VHS Bandits: Rising horror filmmakers convene for a spooky anthology
If you were a horror fan who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, chances are good that you spent countless hours in front of the television (after your parents were asleep, of course) watching late-night cable airings of movies like Creepshow and Tales From the Darkside: The Movie—omnibus productions consisting of three or more short, spine-tingling films that were spooky and scary without crossing the line into gory torture porn. These films faded from view in the latter half of the ’90s and remained dormant even as the horror genre itself rose to new heights of popularity thanks to the advent of influential new franchises like Scream, Saw and Paranormal Activity. (One attempt to kickstart the anthology approach—writer-director Michael Doughtery’s clever 2007 feature Trick ‘r Treat—fell short when the studio repeatedly pushed back its release date and then dumped it straight onto DVD.)
Fortunately, some horror fans never forgot those formative anthology productions and were eventually in the position to do something about bringing them back. One of them was Brad Miska, a genre fan who in 2002 created the popular website “Bloody Disgusting,” one of the premiere online outlets for all things scary movie-related. As Miska tells it, a few years ago he was kicking around the idea of moving from the computer screen to the television screen with a potential horror-themed series. As he fleshed out the project with regular collaborator Gary Binkow, they eventually decided that a feature film consisting of short episodes would be a better way to go—a modern-day Creepshow with a Paranormal Activity-like twist in that all of the shorts would employ the now-ubiquitous found-footage technique pioneered by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
“Our original idea lent itself to found footage because it involved these kids stumbling upon these old VHS tapes and we get to watch what they watch,” Miska explains. “Obviously it becomes found footage because you’re watching the tapes.”
With that concept in mind, Miska, Binkow and their fellow producer Roxanne Benjamin hired screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard to shoot a segment that would establish the framework for the anthology, which involves a group of punks breaking into a house in search of an important videotape and instead stumbling upon a dead body sitting in a room surrounded by VHS tapes, each of them with a scary story to tell. “The footage came back and it was cool, so we built on it from there. It was a bizarre way to go about making a movie, because usually you get the script and say, ‘Let’s go make this.’ In our case it was like, ‘Well, we have this material. Now what?”
From those unlikely origins emerged V/H/S, a five-film omnibus collection consisting of new shorts from noted genre directors like David Bruckner (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) and Ti West (The House of the Devil), as well as such unconventional choices as mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) and four-man filmmaking collective Radio Silence, whose only prior experience had been directing videos for the web. Maybe it was the participation of these up-and-coming filmmakers, maybe it was the movie’s decidedly low-fi vibe, or maybe it’s just because they were too scared to say no, but the Sundance Film Festival programmers invited V/H/S to premiere in Park City last January, a setting not typically associated with horror films. Following packed midnight screenings (where one person reportedly fainted and another was treated for nausea), the movie was acquired by Mangolia Pictures’ genre-oriented arm Magnet Releasing, which initially premiered it on VOD in August followed by a theatrical engagement beginning Oct. 5.
“My dream is for everyone to see V/H/S on VHS,” Miska says, laughing. “But that’s absolutely impossible these days, so I hope people will see it in theatres because I know all of the directors worked really hard to make it work that way. But VOD is a pretty cool thing right now, too.”
In its finished form, V/H/S plays so smoothly, with the five films (plus the framing device) flowing in and out of each other without any jarring tonal or structural shifts, it’s almost as if it was conceived as a whole piece from the get-go. But, in fact, the project came together in somewhat piecemeal fashion, as the producers recruited the various directors one by one, trying to find filmmakers who had the right skill set for the project and, more importantly, would be available during the limited window of time they had to make the shorts. After Wingard shot the wraparound segments, the next director onboard was West, whose film, Second Honeymoon, was inspired by a road trip he had recently taken through the American Southwest. Having been told that the only “rules” for the project were “found footage and horror,” West conceived of a stripped-down psychosexual story involving a honeymooning couple (played by actors/filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal) who, unbeknownst to them, pick up a mysterious traveler during the course of their trip.
“My film is very rooted in reality—doing anything supernatural didn’t even occur to me,” West says. “Once I hit upon the idea of modeling this as a kind of home movie, I began to look at it as though I was making a documentary. I’ve always wanted to make documentaries, but to do that you need access to inspiring subject matter and you can’t create that. I can write horror movies and go make them, but I can’t do that with a documentary. So this was a fun way to experiment with that form.”
With one short in the can, the producers then approached McQuaid, followed by Bruckner and Radio Silence (who shot their films simultaneously) and finally Swanberg moved behind the camera to shoot the last installment. (In the finished film, Bruckner’s movie Amateur Night is presented first, followed by West’s Second Honeymoon, McQuaid’s Tuesday the 17th, Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger and finally Radio Silence’s 10/31/98.) Throughout the process, none of the directors were in contact with one another or even had any idea what the other movies were about. Instead, their primary creative collaborators were the producing team, who curated the lineup of films with an eye towards representing the major subgenres in horror. That’s why no two shorts in V/H/S are the same breed of scary movie; besides West’s documentary-like thriller, the other films include a creature feature (Amateur Night), a cabin-in-the-woods stalker flick (Tuesday the 17th), a sci-fi-tinged exercise in body horror (The Sick Thing…) and a rip-roaring haunted-house story (10/31/98).
“It was collaborative on both sides,” Roxanne Benjamin says of how she and the producers worked with the directors to ensure that the overall production would represent a cross-section of horror. “We got a lot of ideas from them that we hadn’t even thought of and other times it was a case of us saying, ‘We need a slasher segment.’” The sheer variety of content on display in V/H/S certainly surprised West when he saw a completed cut of the film. “I was thrown for a loop when I saw what everyone else did,” he admits. “The other directors went in a real movie direction, with lots of fantastic monsters and demons and things. I think if I had made my film last [instead of first], I probably would have come up with a different idea. I think it’s valuable that there’s one film in there that represents the psychological suspense film, so it’s probably good that mine is what it is. But still, when I saw it I was like, ‘Oh man, I didn’t know!’ I mean, they’ve got a score in their movies!”
Had West gone with another idea, though, V/H/S would have been robbed of one of its most provocative and challenging episodes. Like West’s two feature films, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, Second Honeymoon is a memorable exercise in sustained tension, with a slow, deliberate build-up that leaves audiences primed for a horrific happening, which the director always delivers on. West also utilizes the found-footage technique in a thoughtful way: The husband and wife take turns wielding the camera and what we think we know about their relationship continues to evolve as we shift from his perspective to hers. Second Honeymoon also contains one of the scariest single scenes in the entirety of V/H/S, a heart-stopping moment when the couple is filmed by a mysterious third person while they sleep. Again, this sequence effectively plays with point-of-view—who is really shooting the movie we’re watching?—something that many found-footage films overlook.
“The question of perspective was always a major part of it, what the characters are seeing versus what the camera is seeing,” West explains. “And the idea of filming someone while they’re sleeping is a very frightening thing. We’ve seen a stranger be in the room with another person who doesn’t know they’re there, but we’ve never seen that kind of scene from that stranger’s point of view.”
Another theme that runs through Second Honeymoon is the idea of revenge, specifically a female character feeling compelled to avenge a crime or a humiliation perpetrated upon her by a man. A common horror trope (the 1978 grindhouse staple I Spit On Your Grave remains the ne plus ultra of this particular plot device), female revenge recurs in several of V/H/S’ shorts, most prominently in Bruckner’s Amateur Night, in which a crew of boastful alpha-males hit the singles bars in search of a lovely lady to participate in a homemade porno. Eventually, they convince a strangely silent young woman to accompany them back to their hotel room and start to get down to business, whereupon she unleashes the beast within…literally.
“For me, Amateur Night exists in the context of pornography on the Internet and the influence it has on the sexual narrative right now, especially with men,” Bruckner explains. “What’s interesting about it in the found-footage context is that the camera is worn by the characters and you are forced to play their game and I liked the idea of implicating the audience in that. Not because we’re making a social-issues film, but because it creates an anxiety and those anxieties are an effective place to leapfrog into horror.”
The woman’s transformation from human to demon is certainly horrific and represents some of the most elaborate effects work on display in V/H/S, particularly when the she-creature takes flight towards the end of the film. “We had to build this helium balloon to get the camera up in the air for that scene,” Bruckner remembers. “It was attached to a fishing line and we kept saying, ‘Don’t let go or this $1,000 camera is going to fly off into the night!’ We also tried to come up with a design for the monster that was both neat and disorienting, like changing her proportions in a way that was unsettling. It was a cool test of the limits of physical effects blending into digital effects.”
For sheer velocity and number of big scares, nothing in V/H/S tops the final film, 10/31/98 from newcomers Radio Silence, who individually are Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella. Miska himself specifically wanted to bring the team into the fold, having been fan of their online videos like Mountain Devil Prank Fails Horribly, which convinced him that they would be able to deliver what the anthology was lacking: a big dose of the supernatural. So Radio Silence put their four heads together and came up with the story of four party-hearty pals who get dolled up in their Halloween finest and make their way to an isolated house for a killer party only to discover that 1) the place is empty and 2) there appears to be an exorcism going on in the attic. Once they realize their epic screw-up, they attempt to flee, only to have the house spring to horrifying life all around them. It’s part Repulsion, part amusement-park ride and all a ridiculous amount of freaky fun.
“The exorcism-gone-wrong idea was something we’d been kicking around for a while,” notes Gillett. “We loved the inherent blend of horror and comedy in it and it was sort of an easy choice when we heard the format was shorter.” It helped that they found such a striking setting to film in. “That house was actually pretty terrifying in real life,” Villella says of the location, which they discovered only three days before they were scheduled to begin shooting. “When we did our first location scout, we had to find the key, which was attached by magnet under a sink on the back porch. Then we let ourselves in and there was a radio on—one that we couldn’t see—that was blasting ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for no reason. We stopped and looked at each other and we all got chills. And as we looked around, we were able to plan out the beats of the movie based on the tension we felt walking through the house alone.”
Considering that most of the filmmakers involved in V/H/S are still in the relatively early stages of their careers, it’s tempting to think of the film as a kind of generational statement—a sign of where these directors plan to take the genre they’ve inherited next. But West, Brucker and Radio Silence, as well as the producers, are quick to put the kibosh on that suggestion. “I do notice there is a tendency to want to do that,” Bruckner says. “We’re always trying to understand these things in the context of other genre films. And I do think that found footage is topical and not going away. But I can’t really think of it as some kind of statement—I’m just happy to be in the same court with all these guys.”
West echoes those sentiments, adding, “For me, it was just something that I got to be a part of. I liked the people involved in it and it’s been an oddly pleasurable experience. Making movies is really traumatic, but this one hasn’t been.”
Despite the directors’ denials about the movie’s larger significance, V/H/S could still become an important part of the genre’s future by serving as the launch pad for a new wave of horror anthologies that would allow for other up-and-coming voices to be heard. And, should this film turn a profit, Miska hints that there’s a strong possibility that the V/H/S brand could return for another installment. (If there is V/H/S 2, all of the producers express interest in adding a few female directors to the mix to get away from the boys’ club atmosphere that often permeates the genre. Tops on their wish list? Indie darling Brit Marling.) “It could go on forever, that’s what’s cool about it,” he says enthusiastically. “I mean, there’s a whole mythology about where the tapes are coming from and who made them that can be explored. Maybe we could make 70 sequels!” That’ll be 70 sleepness nights for horror lovers.