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quietearth [Celluloid 07.22.12] horror thriller


With the rising tide of independent found footage horror films, it's remarkable for any one to rise above the fray, let alone one that tackles the ever-complicated anthology style. After viewing the phenomenally edited red-band trailer, I leaped headfirst onto the buzz bandwagon of anxiously waiting genre fans, crossing my fingers and craving one more reason to glance over my shoulder at nightfall. As I sat in the small screening room on Wednesday, with a gaggle of likewise genre film lovers, I found myself waiting. I waited for each next tale to bring chills up my spine or at least for the carefully placed video glitches to quit making my ears pop. However, as the twists continued to range from the predictable to the face-palm-worthy, I realized that if I truly wished to see the film that the trailers promised, I'd only be left waiting.

The film contains five shorts, threaded together by the overall story of a gang of destructive misfits, creeping into a house in search of a mysterious VHS tape. Though their usual gigs consist of cheap topless female shots, which they typically accomplish by force, they take this job in hopes of significantly better pay. Once they break into the house, however, they're greeted by a corpse, surrounded by VHS tapes and slumped before a stack of TV's spewing white noise. As they search through the tapes they're faced with hyper-violent footage, documenting ghastly accounts of hungry demonic creatures, cold-blooded murder, mutilation and malevolent supernatural beings.

I will always commend any filmmakers that are able to maintain a successful anthology style horror film. As some of the most celebrated works in horror literature are short stories, it makes sense for an anthology series or film to offer a proper storytelling format for filmmakers within the genre. However, like any collection of short horror stories, the quality of an anthology style film may fluctuate from tale to tale. Also unlike an anthology in print or television, a film anthology takes on the task of holding our attention until the bitter end - regardless of how dragging, disruptive or dull some of the stories may be. That said, as many know, the whole of an anthology film is not always as good as the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, the main issue for V/H/S is that the sum of its parts barely made the cut.

To the film's credit, this is one of the extremely few found footage films that never loses track of the film style's goal. People can complain about it being nausea-inducing, but the grain, the glitches, the shakiness, etc., all helped to maintain the true voyeuristic feel of watching someone else's private tapes. This is one of the few times that sacrificing some of the more cinematic techniques of shooting and lighting positively reflects the filmmakers' competence and works heavily to the benefit the audience immersion into the story. The filmmakers also used the format of the shoddy handheld footage to their advantage. Each time a character pops a tape into the VCR, we transition from the POV of the camera to the videos on the ominously stacked TV screens. Despite the films' varying and completely unrelated storylines, this technique helped blend the shorts, while bringing the audience into the characters' experience. Unfortunately, just as the skin is nothing without the skeleton, a film reliant on technique is only hollow at its core.

What's more aggravating than sloshing through truly inane premise, is watching a truly intriguing premise wander aimlessly past. The general premise of the misfits searching for a tape is enough to turn heads on its own. Also, as bizarre sightings and eerie occurrences continue to arise, we see the contrasts begin to blur between the footage on the tapes and the images being shot. Unfortunately, this unusual premise is set up only to be quickly concluded and resolved even before the end of the film, through yet another stereotypical genre twist. What's more is that we spot this ending a mile away, making the only surprise twist at the end to be that they actually stuck with its predictability. One might argue that the blanketing premise for this type of film isn't to be held in such regard. After all, the main purpose of this VHS search is for threading the shorts together--simply a tool showcasing the directors' work. Nevertheless, just as the anthology premise may only be a threading device, the flaws I have mentioned only scratch the surface of the storytelling blunder iceberg.

An important factor in any truly gripping script is having strongly developed characters. Still, even if you have a character whose best feature is his tee shirt, you must cast someone who can rock that damned tee shirt. The first short story, for example, is about a group of guys who plant a camera in their friend's glasses in hopes of picking girls up at the bar and secretly filming them during sex. However, one of the girls that they take home has her own deadly secrets. While the main character plays the awkward one out of his trio-he's the one in charge of the camera, yet he is clearly not ready to be part of this. His two friends, on the other hand, are stereotypical douche bags. While there is nothing wrong with this, as tropes are commonly used for a reason, it seems that the only direction these gentleman were given was to yell all of their lines like they're at the playoffs. Aside from general absurdities, like why they choose the stone sober, mentally disturbed chick out of the sloppy lineup, is the annoying matter of having the guys shout out their plans with the girls well within earshot. By the time the real action truly takes place, we don't even care enough about these guys to want them to die-we just want them to not exist.

To create a terrifying, fully developed story in under fifteen minutes is no simple task. When a writer and/ or a director is able to accomplish this successfully, it sticks out in our minds. However, when filmmakers are not able to pull it off, due to plot holes, cheap effects, reliance on graphic imagery, etc., it sticks out like a blistering sore. By switching to webcam, the fourth segment not only breaks the sole consistency of the film but also breaks the illusion that these films could have been stumbled upon nearly a decade after the carnage. Also, while the initial assumed plot of a girl who believes her new home might be haunted was initially promising, it suffered the most from exposition, as the plot relied heavily on both characters revealing clues through babbling about each others' histories, including that time the protagonist may or may not have mutilated her own leg for some odd reason years back.

The final short story in the anthology, about a group of guys who stumble upon a violent exorcism ritual when searching for a Halloween party, was the one that stood out as the most effective. With the exception of the occasional cheesy special effect (because an exorcism isn't the same without people being thrown and dragged across a room), a lot of the CG looked surprisingly realistic, transforming a suburban home into a genuine haunted house. It also successfully pulled off a light comedic tone at the beginning, allowing the audience to build into the scares. Once we realize the dire situation the boys have tied themselves into, the humor smoothly fades into a naturally building fear. The most unfortunate part of all of this, is that we have to trudge through four mediocre films, for an anthology that saves its best for last.

Once again, the most disappointing part of this anthology was its potential. Using a style of film that almost looks vintage by today's standards managed to fuse an older look to a steadily growing format. The truth of the matter is that proper promotion and the gimmick of the intermixed horror genres in a found footage, anthology format were all key factors in sustaining the films' intrigue. However, the majority of the short stories fell short on the most basic of story development elements, which is a waste considering the talent attached. It's safe to say that had these short films premiered on their own, they would most likely sink into short film obscurity, doomed to turn a few heads on the festival circuit and amount to nothing more.

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