Friday, January 25, 2013

V/H/S & the brilliance of the small idea

What’s missing in most horror films isn’t the big idea but the small one.  Films with big ideas are great‑Night of the Living Dead (1969), The Blob, Cabin In the Woods‑but they are necessarily rare.  Films with small ideas are rare as well, but there is much less excuse for this.  Horror writers and directors should search for the little ideas that make a character and story genuinely captivating and nurture them with just the right degree of attention. 
V/H/S is a fine little piece of found footage film making that is pretty much a workshop for what I am talking about.  It accepts the usual flaws of the genre: annoying motion, implausible assumptions about people who keep filming while they are running for their lives, etc.  On the other hand, it makes a virtue out of the low budget project.  All the visual effects fit within the realm of the video recorder, which gives them a visceral kick that is almost always lost with CG. 
The film is an anthology of short horror stories.  The context piece involves a gaggle of hoodlums who apparently make a living by harassing people and selling the footage they record as they do so.  They are hired to break in to a house and steal a VHS tape.  One of them watches the tape, on which the other stories appear.  It’s a nice setup.  I got the idea (perhaps it was a product of my own imagination) that anyone who views the tape will end up on the next version of it.  
What makes the film unusually good is that each of the set pieces (with one exception) plays off an exquisite small idea.  In the first story, a bunch of rowdy guys set out to party on the town and hope to end up making a porn film.  Two of them are typical jocks and one is the essential nerd.  At a bar the nerd picks up a very unusual girl who has astonishingly big eyes but who can’t say anything but “I like you”.  She seems to become attached to them, showing up in each subsequent scene though we never see how she comes to be there.  That’s the small idea: the girl who seems to stick around even though she is barely noticed.  The filming here becomes a metaphor for our inattention to detail.  We get glimpses of her body that indicate something very sinister but only fleeting glimpses.   No one pays enough attention until it is way too late. 

Another story is a version of a very familiar one: boys and girls go into the woods and are stalked by a killer.  The small idea here is that the killer flickers in and out of reality, much like the images on the video.  The film makers used the device of video distortion to convey the supernatural power of the killer who can never be caught.  At one point the woman with the camera cries out in frustration: “Why can’t I film you?”  I share the frustration.  I couldn’t get a coherent screen capture of the killer.  He is visible in no single image even if he can be seen more or less as the film rolls. 
In another story, a young woman communicates with her boyfriend by means of a split screen program (Skype?).  We see his face in the lower corner of the screen as she tells him about the poltergeists in her apartment.  What looks like a very common story becomes uncommon by the small idea.  She thinks that something is inside her arm and she starts digging.  This is the most inventive and least predictable of the stories. 
I wouldn’t count this among great films, but it is surely a breath of fresh, if rather bloody, air.  Each story plays with a delicious small idea and tells you just enough and no more.  I really enjoyed this film and I suggest that you will as well. 

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