BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC There was an uncomfortable silence leaving the press screening of the new horror anthology V/H/S, one I couldn’t help breaking with a brief capsule review. “A little rape-y, no?”
Slight nervous laughter ensued.
V/H/S brings together a group of like-minded young filmmakers each adding a “found-footage” horror short to this collection of solidly spooky mayhem. Ti West is probably the most acclaimed of the directors contributing to V/H/S but every short has its moments of invention and surprise. The premise is built around a wrap-around section, which shows a group of young hoodie hooligans filming their vandalism and sexual assaults in order to sell the results to a mysterious collector. When they go to meet the collector in a creepy big house, they find a large stockpile of V/H/S tapes. One of the marauders begins previewing the tapes, and each successive short tale is presented as another videotape from the perverse collection.
Much of the fun of horror films is their function as a signpost of popular unease, as directors try to dissect the zeitgeist for what ideas will unnerve a contemporary audience. Maybe the posse of directors responsible for V/H/S is channeling the GOP’s “War on Women” but what seems to have these guys (and they are all guys) quaking in their boots is women. They are succubus, bitches, killers and whores, and the young men in V/H/S are their victims, when they aren’t victimizing the women themselves. They do get a few good moments of fright out the violent gals in the six stories here, but the film is sullied by a loutish “Show me your tits!” attitude that dominates the film. As far as horror movies go, V/H/S seems designed to be a lousy date film.
Clocking in close to 2 hours, V/H/S carries a story or two too many; by the sixth time we’re meeting a new small cast and setting up a new scenario, the details of the last five stories have turned into a muddle. Left standing out in our memory is the first tale. Labeled “Amateur Night” and directed by David Bruckner it shows carousing young guys looking to pick up women to secretly film while having sex, captured by a camera hidden in a pair of eyeglasses. They finally end up with a pair of willing girls who have a spacey friend named Lily tagging along. Back in a motel room, while the guys seem ready to plow ahead and rape a girl who has passed out, Lily finally reveals herself as a sexual and murderous creature. Lily is played by Hannah Fierman (yes, fear men) and she has the largest and spookiest eyes since Italian horror queen Barbara Steele. Her revenge in a motel stairwell a most thrilling bit of “just desserts” served up over the course of the film.
Ti West, director of the well-received 2009 throwback horror film The House of the Devil, is the biggest name here and his section “Second Honeymoon” displays his knack for slow-building tension. It tells the tale of a vacationing couple meeting a haunted hitchhiker while at an isolated motel. Again, the film presents sexually-creepy males going about their business, as the husband, in a fairly peripheral plot point, attempts to bully his wife into letting him photograph her while having sex. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” from the Mumblecore-affiliated Joe Swanberg also opens with a long-distance boyfriend encouraging his girl friend Emily (an effective Helen Rogers) to show her boobs. With that out of the way, the subtlest of the film’s segments shows Emily’s ghostly abuse may have a more devious earthbound source.
Visually the filmmakers use the pretense of videotape to obscure the film’s horrific moments, with video distortion artfully arriving at the film’s moments of terror. Video has a nostalgic retro charm to it but the filmmakers aren’t too bothered by the illogic of all this footage, culled from nanny cams and Skype calls, being transferred to videotape for some unknown reason. Logic doesn’t stop V/H/S from being effective as a vehicle for scares but what is missing in its grim demeanor is a sense of fun in the exercise of scaring the pants off its audience. And with a cast full of guys in a “Girls Gone Wild” fervor, V/H/S is a film curiously lacking in characters with which we enjoy sharing time. It is hard to discern whether it is by design, but being dragged along with their gang rape-y crew is the most horrific element the film has going.
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I coincidentally stopped by Mollie’s Books in the Italian Market this week and had a discussion with the owner’s teenage son, horror buff Johnny Dickie. He scoffed at the film V/H/S, frustrated that it shared elements with his debut feature, Slaughter Tales, released in both the dvd and VHS (!!!) format by Briarwood Entertainment. It seemed like a punk throwdown akin to seeing Johnny Rotten wearing his “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt in 1975, so I took young Mr. Dickie’s advice and purchased his VHS-powered debut and found his confidence to be quite warranted.
Shot in the Italian Market neighborhood, and almost exclusively in the home above Mollie’s Books, Slaughter Tales is more than a no-budget horror anthology, it is more accurately described as a fourteen year old’s 8 ½. An autobiographical fantasy, Johnny’s bored teenage life is brought to the brink when he shoplifts a haunted videotape from a yard sale. Crashed alone on the futon, Johnny watches the tape as it reflects his adolescent psyche under attack by boredom, apparitions, controlling parents, demons, animated slugs, and a lack of access to credit cards. Eddie Cochran couldn’t have sung the teenage lament any better.
Dickie’s control of the basics of film language are never in question, with the secret hero of the production being the editor (that’s Dickie too) whose clear and energetic style gives the action a consistent, easy clarity, despite the sometimes murky camcorder visuals. Dickie, wrote, directed and plays multiple roles in Slaughter Tales and it’s the nearly unavoidable self-absorption of such low-budget young productions that can make such films unwatchable. Helping Slaughter Tales escape this fate is Dickie’s charm as a performer; he somehow has the ability to see himself from a distance and is able to self-direct his character as a put-upon but likeable “Everyteen.” Dickie has a number of scenes built around short monologues, which he delivers in long takes with a sense of humor and timing that is impressive to behold. Responding to the phone sex operator: “How old am I?” Johnny replies “I’m, like, 26….(pause)…Do I sound like I’m fourteen?” he asks in mock disbelief.
Falling in and out of reality, Slaughter Tales maintains a sense of momentum that reveals Dickie already solid hand with plotting and pacing. Perhaps it’s the stacks of books and media that take up so many corners of his home/set that account for Dickie’s confident storytelling sense, he is after all, a kid who was brought up in a bookstore. His list of teenage grievances comes off as fairly compete: there’s nothing to eat, he can’t find his dad’s porn stash, a mysterious force is trying to kill him, and at one point his bad complexion comes off his face and goes on the attack, a scenario worthy of a adolesecent David Cronenberg. Teenage self-doubt rears their ugly head from time to time as well, as we occasionally bounce back to Dickie watching the action from his futon, shaking his head at the rag-tag mess.
The mind wanders imagining what could be in Johnny Dickie’s directorial future (he’s already in pre-production for his next film) but I’m staking the claim that I spotted his talent at first sight. Regardless of where his career heads next, Slaughter Tales is irrefutable evidence that Johnny Dickie has mastered the art of being a teenager, beyond all measure.
Slaughter Tales is available as a DVD through Amazon.com and as a deluxe VHS/DVD combo through Briarwood Entertainment
Briarwood Entertainment = http://briarwood.storenvy.com/