Before the anthology horror film “V/H/S” premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, there was an air of dark mystery about it. There was no movie poster, and little was known about its story line.
The secrecy was intentional on the part of its makers — a group that included Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Ti West and the four-person team known as Radio Silence. They and the film’s producers had decided to remain tight-lipped to boost the movie’s buzz and bolster its reputation as a dangerous cult oddity.
When reports emerged of audience members vomiting and fainting at an early screening, its reputation was sealed, no matter that altitude and alcohol might have had more to do with those reactions than any hand-held camera work or on-screen horror.
Still, the film is not for the faint of heart. Available on video-on-demand and opening in KC theaters on Friday, “V/H/S” is a compilation of six horror shorts inspired by the recent popularity of the “found footage” conceit.
The framing story follows a small gang of hoodlums who come across a cache of videotapes after they break into a house; each of the shorts portrays what the burglars supposedly see on the tapes and each has a unique style, while offering the requisite twists and gore.
“The idea is that you’re watching a tape. You’re watching someone’s mix,” explained producer Brad Miska of the film’s central structuring conceit, “but you’re only watching. You don’t know who made the tape, who edited it together, you don’t know anything.”
Taken as a whole, the movie offers a disturbing exploration of the dark side of the young male psyche and a certain strain of predatory voyeurism enabled by modern technology.
“I think when you hand a camera with a found-footage mandate to a bunch of guys, they are going to tap into that voyeurism,” said McQuaid.
Wingard’s wraparound story, “Tape 56,” provides the film’s narrative through-line as the men discover and watch the shorts the audience sees, while Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” follows a group of frat boys filming an evening’s drunken debauchery with spy-camera glasses. Their night on the town takes an unexpected turn when a girl they pick up transforms into some sort of demon.
In West’s “Second Honeymoon,” an interloper disrupts a young couple’s trip through the desert, and McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th” finds a stalker terrorizing college kids in the woods. Swanberg, known for his improvisational relationship movies, effectively builds suspense in “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Young,” which follows a weird incident between a couple as it plays out via Skype chats.
In “10/31/98,” Radio Silence depicts four guys arriving at what might be the wrong house for a Halloween costume party that goes seriously off the rails.
Miska, editor of the popular horror website Bloody Disgusting, took the initial idea of a found-footage anthology to Gary Binkow, partner in the management and production company the Collective, and Binkow and Roxanne Benjamin produced the project along with Miska. (The title of “V/H/S” actually stands for “video horror segments” with the slashes meant to connote a specific date.)
After contacting Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, who previously worked with Miska on the feature “A Horrible Way to Die,” the team reached out to filmmakers Swanberg and West, both of whom appear as actors in Wingard and Barrett’s upcoming “You’re Next.”
McQuaid, who previously made “I Sell the Dead,” was also enlisted to the project. When Miska and Binkow couldn’t decide between ideas submitted by David Bruckner and the YouTube discovery Radio Silence, they brought them both onboard.
At this point in the life cycle of the horror genre, found footage has lost its geek cache — the format is as likely to elicit groans as cheers from horror fans — but it does still have an appeal (Paramount’s “Paranormal Activity” franchise delivers a fourth installment this month).
On the production side, the advantage is obvious — most found-footage movies are inexpensive to make. “V/H/S,” shot in a variety of locations last year, was made for less than $1 million. But there are creative constraints too, namely inventing a logical reason for a camera to exist within the narrative.
“Before this project I was certainly a little suspect about found footage,” said Bruckner, previously known for his work on the indie horror feature “The Signal.” “It felt like a fad; there was a feeling it was going to go away.”
Barrett felt expressly challenged by the project, hoping to somehow upend expectations and revitalize the style while also offering the final word on found footage.
“That was the most explicit mission statement to the filmmakers, do something new,” said Barrett. “No one wanted to come to ‘V/H/S’ and do something they’d seen before. Especially because found footage had become very trendy, but for a lot of the wrong reasons.”
For Bruckner, the project allowed him to get back in touch with what made him a fan of horror and suspense films in the first place. In contrast to the overt CGI fakery of so many contemporary films, the implicit reality of found footage injects a sense of the unknown back into the world.
“I appreciated how much they could affect me, just to get scared again,” said Bruckner. “It’s hard to have that experience again. As a kid I was afraid of everything, and now I’m really just scared of cancer and failure, and those don’t make for good horror movies.”