V/H/S is a showcase of horror shorts masquerading as a feature-length film. Five found-footage style shorts are crudely tied together by a less compelling found-footage frame story (think “found-ception”). The idea seems innovative, but with six different directors, six different writers and six different casts, all constrained by limited time and only first-person shots, it doesn’t manage to give the genre new life.
The basic premise for why we watch the shorts is that a group of ne’er do well twenty-somethings break into a house inhabited only by a dead old man sitting in front of a wall of fuzzed-out television screens. One of them claims a tape in the house will make them rich overnight. Unphased by the dead man, the friends split up to watch all of the tapes one by one, and so do we.
Not all the shorts are bad; in fact, the main burglary plotline is probably the worst in the bunch. They vary in quality and gore, from the mediocre (“Tuesday the 17th,” in which a group of friends visits a cabin in the woods and is pursued by a serial killer) to the nail-biting (“The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She was Younger,” told through a Skype chat between Emily and her boyfriend).
One feature that all of the shorts (excluding “The Sick Thing”) share is unlikeable characters. “Amateur Night” features a threesome of bros, one of whom has to be talked down from sleeping with an unconscious girl they picked up at a bar. The only characters that we consistently see are the robbers, and from the opening scene they put a bad taste in our mouths. Before deciding to break into an old man’s house and destroy everything in sight with a baseball bat (and videotape it for no apparent reason), our leads were making fifty dollars a tape filming “reality porn,” in which they pull up the shirts of unsuspecting women in parking lots. The problem with the short-film formula is that there isn’t enough time to develop the characters or reveal redeeming qualities, so we don’t feel all that bad when some of the slimeballs get knocked off.
The whole movie feels like a sneaky excuse to get away with using every horror play in the book: an exorcism, a haunted house, teens at a lake and demons disguised as beautiful women, just to name a few. V/H/S does offer a few really great scares and avoids the predictability of normal feature-length horror films through the quick pace of the short-film structure. Unfortunately, the rapid-fire presentation means you lose the potential for a long-term buildup of suspense, especially when there is no thread that ties the shorts together other than a boring plot we don’t care about.