The Calgary International Film Festival – V/H/S

V/H/S screened on Tuesday September 25 at the Calgary International Film Festival.


I was excited to see the late show of “V/H/S”, an anthology collection by some of today’s top independent genre filmmakers.  It was especially exciting since I’ve been spending the past few days writing about shorts programs, and here was a collection of shorts purposely built into an anthology.  The overarching premise of the film is that a group of delinquents break into a house to steal a VHS tape, only to find that the house is full of tapes and they have to wade through them to find the one they need.  It’s a fun idea, however I felt it was poorly executed.  The overarching narrative never dealt with the tapes other than as a device to start the short films, and there was nothing that pushed the overall story forward, made any explanations, or dealt with the context of the VHS tapes or their owner (or the mysterious person that wanted the single tape).  The result was that there was no reason to care about the characters or what they were doing.

I use the term “character” in this write-up fairly loosely.  There was very little that distinguished the people in the films as actual people rather than crappy stereotypes, and most of them were completely despicable to the point where there was no reason to feel anything other than relief when they inevitably died.  My understanding is that each of the directors worked in isolation on the films, only seeing them together after everything was compiled.  This likely accounts for the disconnect between the films and main story (although it didn’t help that the main story was the weakest of the bunch and featured a collection of misogynistic dickheads that didn’t die off quickly or visibly enough).  Unfortunately for the filmmakers of this collection, all of whom regularly make interesting and out-of-the-box films, the only clear link between the films seemed to be misogyny.  The female characters were all portrayed as harpies (literally), stupid stereotypes, villains and helpless victims.  The male characters were no better, pretty much consisting of rapists, thieves, womanizers and polygamist alien-baby breeders.  This is not unusual in the film world, and especially not for the horror genre, but that fact that each of these filmmakers included characters with zero morals and no other redeeming traits to connect them with the audience basically says to me that they were not interested in making strong or thoughtful films.  The only film I will rescue out of association with the others was the final scenario, “10/31/98” (which wasn’t event linked to the VHS trope anymore for some reason), directed by Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett and Chad Villella.  It was by far the strongest work in the package, with an interesting conceit, good execution, funny moments and characters that weren’t just scum of the earth.  This was the only film where the main characters didn’t prey on women for sex, and not only that, they also had the decency to rescue the woman that was being assaulted (unfortunately to their detriment).

Still from “10/31/98” segment by Radio Silence; V/H/S

I think what is most upsetting about the lack of character depth in this compilation is that the directors are clearly capable of so much better.  They just seemed to fall back on lazy cliche’s for this particular project.  Ti West’s recent feature “The Innkeepers” (2011) featured a female protagonist, and although she wasn’t specifically overflowing with character depth, she did at least seem well-rounded, believable and interesting.  His contribution to this anthology, “Second Honeymoon”, was slowly paced and had massive narrative holes.  The most horrifying moment in the film took place when an intruder picks up the camcorder and views the sleeping couple through their own lens.  It’s viscerally terrifying and had me completely enthralled, but unfortunately the film then sidetracked to the rest of the couple’s journey and a strange twist that was not explained, connected to the logic of the rest of the film, or even necessary.

Still from “Second Honeymoon” segment by Ti West; V/H/S

In addition, Glenn McQuaid’s feature film, “I Sell the Dead” (2008) had a fascinating concept and developed male characters that were both entertaining and rooted in the world he had built for them.  His short “Tuesday the 17th” was, in my opinion, the weakest (next to the overarching story), and spent most of the time laying out the same-old story of kids going up to camp where a massacre had happened.  The villain in the film had immense potential and I would love to see the director re-visit the concept after a bit more thought.  The murderer is an unexplained entity that can only be seen through glitches in the camcorder.  This invisible foe plays up great suspense during the chase through the woods, but is never explored further than being the impetus for violence.  Other than brief moments of the glitch-villain, we spend the rest of the movie with boring stereotypes, poor dialogue and transparent motives.

Although it might sound like it, I didn’t hate this compilation – there were certainly moments where tension built up well, and each of these films contained glimpses of great ideas.  I found myself immersed in the horror several times and really intrigued by some of the twists and horror conceits.  However, I do think that perhaps there is an interesting discussion to be had around the art of short filmmaking versus feature film-making.   Each of these directors has had enough success that they are able to pursue their filmmaking at a feature film level.  It seems to be the dream of most (narrative) filmmakers to use short films as a stepping stone to their independent features.  Although most independent films will likely still struggle financially, there is still a commercial market for them, as opposed to short films which have no commercial viability.  Since there is always this push towards the feature, there are very few filmmakers that fully embrace the medium of short film – something I have always considered more similar to poetry than feature film.  It requires a filmmaker to be concise and direct while still fleshing out an interesting concept and pushing critical strength into the work.  It is a challenging art and I have seen many short films that are much more memorable and interesting than some features, simply because they have embraced the poetry of the format.  The films have to be lean and perfect, or else they fail.  Feature filmmakers (especially those that have found regular financing for their longer works) no longer have to work with this format, which I think makes them rusty when they revisit it.  They have already chosen the feature film path, which requires different skills and storytelling methods, and perhaps this is also partially the reason that this package seems to fail.


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