On the surface, V/H/S – the first film in the V/H/S franchise – is an anthology film. It consists of six different shorts, all related to VHS technology, and all helmed by different directors – Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and the Radio Silence troupe, which consists of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett and Chad Villella. Yet V/H/S is profoundly different from most anthology texts, especially as we’ve come to think of them in the age of streaming. Released in 2012, in the late DVD store era, when VHS was still in general living memory, but streaming was emerging as the next horizon, V/H/S is suspicious of anything that resembles seamless continuity and sceptical about the rise of serial viewing. Rather than providing a clear link between its stories, or bundling them up into a discernible anthology package, it fissures them, and creates fissures between them, presenting VHS technology as a study in discontinuity – an aesthetic of glitches, scratches and eerie vacancies.
That means that there is no real framing device in V/H/S. While the first and last film take place at the same house, they don’t provide an especially clear account of how the other short films happen to wind up on the same VHS tape. Both within and between stories, V/H/S is remarkably oblique and austere, and feels exactly like a cassette that has been crammed with later after layer of abraded footage, recorded over so many times, and so imperfectly, that we’re left with a video palimpsest in which it’s impossible to discern the original footage. While each story pairs VHS technology with a different mode of horror – mumblecore, slasher, webcam – the eeriness lies more in the interlacing of stories, and the way they texture each other. Each film bleeds back indiscrimately and unpredictably into the tape as a whole, leaving us with no clear point of reference outside the tape, and no overarching vision. This found object horror more than found footage horror, evoking one of the most mercurial aspects of material media – the feeling of entering a discrete space when you engaged with a film object.
Rather than starting with credits, or a clear framing structure, V/H/S thus opens as abruptly and inchoately as a video tape, immersing us in the full graininess and grittiness of those first few seconds before the image resolved itself, except that in this case they percolate out into and deform the film as a whole. Over time, your eyes gradually acclimatise to it, but it’s raw and queasy to watch for the first ten or twenty minutes, especially since Wingard, the director of this opening narrative, periodically intercuts the action with staticky flashes of other footage. No sooner does a story emerge, piecemeal from this rabid flux of video textures than it takes us back to its own material conditions of production – a bank of TVs, linked up to a bank of video players, in a haunted house. Having wrestled some coherence from video texture, Wingard dissolves it again into all the tactile connective tissue between VHS and TV.
It makes sense, then, that the next story revolves around a group of young men who narrow the gap between production and distribution by luring young women back to their houses, filming them without their permission, and uploading the footage to the internet. All this is done on VHS, but in spirit it’s the technology of smart phones, the first devices capable of being offering both production and mass distribution. In one scene, we actually glimpse some of the VHS footage playing out on a smart phone, but for the most part this first story is an experiment in how closely VHS can approximate the production-distribution nexus of digital technology. Yet the closer the men come to smart phone technology, the more they draw out the irreducible material residue of the camcorder cycle, turning the connective tissue between VHS and television into a lost object, a repressed entity, set for an uncanny return.
This dialogue between digital technology and the final material residues of analog technology is precisely the affect of the DVD rental store at this point in time. It also generates a series of common features in the short films that follow. Most notably, all of these films present VHS as a highly embodied medium, by comparing static to wounds, and glitch to viscera. In the third film, “Tuesday the 17th,” directed by Glenn McQuaid, we meet an unusual slasher, who emerges from the glitch in a video camera, can only be seen by a video camera, but also can’t kill anybody who is holding the camera. Eventually, the slasher takes the camera from the protagonist, beats her to death with it, and eviscerates her. Viscera segues into glitch, just as glitch is the slasher’s viscera, the wounds that he textures. Like viscera, VHS is a disavowed materiality, a messy precondition for the seamlessly airbrushed bodies of digital streaming.
On top of this visceral focus, all of the films have an intensely scopohilic quality. More specifically, each involves a sex tape that goes awry in some way. In each short, a man asks a women to perform for him on camera, or a woman volunteers to perform on camera for a man, as if to cement the rapidly deteriotiating VHS texture with the male gaze of classical cinema. Instead, the male gaze is decentred, and the true gaze of each film turns out to be elsewhere, much as V/H/S as a whole isn’t clearly driven or defined by one auteurist vision. As a result, most of the stories end abruptly, like video that ran out of space while taping something. The conclusions grow more and more cryptic, open-ended and resonant, glitching back into a broader video texture that disarms and disables the stability of viewer and screen. Of course, this was a fear attached to VHS from its very inception, but in V/H/S the occult powers of video resonate even more with its redundancy, suggesting an alternative network to cinema that doesn’t really ramify on its own terms anymore, but simply as a void, a negativity, a black hole of experience that pre-emptively swallows streaming into itself too.
Hence the central paradox of V/H/S – the video technology evolves from short to short, but the glitch intensifies, as if the seamless streaming horizon only reiterated the unresolved messiness of analog life, like a space that has been scrubbed so hard you assume some kind of atrocity must have unfolded there. The more that video tries to transcend itself, the more it is embedded back in its own materiality, and the best parts of V/H/S take place at that cusp, that paradox, which was also the lifeworld of the early 2010s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen footage of the Grand Canyon that captures its scale and sweep quite like the images in the third story here, “Second Honeymoon,” directed by Ti West, precisely because they occur on the transition between analog and digital regimes. While exploring a narrow passage on the brink of the canyon, a couple almost inadvertently capture the enormity of the space behind them – and it is breathtaking. And that is how it feels to watch V/H/S too – like being trapped in a transitional passage that can feel narrow, constricted and limited, but whose very blind spots evoke a scope unavailable to the assurances of either high analog or high digital film.