FILM In the summer of 1999, horror fans hungered for something, anything, that wasn't a Scream-inspired self-aware slasher.
Though it had no stars, a microscopic budget, and was filmed in nausea-inducing shaky-cam, The Blair Witch Project burst into cinemas with a novel set-up — filmmakers lost in the woods record supernatural goings-on before falling victim to evil themselves — and scares galore. Towering box-office receipts, a Time magazine cover, and legions of rip-offs ensued.
"We just wanted to scare people," Blair Witch co-director Daniel Myrick told me when I interviewed him for the Guardian back in 1999. He couldn't have known that Blair Witch's influence would still be felt over a decade later, in movies like the blockbuster Paranormal Activity series — and even outside the horror genre, where stories constructed from characters filming themselves have become commonplace.
Now there's V/H/S, an energetically exploitative take on the trend that reaches past Blair Witch to high-five the granddaddy of them all, 1980's legendarily nasty Cannibal Holocaust. V/H/S also nods to vintage horror's fondness for the anthology format, setting up the action with a frame story, Tape 56: hooligans film themselves behaving badly, then prowl a house in search of a mysterious VHS tape.
The apparently abandoned dwelling is creepy enough, with a dead body just hangin' out in the TV room. But each tape they watch contains material so shocking (a woman turns flesh-tearingly monstrous after a drunken hookup; a student Skyping with her boyfriend suspects her apartment is haunted; and a road trip, a camping trip, and a Halloween party all go very, very wrong) it unsettles even tough guys who, earlier in the day, were grabbing women on the street in service of their budding "reality porn" business.
Each "tape" is directed by a different filmmaker or filmmaking team, all of whom were directed to use the found-footage format. So yes, V/H/S is a movie about people filming themselves watching other people who are also filming themselves.
"With a found-footage anthology, you could make a found-footage movie about people finding footage, and that seemed like such an obvious idea," explains Simon Barrett, who worked on both the wraparound and haunted-apartment tale The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger. "A lot of found-footage [features] become ludicrous; after two hours, you run into all the clichés of characters screaming at each other to turn the camera off. But you can believe that someone would leave the camera on for, say, 14 minutes of something scary happening to them."
Adds Adam Wingard, whose multiple V/H/S credits include directing Tape 56, "Found footage is the most modern, new way to tell stories that we've seen before. We've seen vampires and ghosts. It puts it in a whole new context and framework for modern audiences — it basically spices up the genre."
The biggest name on V/H/S's roster is probably Ti West, who made cult hit The House of the Devil (2009) and last year's The Innkeepers.
"Some of my favorite movies are documentaries, so documentary-style filmmaking isn't something that I have a problem with," West says. "It's that mostly [these kinds of films are] really derivative of the ones that came before them, which is frustrating."
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