“V/H/S” – First impressions of Sundance’s scariest film


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By Jordan Hoffman

What’s scarier: ethereal creatures lurking in your bedroom at night or the thought of sitting through another “found footage” horror film? The cabal of independent filmmakers behind “V/H/S,” which tore the roof off of Sundance’s Library theater at its midnight debut, might have trouble answering that one. And like all good artists, they’ve confronted their fear.

“V/H/S” elevates itself from recent gimmick films like “Apollo 18” and “The Devil Inside” in a few ways. First the the framing device. “V/H/S” is presented as a peek at a tape a group of criminal friends made when out assaulting women and destroying stuff. (The tape itself is actually dubbed over one of the guys’ personal love connection home movies, which winks in and out in a nice recurring gag.) One of their misdemeanor deeds is to break in somewhere and “find a special tape,” which now affords the story an opportunity to check out, essentially, five short films.

Each of these tales is shot by a new director. The formats range from recorded Skype chats, a camera specifically of 1998 quality and a spy cam that attaches to a pair of fake glasses. While there is no real narrative connection between the stories, there is a thematic one, which is one of voyeurism, power, deception and murder.

A quick rundown: first is David Bruckner, director of “The Signal,” and a film about three douchey guys who use the aforementioned glasses-cam to scope out women. They pick up two girls at a bar and head back to the motel, but it is clear that one of them (the one who keeps staring directly at the camera in a REALLY CREEPY WAY) is a bit off. It is sexy, scary and solid.

Next, Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) takes us on a young couple’s trip to the Grand Canyon and a motel with the world’s worst security system. This one features one of the most innovative takes on the pan-across-the-room-and-reveal-something-unexpected jump scares in a while. Ya see, this time, it isn’t what is revealed in the frame, but the realization of who is holding the camera.

This is followed by Glenn McQuaid’s (director of “I Sell The Dead”) very stylized teen trip to the woods and a creature that comes to life through the very glitchy medium of video itself.

Joe Swanberg’s (the Grand Mufti of Mumblecore) entry is a scary-as-hell collection of Skype conversation between a frightened college student hearing bumps in the night and her medical school boyfriend. There are some outstanding moments of tension that exploit the video chat format in really unique ways.

The movie concludes with an entry from the new film collective named Radio Silence which takes V/H/S to levels of pure WTF in a haunted house tweak on Ti West’s “House of the Devil.” The framing device from Adam Wingard (director of the yet-to-be-released masterpiece “You’re Next”) lacks some of the jump scare oomph, but is something of the silent hero establishing the dastardly aesthetic of the overall piece.

This is a patch quilt of filmmaking by people who know how to scare the everloving snot out of you. The restrictions of keeping it short and handheld was just what they needed to get the creative juices flowing.

I don’t want to oversell this, though. This is not a landmark cinematic breakthrough – but it IS a really fun midnight movie. The stories are incredibly simple, there may be a tad too much boob-leering for good taste and few of the characters are given much depth, but as an exercise in tension, it can’t be beat.

As for the reaction, well, the place went ballistic. I do not believe in spirits, but at one extremely tense point I was compelled not to look at the screen, but at some of my colleagues to the left. I saw
three quite established veteran film writers with long histories with genre films with a look of absolute dread on their faces. One literally had his knuckles in his mouth. If that isn’t a recommendation to see this flick in the theaters I don’t know what is

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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