Is V/H/S scary? Yes, but not for the reasons you might assume.
I think we all remember the huge found footage trend that swamped horror and sci-fi in the early 2000s. But if you don't, then we can just call it a narrative/visual contrivance that makes it seem like the movie you're watching is "discovered" after some event, and the footage is usually presented as the only evidence for the event.
1980's Cannibal Holocaust is probably the earliest example, but the trend really blew up after The Blair Witch Project in 1999. As a filmmaking gimmick, it makes sense in a lot of ways. It's often cheap to shoot. It puts the audience right in the middle of the action with unique points of view. There's an air of immediacy and intimacy to the storytelling.
In the middle of this trend in 2012 comes V/H/S, an anthology film that features 6 shorts that are "found" on tape by a violent gang after they break into a house. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. And although it's an older film now, and probably not as terrifying as it wanted to be, we can look at it as a work that reflects some of what's scariest about our present.
Found footage and toxic social media
We've all gotten accustomed to the fact that we carry cameras around in our pockets every single day. We're able to film everything that we do, and sometimes that's a great tool (like when we document protests against police brutality). But it's also given birth to influencers and YouTubers who film themselves really destroying property or, in the case of Logan Paul, filming the body of a real suicide victim and cracking jokes.
V/H/S also features deviant behavior for shock value. But some of what's supposed to be scary here might not have the impact the film wants, because a slice of the audience is probably already desensitized to it. And that's scary in itself.
What's the morality of V/H/S?
If you know horror, then you probably know that the genre sometimes falls back on a common morality theme. Characters who are "promiscuous" in any way, break rules, or drink/do drugs are basically putting themselves on the chopping block, especially in slasher films. There's a lot of writing on this and arguments for and against the concept (that's for another time), but basically sex and drug use are often punishable.
V/H/S follows this morality theme to some extent. A group of guys who attempt to sexually assault incapacitated women are punished when a succubus appears. A bunch of people who take drugs die after a violent glitch monster attacks them.
But V/H/S also fiddles with the idea of female characters as plot devices/objects. "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" literally uses the female character as an incubator for alien babies, robbing her of agency and memory and putting her in a highly toxic and manipulative online "relationship."
Yeah, it's a weird twist, but strangely it does provide a glimpse of what a lot of relationships would look like during the pandemic, as we're all relying on Zoom calls to connect. So in that way, it feels timely. (Sidebar: If you want a whole movie about a stronger female protagonist in a similar online set-up where sexuality isn't punished, check out Cam.)
But maybe the biggest takeaway of V/H/S is to look at the framing device itself. The gang happens upon these tapes as evidence of human horrors. Unless we're strict curators of our online content, our own posts, pictures, and videos might stand as relics left behind online in similar ways. I know I have logins I've forgotten for websites from the early 2000s. In 10 years, will we still have Facebook? YouTube?
Perhaps we can look at V/H/S and think about what we're leaving behind now. If someone comes upon our stash of content, whatever it is, will we be proud of it? What meaning will future viewers derive from it?
So, although V/H/S was perhaps only trying at the time to capitalize on a filmmaking trend and make something low-budget and shocking, it still accomplishes the thing that makes the horror genre truly amazing. It reflects issues or fears of our society.
What's next? Dig into more horror!
This summer has been a heck of a ride. I'm already mentally prepared for the fall and Halloween season. Why not start early? Learn about body horror in The Fly. Love Carpenter's Halloween? Check out how the film achieves its dramatic lighting. Then explore how found footage is used in sci-fi movies.