Film Review: V/H/S

Reports of the found-footage movie's death have been greatly exaggerated, if this sly and often very creepy horror anthology about four lowlifes who agree to steal a mysterious videocassette is anything by which to judge.

Brad (Adam Wingard), Gary (Calvin Reeder), Rox (Kentucker Audley) and Zak (Lane Hughes) get their kicks videotaping themselves as they harass and molest random women, then posting the results on line. Contacted by a "fan" with some cash, they agree to break into an apparently abandoned house and steal a tape. Easy-peasy, right?

Except that the house isn't empty—even if the guy parked in front of a bank of monitors buzzing with static is dead—and the place is full of tapes; how are they supposed to know which one to take? The client said they'd know it when they saw it, so they start watching.

In Amateur Hour, directed by David Bruckner, three creeps a lot like the boneheaded burglars (Drew Sawyer, Mike Donlan and Joe Sykes) set out to make a samizdat porn movie with two babes (Jas Sams and Hannah Fiermen) picked up during an epic bar crawl. Little do they know that one is a girl with something extra, and we're not talking below the waist.

Ti West's Second Honeymoon follows young lovers Stephanie (Sophia Takal) and Sam (Joe Swanberg), whose relationship—which is more fragile than it at first seems—offers no protection from a malevolent hitchhiker.

Four nubile teens—cute couple Wendy (Norma C. Quinones) and Joey (Drew Moerlein), plus slutty Samantha (Jeannine Yoder) and horny Spider (Jason Yachanin)—take a cool/morbid trip to the site of a lakeside slaughter in Glenn McQuaid's Tuesday the 17th. But one knows more about what happened than the others.

In Joe Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, military brats Emily (Helen Rogers) and her boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufmann), who've known each other since childhood, trust Skype to keep them close while he's away at medical school. But the next best thing to being there isn't good enough when Emily becomes convinced her house is haunted.

10/31/98, directed by the four-man collective Radio Silence, brings the stories full-circle as four more louts—Chad (Chad Villella), Matt (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin), Tyler (Tyler Gillett) and Paul (Paul Natonek)—get dressed up ready to party Halloween-style. Fortunately, what looks like a lame teddy-bear get-up is actually a high-concept nanny-cam costume, complete with hidden camera; otherwise we'd never know what happened when the dumbasses blundered into a real house of horrors, complete with Cocteau-esque arms erupting from the walls.

Call them omnibus movies, portmanteau pictures or simply anthology films, the fact is they're all uneven and that goes as much for 1968's overproduced, star-studded Poe-pourri Spirits of the Dead (which nonetheless included Federico Fellini's hallucinatory "Toby Dammit" segment) as for undisputed classics like Dead of Night (1945) and Trilogy of Terror (1975), better known as "the one with the ventriloquist's dummy" and "the one where the killer doll terrorizes Karen Black." So part of what makes V/H/S so remarkable is that its weakest segment (for my money, closer 10/31/98) isn't half-bad and the strongest—The Sick Thing—is straight-up horrifying.

The filmmakers are a who's-who of the young and edgy, ranging from Ti West (House of the Devil, The Roost)—a genre true believer mentored by indie-movie stalwart Larry Fessenden—to David Bruckner, who cut his teeth on The Signal (2008), a micro-budget mash-up of Videodrome and The Walking Dead, to mumblecore pioneer Swanberg (whose 2006 LOL, a dark comedy about techno-nerds in love, is one bloody twist removed from The Sick Thing). But what really makes V/H/S resonate is the ratio of WTF! shocks to the kind of creeping unease that lingers long after the adrenaline jolts are forgotten, an unease generated in equal parts by the recurring motifs of boys cajoling, coercing and bullying girls into relinquishing their bodies and souls to the camera's relentless eye and the tragic vulnerability of hip kids who don't believe in evil until it's too late.