Saturday, August 4, 2012

Traverse City Film Festival 2012: Dispatch #3

The scariest thing about the horror anthology V/H/S is the cinematography. It's blurry and fuzzy, shot mostly on tape or approximations thereof. This does make a certain amount of sense, as the whole thing is a formal exercise all around. The film starts with a group of hoodlums breaking into a house and finding a dead body surrounded by VHS tapes. They proceed to watch some and this is why five indie directors give us five short horror flicks. Like all anthology films, it's a hit and miss proposition with two or three good ideas spread throughout the two-hour whole.

The first, from David Bruckner, about a group of awful frat boys who have a gory ending to their night on the town, is actively repulsive and nearly unwatchable both because of the unpleasant characters and camerawork dedicated to a woozy spy cam conceit that’s nonetheless a sort of funny satire of the male gaze. The second, from Ti West, is a road trip that grows inevitably creepy. It contains his characteristic slow build, something that will be familiar to those who've seen his The House of the Devil or The Innkeepers. This short has one truly chilling moment where it becomes apparent that the person filming a particular scene is not who it appeared to be, but otherwise comes up awfully empty by the end.

The third, from Glenn McQuaid, is a twist on the dumb teens in the woods genre that starts appearing to be smart before it peters out into what you'd expect. The fourth, from Joe Swanberg, a director I can’t say I like, won me over, representing his best work ever, short and to the point, making an asset of his characteristic simple blocking and fumbling unscripted dialogue. It's a ghost story – more or less – told entirely through a Skype session. It doesn't make sense in the context of the anthology (why's it on a tape?), but it is just clever enough to squeak by. The fifth and final short, from a collective called Radio Silence, has a group of teens head out for a Halloween party and, when they arrive, find a real haunted house, a concept that provides a couple laughs and a few good jolts.

What the films have in common, other than genre, some underlying misogyny (or at least squeamish distrust of women), and a general scarcity of scares and quickly, thinly developed characters, is admirable dedication to sometimes-flawed concepts. Aside from a few shivers here and there, I was bored. Even the best shorts in V/H/S are basically all surface gimmicks with little else to hold onto. Besides, factoring in surprising overlap between the shorts, there's only so many instances of incomprehensible camera shaking, dismemberments, and P.O.V. shots of people going up and down staircases that one can handle in a single sitting.

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