V/H/S is exactly horror’s best offering in ages, it is exactly where horror is and should be. This is New American Horror. But there are caveats. And there are feminist concerns.
The film features five vignetted found footage horror shorts (with multiple directors) woven into a (found footage) narrative about a bunch of dudes who make gonzo porn for cash. They pick up a burglary gig, tasked with liberating a stash of videotapes from an old man’s house. These five shorts are what they find.
A found footage film's problem is twofold. It must first address the “hows” and “whys” of the in-universe eye. Does it make sense for this person to be clutching a Handycam during this chase scene? Are we convinced that they would bother? Are all the shots consistent, technically feasible, and physically plausible? Can every light, shot, and edit be accounted for? Does it make sense for the characters to be interacting with the cameras in this way? Are you accounting for how the footage got all the way to our screen in this condition?
But a found footage film is only really good if it pushes toward new possibilities for the diegetic device, proposes lots of “what ifs,” finds creative ways to justify the genre. While The Last Exorcism—my favorite found footage feature of the last decade until I saw V/H/S—made a lot of mistakes when it comes to tenant #1 of the genre, it offered one of my favorite examples of Handycam innovations when a possessed girl used the camera itself to murder a household pet. Found footage horror often uses a camera’s headlight as a narrative tool to delineate space and decide what the viewer can see, but it is also frequently (as in Rec, The Blair Witch Project or The Devil Inside) a crucial light resource for the film’s characters, thus justifying why the hell they are bothering with a camera in a time of crisis.
The found footage film, in embodying an in-universe gaze, also offers a conversation with feminist visual theory. As I mentioned before, V/H/S's hoodlum bros make and sell gonzo porn videos—you know, the kind where women are attacked on the street and their breasts exposed—and there are clips of these scenarios between the short films. There are other unsettling gazey in-universe nonsequiturs, like clips of one of the men secretly filming sex with a girl, and her discovery of the hidden camera. They're the film's least redeeming feature, and you should be careful if you choose to watch. But, if they do serve a purpose, it is to remind us of the camera’s penetrative potential.
Before I continue, I want to warn you that there’ll be spoilers, and I really want y’all to enjoy this shit, so proceed cautiously. More importantly, though, I wanna put a trigger warning on the rest of my words and a big fat TW on this film. There is a lot of conspicuous assault, bad consent, emotional abuse, blood, and regular ol’ violence. Even though I think the film is really good in spite of this, it can be tough to watch, and I’m pretty uncomfortable recommending it to most of you unless you’re prepared or feel okay about it. The worst of it (in my opinion) is in the first five minutes, just so you’re warned.
Let me say this, at least: this film, directed by nine dudes in total (and no women), wanted to be a “feminist horror film.” I’m not wholly unsatisfied by the results, and in fact am thrilled by some of them, but it reeks of Horror Film Dude Trying To Make Right With The Women. That kind of director doesn’t take a shot at producing a feminist film by, say, workin’ real hard to write a woman character and trying not to flash her tits too much. Most of them, instead, try to craft a feminist redemption by fleshing out sexism, abuse, rape, misogyny, and then inserting a female character that is allowed to overcome these things. That’s the rape revenge film in a nutshell, like I Spit On Your Grave or The Last House On The Left (where it’s the father who enacts the revenge), and we call it “exploitation” because the redemption is designed to justify the gratuitous sexualized violence.
So many contemporary horror, genre, and exploitation films which posit themselves as (or are lauded as) “feminist” follow the same violence-retribution arc—Teeth, Kill Bill, and Hard Candy most of all—and that’s pretty much remained the standard model for a “feminist” horror film made by men. (Maybe it is more accurate to say “‘feminist’ horror film that gets made at all.” Very rarely are these films made by women, but there are cases like Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body.) (I’d hate to ignore stuff like The Grudge and Audition in this conversation, but those come out of a different tradition and it wouldn’t be fair to analyze them in the same way.)
Four of the five shorts in V/H/S are essentially “about” women and have really good women characters. At least two of them are abuse-redemption narratives.
Let me take a second to talk about the most famous of these nine directors, Ti West, and why I love him so much. The House of the Devil is a film by West that I will ceaselessly praise as crucial American horror. It has a Final Girl who is in conversation with but not subsumed by Final Girls of yore. She is more than a trope. She survives but is not necessarily a Strong Female Character. Like Jamie Lee in Halloween, she is at times both competent and helpless. She is a victim without being sexually exploited for our eyes. She is allowed to keep her clothes on, mostly. She spends most of the film alone, and the bulk of the film’s psychic tension is developed through her emotional interactions with herself. That’s just it, that’s why Ti West is so great. In House as well as his latest solo feature, The Innkeepers, he writes films about women for relatively non-political reasons, he writes films about women whose bodies aren’t mutilated for our viewing, he writes films about women who survive without becoming a trope, and when he writes women he grants them lots of emotional and mental space. But Ti West’s segment in V/H/S is a feminist redemption narrative.
In West’s short, “Second Honeymoon,” a woman, Stephanie, and her huge asshole of a boyfriend, Sam, tape record their romantic Out West getaway. The Camcorder encloses a tense, unkind domestic space while constantly teasing and alluding to an unknown external terror. (That’s another thing Ti West does really well: he never tells you what you’re supposed to be afraid of until the very end.) After a creepy run-in with a local, Sam violates Stephanie with the camera and tries to coerce her into sex. That night, both bodies are shown—filmed by a third, intruding party who picked up the camera—sleeping in separate beds. The unnamed third eye pulls Stephanie’s sheets down, ogles her panties, and leaves. It’s a really gross male gaze moment, but.
The fear in “Honeymoon” is a slow, kneading tension. Ultimately we are asked to determine whether we are afraid of the interiority of the relationship or of an external threat from which we are unprotected. In the end, the terror is both and neither. In the final scene, the camera’s handler slits Sam’s throat and she (she) retreats to the bathroom to kiss her lover, Stephanie. They leave together.
It’s a queersploitation scenario, and falls into the abuse-redemption trap. But “Second Honeymoon” is a really great feminist horror short because of the ways it constructs domestic fears, refuses to portray female sexualities as static, and manipulates gazes. And, while ultimately an abuse revenge scenario, the short does not use the concluding “redemption” as an excuse to gratuitously exploit female bodies in the exposition. In fact, Ti West manages to largely separate the violence—emotional and physical—from the sexuality. When Sam tries to coerce Stephanie into taking off her clothes, the audience sees no nudity, only a frumpy sweatshirt and an unsensationalized cold resistance. In fact, the only actual violence in the entire short is the blood oozing out of Sam’s neck in the dark, a cold, brief gore immediately followed by a tender, swift, unsexualized kiss between the two women.
The other abuse-redemption short in V/H/S is David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night.” Its premise immediately begs the question of the violating gaze. A bunch of fratty bros buy a pair of glasses with a hidden camera embedded in them and scheme to film a secret amateur sex tape with some unwitting drunk girls they pick up at a local bar. If I can say anything in favor of this short, I will compliment the impeccable drunk acting and the use of the camera to allude to intoxication. I was fully convinced. But, in case you haven’t guessed, Trigger Warning: rape attempts. The bros bring two girls back to their hotel room. One of the women passes out, and a dude paws at her, his bro mutters something about rape, and they give up. The other girl is a succubus ready for action.
That’s man-made feminist horror film, I guess. Spoiler: the men die, the gore is brilliant, and we get to see a convincingly severed penis. But we also had to watch a drunk bro undo the garters of a half-naked woman passed out, you know? “Amateur Night” is good horror exploitation, but it’s not a particularly feminist venture. Even in spite of the “feminist revenge.”
In a review of V/H/S, tumblr juvenilecinephile draws “Amateur Night” into a narrative about masculinities which includes each short as well as the film’s overarching plot:
All four of these segments run well in the universe of critiquing modern male behavior. Much of it is a power imbalance of control and abuse displayed by these characters against others. Even the second segment having a plot twist that might go against this thesis does not negate the sort of the desperation of the male character in that tape, in a real masculinity crisis.
V/H/S's closing short, “10/31/98,” directed by Radio Silence, is the only segment without any real female character. I really loved this short, a joyful and creepy bro comedy/horror that feels in many ways like an all-male extension of The House of the Devil. A group of fratties stumble into a maybe-haunted house and intervene in some sort of sacrificial rite to save a White Girl In A White Dress that’s being tortured. They liberate her, but it doesn’t exactly work out for them. As juvenilecinephile points out, “10/31/98” is an alternately masculinist bookend to the rape culture in “Amateur Night” and offers “a spin on man children compared to ‘Amateur Night’ but shows just how much the behavior of chivalry in an equally medieval situation may not be the best road to take.”
There is another really good short in V/H/S, a stand-out next to “Honeymoon.” Directed by mumblecore bro Joe Swanberg, it’s called “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” and critics hated it for a really good reason: Skype. Skype. How the fuck did Skype recordings end up on a VHS in the house of an old guy who never made it past the VCR? And why? Why the hell Skype???
But, you know what? I’m going to defend the deconstructive potential of the Skype short, even though it makes no sense. “Sick” is a string of Skype conversations between a woman named Emily and her long-distance boyfriend. Emily thinks she is being haunted, Emily is curious and only a little afraid, Emily defers most of her opinions to her boyfriend, Emily neurotically picks at troubling bumps on her limbs with a fork. (As a person with body-repetitive impulse disorders, this was one of the most visceral things I’ve ever seen.) Emily is a great character.
We view the conversations from his perspective, the tiny man face in the lower-right-hand-corner of the screen. The medium briefly tricks us into thinking there is no directional gaze, even as we watch Emily strip for her boyfriend. The medium also allows us to suspend an understanding of distance, when we view (in the background of a passed-out Emily) that the allegedly long-distance boyfriend is actually sneaking into Emily’s apartment to help aliens implant fetuses into her body. The medium additionally allows us to swiftly re-orient, as when we see, in the end, that the boyfriend is enacting the same scenario on a second long-distance girlfriend. We watch her strip on Skype.
Not unlike Rosemary’s Baby, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily” is exceptional in the way that it uses the supernatural to manifest very real abuse dynamics. “Gaslighting” becomes “aliens,” “reproductive abuse” becomes “weird alien fetuses.” Emily tells her boyfriend that she was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, that she is “crazy.” She says this is why she keeps picking at these sores under her skin, this is why she can’t remember how she got bruised and beaten. She apologizes to him for how difficult she is. He says “you’ll be okay,” he tells her not to pick at her sores, he never says “I love you” back. It’s an excellent commentary on manipulation and construction of feminine madness. And it’s an abuse narrative without redemption.
The only short I haven’t mentioned is Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th.” This is the sloppiest segment, but it’s another remarkably woman-centric horror short directed by a man. A girl, Wendy, brings three friends camping in the woods so she can bait the man who murdered her companions in those woods years earlier. Not quite a revenge scenario, Wendy is looking for a final showdown with the man who killed her loved ones. But it’s “not as therapy,” she insists. It’s almost sadistic. If nothing else, it’s a new proposition, a prodding “what if” for the horror genre. And, honestly, that’s all I ask for when I watch this stuff.
In “Tuesday,” there is one scene that I can’t stop thinking about. On the way to the campsite, one of the guys in Wendy’s car swings the camcorder around to the backseat to zoom in on his friend’s tits. The violating camera lens is ubiquitous, even in horror. I am reminded of a similar scene in April Fool’s Day, where a particularly pervy soon-to-be-body euphemistically feels a girl up with his camera. April Fool’s Day is really nothing but a mid-eighties campy exploitation slasher, and that particular cinematic ogle was nothing but the genre’s conventional impetus to cram as many boobs as you can fit into an R-rating. I wonder about McQuaid’s intent in that moment. If nothing else, it reminded us that the camera was there, that it was embodied, and that it can be violent.
I’m not fully convinced that this is the “feminist” question these directors had in mind, but it’s as legitimate as anything. It’s certainly more legitimate (if less entertaining) than the succubus castration rape revenge.
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