly in the neck while he’s sleeping. That’s just not cool.

Tuesday the 17th

"You're all going to fucking die up here."

“You’re all going to fucking die up here.”

A group of friends named Wendy, Samantha, Joey, and “Spider” go on a camping trip up to a secret lake that Wendy knows about. Turns out she knows about it because all of her friends got brutally murdered by some unknown entity the previous year and she’s lured this new group of friends there to be bait so she can get revenge. She fails. Obviously.

Moral of the story: Don’t go camping, just don’t. Horrible things happen when you go out into the wilderness. Just stay indoors with your computer where it’s nice and safe.

The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger

"I don't know what I did to deserve someone who's so good to me."

“I don’t know what I did to deserve someone who’s so good to me.”

This one is a nice change in format: a couple named James and Emily are dealing with their long distance relationship by Skype-ing daily and recording their conversations. Emily claims that her new apartment is haunted, and requests his help in asking it what it wants. Problem is, her apartment isn’t haunted by ghosts – her womb is being incubated by aliens, and her boyfriend is in on the entire thing.

Moral of the story: Don’t get experimented on by aliens? Don’t choose an obviously shady boyfriend? I’m actually not 100% sure on this one.

10/31/98

"Where did she go?! Where did she fucking go?!"

“Where did she go?! Where did she fucking go?!”

On October 31, 1998, a group of four men plan to attend a friend’s Halloween party but end up at the wrong house and stumble upon what seems to be a strange satanic ritual. Shocked and appalled, they go to rescue the poor helpless girl that’s being offered up to the devil… only to be offered up themselves, because that chick was possessed. Those guys weren’t interrupting a satanic ritual, they were interrupting an exorcism.

Moral of the story: When in doubt, abandoned houses are prime arenas for practicing exorcists, and you need to run the fuck away from them. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, run. Don’t go and rescue the demon lady. Get your friends and leave, or you’re going to get trapped in a car smack dab on top of some train tracks and get smushed.

And then, of course, there’s the overarching moral of the story: never, ever leave your back to an old dead guy, he will come back to life and eat you. Because now the VHS tapes of the brutally murdered band of criminals is going to be added to the old man’s collection as he waits for his next group of victims, and you do not want those victims to be you.

Oh, and also don’t break into people’s houses because that shit is rude.

four stars

  • Starring: Way too many people to list
  • Directed by: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence
  • Running time: 116 minutes
  • Warning for: Gore, gore, more gore, gore, extra gore, lots of gore, nudity, strong language, and gore

Photos credit: Magnet Releasing