Welcome to SCARED IN SEGMENTS, a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
For anyone who grew up in the age of camcorders, these handheld devices captured some of the most significant moments of our personal lives. After all, those plastic cassette shells housed more than magnetic tape — they contained memories that shaped and defined who we all are today. Videocassettes provided quick and easy access for anyone looking to revisit the past. Yet as we learn in the horror anthology V/H/S, not all recorded pasts are pleasant.
Bloody Disgusting founder Brad Miska devised the idea for V/H/S after being asked by his site’s co-owners, The Collective, about developing a movie. With a plan in mind, he then collaborated with screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard before the duo had to film You’re Next. The two quickly went to work on their contribution to the anthology, but getting the other parts of the film off the ground was no simple feat. With conflicts in schedule being a major problem, the entire project wasn’t completed until nearly a week before Sundance’s deadline in 2012.
Considering no one involved in the making of V/H/S had reviewed the cut that was submitted to Sundance, the nervous filmmakers were pleasantly surprised by their acceptance. This good news urged the crew to get their film in tip-top shape before the premiere. In addition, they kept their film under wraps so that the movie “felt new” when audiences finally saw it. This meant there were no announcements or reports ahead of time, and the public didn’t know V/H/S existed until Sundance released its lineup that year.
Early reviews from Sundance were mixed: Entertainment Weekly said V/H/S was “very well executed” while The Hollywood Reporter stated the film “overstayed its welcome” due to its length of almost two hours. Roger Ebert was no fan either as he didn’t find any of the stories to be “compelling”. Regardless, the movie’s good word of mouth got around, and its home video release later that year was met with positive reactions from the horror community. The success allowed for two sequels — V/H/S/ 2 and V/H/S: Viral — to be released in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
THE FRAMING STORY — “TAPE 56“
Written by Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett
Directed by Adam Wingard
A group of nihilists who film all their roguish exploits accepts an assignment from an anonymous source — steal a certain tape from a house in exchange for a large sum of money. The task seems painless enough, but once inside their destination, the men realize something is very off about this job.
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett pulled double duty as actors and filmmakers as they adapted Brad Miska’s concept — something he originally thought up for a television series — as “Tape 56“. They were under the impression that the anthology was going to house three or four other segments, but the inclusion of one more vignette created a minor problem with editing. In a departure from traditional anthologies, Wingard let the wraparound end before the closing story because he found “10/31/98” to be a stronger finisher.
Of all the self-governing parts of V/H/S, the wraparound may be the most convincing-looking with respect to the film’s desired aesthetic. This is because Wingard used load-in-tape camcorders for portions of “Tape 56“. This pursuit of low-res accuracy makes viewers really feel like they’re in the house, rummaging through the owner’s stockpile of cassettes.
“Tape 56” is an anarchic diary of misanthropic vandals who will do whatever they deem necessary for a quick buck. Though that greediness results in a miserable comeuppance for these antisocial louts, it’s gratifying for anyone looking in on their misfortune. Limited character depth notwithstanding, it’s a creative way to set up the other stories.
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STORY 1 — “AMATEUR NIGHT“
Written by David Bruckner & Nicholas Tecosky
Directed by David Bruckner
After three young men meet two women at a bar, they bring them back to their motel room for what could have been a night of fun. Alternatively, they end up fighting for their lives as one of these women is not who they appear to be.
The three male characters may not be the most sympathetic of the lot, but David Bruckner‘s opener is an achievement for point-of-view horror. The employment of the spy camera glasses pulls viewers immediately into the action, and they feel every bit as scared as the wearer does. Bruckner also happens to inject some commentary on the discourse surrounding sexual consent. By doing so, he and co-writer Tecosky turn the classic “woman in peril” trope on its head and introduce us to a horrifying antagonist.
If you can’t get enough of “Amateur Night“, the short was expanded into a feature-length film called SiREN in 2016. The movie’s not of the found-footage persuasion, but Hannah Fierman reprises her role as the unforgettable and fearsome Lily.
STORY 2 — “SECOND HONEYMOON“
Written and directed by Ti West
A married couple (Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal) visiting the Grand Canyon doesn’t realize someone’s been following them this whole time.
Ti West was the first director to join V/H/S after Wingard got on board, and his affinity for vérité — media emphasizing realism — is distinguishable in “Second Honeymoon.” What makes West’s snuff film inclined offering stand out from the pack is it never enters supernatural territory. The story and presentation are both straightforward, and it ends with a twist you likely didn’t see coming.
This was the Ti West’s first time shooting from a hard script that had no particular dialogue. In fact, “Second Honeymoon” is a reimagining of an actual road trip West took shortly before signing on to V/H/S. For four days, he and the short’s actors recaptured his drive from Los Angeles to Flagstaff, Arizona. And what was the most unusual thing about the whole experience was the fortune teller scene — this unrehearsed, serendipitous moment eerily ties the whole segment together.
STORY 3 — “TUESDAY THE 17th“
Written and directed by Glenn McQuaid
As a group of friends embark on a camping trip, they learn of the notorious murders that took place at the very same campsite they’re staying at.
Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) intended to do a riff on the classic paranormal show In Search of…, which documented unexplained phenomena or mysteries, but producers Miska and Roxanne Benjamin suggested a slasher. McQuaid wasn’t averse; he was simply a slasher purist. Hence the discernible eighties slasher influence on “Tuesday the 17th“.
Filmed near Woodstock, California and on horror icon Larry Fessenden’s farm land, the short was shot over three days before McQuaid opted for reshoots. He deemed the footage to be too “pretty” and humorous in tone. This time around, though, improvisation became the key to success.
Making his story found-footage friendly was a challenge, but in a stroke of sheer brilliance, McQuaid weaponized the characters’ camera. So “Tuesday the 17th” becomes a creditable send-up of old school, low-cost made slashers with a modern spin — the distinctive killer is really a humanoid shape composed of just video scan lines, and he can’t be rendered properly on film. As a result, the agitation stirred herein is more tangible than the antagonist.
STORY 4 — “THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER“
Written by Simon Barrett
Directed by Joe Swanberg
Through video chats, Emily (Helen Rogers) tries to prove to her boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman) that her apartment is haunted by the ghosts of children.
“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” marries a classic horror exposition — threats that lurk inside your own home — with the helplessness one feels when a loved one is in danger. Swanberg and Barrett play on the considerable drama that comes with long-distance relationships, and in turn, they conceive the most emotionally distressing short in the whole collection.
Up to this point, Swanberg was directing mainly non-horror indie films that focused on intense and emotive narratives. That acute know-how of relationships adds out-and-out authenticity to the story.
As bizarre as the outcome is, the journey getting there is fruitful when it comes to utter jump scares. There are instances where you will gasp because of how caught off-guard “Emily” makes you. There’s a staggering amount of history that’s never explained, but that ambiguity only supplements the conclusion’s savage revelation.
STORY 5 — “10/31/98“
Written by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez & Chad Villella
Directed by Radio Silence
When four friends in search of a Halloween party end up at the wrong house, they stumble upon something truly sinister.
Friends and creative partners Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella founded the group Radio Silence (Southbound) together in 2011. Not only did they write and direct the final story, they also starred in it. But before they met Brad Miska, Radio Silence was known for its viral horror clips like Mountain Devil Prank Fails Horribly.
With all the creative leeway they could ever ask for from the producers, Radio Silence hatched the basic plot of “10/31/98” as they did a walk-through of the short’s eventual main venue. The filmmakers wound up making the “evil in plain sight” house a prominent character by utilizing every nook and cranny of the property.
What fans love about “10/31/98” is its profuse capacity for meteoric thrills. As soon as the action starts, it refuses to stop. The ending is so hasty and fraught that it makes perfect sense for V/H/S to end here rather than with the wraparound.
Thanks to its shying away from the limelight, found-footage horror as a whole doesn’t suffer the same prejudice it once did only a few years ago. That’s not to say the sub-genre has totally disappeared. It’s just rare to see one get the same mainstream rollout as something like Paranormal Activity these days. Nonetheless, the gumption of those behind V/H/S is something worth remembering when someone accuses found-footage of being lazy.
Be kind, rewind, and give this anthology another viewing if you were disappointed the first time you saw it. The film’s experimental approach to the divisive film technique is at the very least admirable. The painstaking care and effort the filmmakers all went to create this movie is downright impressive. Yes, the individual parts of V/H/S are not equal in terms of quality or efficacy, but as a collaboration, it’s deserving of its reputation as a trailblazer in found-footage horror.