SUNDANCE: Found Footage Horror Anthology V/H/S Thrills at Midnight

If you've grown tired of the gimmickry and diminishing quality of "found footage" horror, Sundance's Midnight program just delivered the cure: V/H/S, an anthology film comprised of shorts by six up-and-coming horror/indie filmmakers, each working within the parameter that their story be told via found media. The Devil Inside this ain't; V/H/S is fresh and pulse-quickening to the end, one of the best discoveries of this year's fest.

Conceived by producer Brad Miska, V/H/S culls some of the most promising genre talent around for writing and directing duties: Ti West (House of the Devil, Innkeepers), Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die), Joe Swanberg (LOL), David Bruckner (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), and filmmaking collective Radio Silence. Their six disparate segments are tied together thusly (though you won't want to go in knowing much more about it than this): Four prankster punks are promised a big payday to break into a house and steal a VHS tape, but once they get there they find an empty house, a body, and a stack of bizarre tapes to sift through. As they pop in each cassette in search of The Tape, described in vague "you'll know it when you see it" terms, we see what they see -- a collection of found recordings documenting strange, grisly happenings.

The segments unfold as follows (SPOILER ALERT: If you want to know nothing going in, close your eyes and skip to the next paragraph): Wingard's Tape 56, Bruckner's Amateur Night, West's Second Honeymoon, McQuaid's Tuesday the 17th, Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, and Radio Silence's 10/31/98.

While I won't spoil the details (or even the premises) of these shorts, suffice to say V/H/S serves as a stellar showcase for its stable of writers and directors, some of whom also worked on each others' selections. (Swanberg and Wingard, for example, each direct a short and act in another.) What's interesting to note is that, as the directors explained late Sunday night following their raucous midnight premiere, none had any idea what the others were planning when they were all making their films. So when certain trends pop up -- say, sex-hungry twenty-something young men undone by their own pervy impulses, a popular theme -- it's by coincidence.

The film itself is an experiment in found-footage filmmaking, a trend much more profitable than it is respected, and yet these are the guys who aren't cashing in on their neophyte horror cache by signing on to studio-backed horror sequels and remakes and trend-catchers. So while it's a method commonly associated with the Paranormal Activity phenomenon, each director here manages to do something different with the form that defies convention while winking at the horror faithful. Some segments evoke classic slasher horror, others the supernatural thriller, and even the indie relationship drama, but they all exploit the medium as a storytelling aide, tweaking horror cliches with unexpected, and effective results.

"On a large derivative scale, [found footage] is not appealing," said West during the film's Q&A, explaining what appealed to him about experimenting with an otherwise tired methodology like this. Thankfully -- impressively, miraculously! -- these folks have figured out a way to make the gimmick fresh again, and in wildly different but inventive ways. In a time when the found footage train shows no immediate sign of stopping, at least there's proof that it can be done in new ways, and well.

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