Horror movies centred around audio visual technology certainly aren’t new. Just like movies from Herbie to Christine apply human intent (malicious or otherwise) to a device as familiar as the car, the advent of the home movie revolution (thanks to the VCR and camcorder) sparked off a whole new collective cultural whimsy about how such technology could go wrong – or make us go wrong. After Cronenberg explored the idea in 1983’s ”Videodrome”, Japanese horror virtually cornered the market with movies like ”Ringu”, ”Pulse” and ”One Missed Call” a couple of decades later.
Mass-market video technology also paved the way for the found footage craze. When we all carry pocket- or purse-fuls of devices with cameras it’s a mirror to society, even breaking the banks of horror and resulting in a Godzilla-scale monster thriller (”Cloverfield”) and teen comedy (”Project X”).
So at first glance ”V/H/S” brings a certain amount of baggage about long-established cinematic tropes. Your next thought will be ‘really? In an age where even DVDs are on the way out because the Internet is coming of age as a movie platform they’re making a movie about videotape?’
From the opening scene it’s plain why this short story collection deals with obsolete media. First, the plasticky clanks, clicks and whirrs of analogue cameras and the murky, grainy picture video produced already feel like part of history, like the sound quality of a gramophone or the flickering of an old silent film. And second, in the right mood and setting, those technological artefacts are quite simply as scary as hell.
The plot is like George Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 classic ”Creepshow”, a series of short films bookended with a framing device. A bunch of young delinquents whose fun is apparently to break into houses and destroy them with bats hit their latest target. It’s a dark house late at night and when they get to a second floor room they find an old man sitting dead in a lounge chair, a pile of TVs and VCRs playing nothing but snow in front of him.
The guys are after a particular tape, so as they try random cassettes in the pile, we’re apparently seeing the horror stories recorded on each as the guys’ numbers are mysteriously depleted.
The two historical anomalies are that they apparently have a contract with a website to capture footage that amounts to snuff, and one of the stories (among the most cinematically inventive) takes place entirely over a PC video chat program. Neither of them would exist in the VHS era, and videotape is all but dead in the time of Skype and the web.
There are doubtless many more opportunities to nitpick about historical inaccuracies if you want. If you just want an effective horror movie that makes you want to cover your eyes and hide behind the seat more than once, you can’t do much better.
After wowing crowds at Sundance 2012 you might expect something a little bit more dramatic, some sort of comment on the human condition. Don’t be fooled – this is unashamed multiplex horror, with the cadre of writers and directors taking every gleeful chance to show topless girls and blood and guts. It has the spirit of an 80s-era video nasty slasher, and while the aesthetic certainly harks back to the time, it also subverts it to good effect.
Throw in some narratively clever storytelling and a few chances to throw popcorn all over yourself in fright and ”V/H/S” is a horror movie par excellence.