I'll admit straight off I don't have a lot of patience for the found footage genre as a whole. Ever since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT took the movie going world by the throat (it's still the only horror movie besides AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON - which is a whole other story - that gave me nightmares) studios enamored by the idea of "micro budget horror + found footage = whopping profit" have cloned and copied the idea into the ground, turning it into the 21st century's equivalent of the 80s slasher film. For every time a film breaks the mold with innovation and imagination (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, [REC], TROLLHUNTER, CATFISH), there are dozens of small-minded, cheap and exploitative copycats that hope to lure you into watching with tired jump scares and crappy production value masquerading as artistic vision.
So even though I wasn't particularly engaged by V/H/S, the new found-footage horror anthology film written and directed by a number of rising independent filmmakers including Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE INNKEEPERS), David Bruckner (whose THE SIGNAL was a great surprise when I reviewed it a few years ago) and Joe Swanberg, current King of mumbecore, I have to give it a lot of credit for its ambition and desire present something beyond the cheap scares that so often seem par for the course with this type of film.
The short film/anthology structure serves as a blessing and a curse - no story really overstays its welcome, but at almost two hours the five main segments (and one wrap-around story) feels like just too much for one film. This is further intensified by the wrap-around story, about a group of despicable losers who break into a house in order to steal a particular VHS tape for someone (who and why is never mentioned). It's a great device to frame the other stories (once in the house they find - among other things - a pile of old VHS tapes that contain the other stories in the film), but it doesn't really go anywhere. It's the weakest part of the film, and even ends before the last story begins, undermining the whole structure of V/H/S.
The other stories vary in quality, but generally get better as they go along. Each one has a interesting hook: in the first segment three scummy college guys get a pair of camera glasses, and intend to pick up some drunk girls and film them having sex in a hotel room. The results are over the top in gore and horror, and makes for the most convincing reason for constantly filming. The middle story comes up with the great conceit of its monster living somewhere in the weird tracking errors we all (well, those of use over 30 anyway) remember on our own videotapes. Unfortunately this great idea gets washed out in perhaps the most generic of the segments (and the one I'd likely cut - four teenagers in the creepy woods).
But from there the last two segments are genuinely good, with Joe Swanberg's "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" maybe not strictly keeping with the aesthetic (it takes place entirely over Skype, so best to not worry about how it got on a videotape), but it is extremely unsettling and has the only real scares in the film. And "10/31/98" by the collective known as Radio Silence examines what happens when a bunch of college guys (almost the exact opposite of the dirt bags from the first story) go to a Halloween party, find something horrible, do the right thing, and still pay in the end. Visually its pretty stunning - when things go haywire the effects looks great buried in the washed out videotape, a potent mix of POLTERGEIST and DAY OF THE DEAD that doesn't scare you as much as make you go, "awesome!"
V/H/S isn't likely to save the found footage genre from its inevitable decline, but there's enough here to make it an interesting watch for fans of the style, or of the filmmakers involved. If they keep this up, make it shorter and make the wrap-around structure stronger and you might have something solid.