V/H/S (2012) – Film Review

Combining six found-footage horror stories from upcoming filmmakers of the time, 2012’s ‘V/H/S’ was a pretty ambitious indie horror upon its initial release. As while the film didn’t exactly reinvent the found-footage subgenre or avoid the usual problem anthologies tend to run into with its segments greatly ranging in quality, ‘V/H/S’ does manage to overcome some of its flaws through its eldritch stories and unique 1990s aesthetic, yet the film still pails in comparison to classic horror anthologies like ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Body Bags’ or its much improved sequel: ‘V/H/S/2.’

Plot Summary: When a group of misfits are hired by an unknown party to break into a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they are surprised to come across the owner’s decomposing body sat in front of a wall of video monitors and an endless supply of VHS tapes, each containing a piece of footage more disturbing than the last…

Although nowadays found-footage horror feels mostly played-out and even quite creatively limiting, ‘V/H/S’ does attempt to utilise its concept in the best way possible. Having its wraparound story titled: ‘Tape 56’ explain the other five, as every VHS tape a member of the group watches are the same stories we as the audience are seeing, its just a shame that this central narrative goes pretty much nowhere, only seeming to exist for the sake of the film’s anthology structure rather than to provide the film with a terrifying and memorable climax. But it does help that this segment takes-place in the same house as the ‘Marble Hornets’ web series, also known as the YouTube series that popularised the internet icon: ‘Slender Man.’

Due to the film featuring multiple stories, the huge cast of: ‘V/H/S’ ranges about as much as the segments themselves, as whilst no performance throughout the film is particularly bad, no performance is excellent either with the exception of Hannah Fierman as ‘Lily,’ who gives a very animalistic and continuously unnerving performance in the film’s first segment: ‘Amateur Night.’ Yet I don’t think this is entirely down to the cast, as ‘V/H/S’ does suffer from an overall lack of characterisation, which while hard to avoid in an anthology film where each story is given a limited time-frame, ‘V/H/S’ simply chooses to fit all of its characters into a certain stereotype and not development them at all beyond that.

The cinematography during every segment of: ‘V/H/S’ remains fairly consistent despite being handled by an array of cinematographers, and while the camerawork is very familiar for a grungy found-footage flick, the film’s assortment of glitch/static effects, grainy overlays, footage corruptions and occasionally chaotic editing all help to ground many of the segment’s supernatural elements in an almost documentary-like realism. And in spite of: ‘V/H/S’s lower-budget, all the film’s directors including Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid alongside Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Chad Villella under the title of: ‘Radio Silence,’ each try their hardest to distinguish their segment from the others.

Being a found-footage film, ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t have an original score, but with the film’s visuals leaning heavily into glitch and static effects, the sound design backs-up these effects with a distorted soundscape, adding tension to a number of scenes. And although the film only features one licensed song, it does fit well over the film’s end credits.

But ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t escape the most common issue of anthologies, as there is certainly a noticeable shift in quality between its segments. As while I thoroughly enjoy the previously mentioned: ‘Amateur Night,’ the second and third story titled: ‘Second Honeymoon’ and ‘Tuesday the 17th’ respectively, are a drastic downgrade, with the first being an incredibly dull slow-burn thriller, and the second being nothing but a cringy retelling of a ‘Friday the 13th’ film as the title implies. Neither of which are very memorable or creative, and feel like a chore to get through. However, these lacklustre segments are redeemed by the last two stories, as both ‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’ and ’10/31/98′ do implement some more inventive ideas even if they aren’t flawless in execution.

Altogether, ‘V/H/S’ has its strengths but also a great deal of weaknesses. Having many of it’s spectacular moments of horror spoilt by weak writing or the restrictions of it’s anthology structure, making for an occasionally enjoyable but very inconsistent experience. So while I personally think ‘V/H/S’ is worth at least one viewing for fans of horror anthologies, just bare in mind that the film never quite reaches the same heights as some others including its own sequel. And despite the third entry in the series: ‘V/H/S: Viral’ being an enormous disappointment for me, I’d still love to see the low-budget franchise continue. But with a prequel titled: ‘V/H/S 94’ being brought to the table by young filmmakers in 2019 only to then never be mentioned again, it seems the future of this series is unforeseeable, even if the first two films are surefire candidates for obtaining a cult status. Final Rating: low 6/10.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) – Film Review

The western genre used to be extremely popular back in the golden age of Hollywood, but in recent years however, westerns have mostly died-off, as aside from a few honourable mentions such as: ‘True Grit,’ ‘The Sisters Brothers’ and ‘Django Unchained.’ The western genre as a whole has run mostly dry, until now that is. As iconic directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men) return to the silver screen for this brilliant western anthology.

Plot Summary: Consisting of six different stories of life and violence in the Old West, including the tales of a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a travelling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train and a perverse pair of bounty hunters.

This diverse set of stories and characters really keep the film engaging from start-to-finish, as the film constantly jumps between characters and locations all whilst ensuring that it keeps its decent pacing and usual Coen Brother’s dark sense of humour intact. Resulting in the film feeling extremely refreshing, as superhero blockbusters and jump-scare filled horrors have really taken over the film industry in recent years. So revisiting an old yet classic genre (especially with this modern spin) is truly a breath of fresh air. Especially with the Coen Brother’s brilliant direction.

The performances by every member of the enormous cast are pretty excellent all around. As Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Thomas Waits, Zoe Kazan, Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson (just to name a few) are all brilliant when portraying their varied and interesting characters, with Tim Blake Nelson definitely being the clear stand-out for me with his extremely funny and charming portrayal of the title character: ‘Buster Scruggs.’

Throughout the runtime, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is almost flawless, as the film utilizes a variety of beautiful shots which perfectly capture the visual appeal of classic westerns. The original score by Carter Burwell is also great, as the soundtrack uses slow guitar stings and an enormous list of classic country songs to build-up atmosphere, with the best of these definitely being: ‘When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.’

One aspect of the film I absolutely adore is the Coen’s usual style of writing, as every character throughout the film is given plenty of comedic moments and memorable lines, which really helped make many of the characters with slightly-less development more likeable. Another element that also really drew my attention during my first viewing was the incredible sets and costumes the film had on full-display, as considering the locations/costumes are some of the main factors of engaging the audience into the story and it’s time-period. It was clear they were pulling-out all the stops. As every location always felt very real and lived-in, with the character’s clothes being no different.

My personal favourite narrative of the six would most likely be the opening story, sharing the same name as the title of the film: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.’ This opening was just such as joy to watch, balancing dark humour with a classic western set-up brilliantly, in addition to the fantastic performance from Tim Blake Nelson as already mentioned. However, this is also where my biggest criticism of the film comes in, as although they definitely aren’t awful, the last two stories are easily the weakest of the film. As although we do get some great character moments and fun scenes within these stories, I couldn’t help but feel they simply weren’t as memorable or as charming as the others leading-up to them. Perhaps if these two stories we’re placed earlier in the film it wouldn’t be such an issue, but it simply leaves the viewer with a bad taste in their mouth afterwards.

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ proves once again that westerns are far from gone when it comes to film, as the Coen Brothers once again take the audience for a trip into the wild west with complete success. As this anthology is just as hilarious as it is visually impressive and well-acted, regardless of whether or not the stories are quite on the same level. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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