While THE INNKEEPERS (2011) is director Ti West’s latest feature as of this writing, he’s kept busy with a number of directing efforts that take a page from another grand tradition of the horror genre: the anthology, or omnibus, film. As part of the first generation of directors to come up in the age of social media, his interaction with his peers led directly to his participation in two such projects: V/H/S and THE ABC’S OF DEATH, both released in 2012. The great thing about anthology films is that they offer the chance for a director to fully assert his or her vision. It’s like a playground where id, ego, and superego can run around unchecked. Omnibus films often give us a raw, unfiltered glimpse into a director’s particular aesthetic conceits.
Of his two 2012 projects, V/H/S is easily the most prestigious, having debuted at Sundance as part of their late-night programming. His involvement with the film positioned himself alongside Joe Swanberg (his DEAD & LONELY (2009) collaborator) and Adam Wingard (2013’s YOU’RE NEXT) as emerging masters of horror. The conceit of V/H/S is that a group of gutter punks rage across town, videotaping their exploits as they destroy abandoned houses and force women to expose themselves on-camera. One night they break into somebody’s house to steal a particular VHS cassette tape for an unnamed client, only to find hundreds of unmarked tapes and a dead body sitting in front of a bunch of TV screens. Undeterred by this foreboding sight, they begin to go through the tapes one by one, with each of the film’s individual segments making up its own tape.
West’s contribution appears second, and is titled SECOND HONEYMOON. It concerns a young married couple—Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal)—on a vacation in the southwestern desert, filmed entirely from the husband’s digital video camera. By day they explore the desert around them, but at night an unknown third entity films them with their own camera as they lie asleep in their beds. Naturally this all leads to a bloody, surprising twist that I won’t spoil, but I will say this: SECOND HONEYMOON is easily the best segment in the film, with Swanberg’s own directorial piece (the cleverly webcam/Skype-recorded THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER) coming in at a close second.
SECOND HONEYMOON was filmed on a digital consumer video camera, probably by West himself, so it fits within V/H/S’ aesthetic conceit—but it also begs the question why such a new digital format would ever be transferred back to VHS in the first place. The camerawork is mostly handheld, utilitarian coverage- the kind you’d expect of someone who isn’t a filmmaker shooting video. The pacing is pretty slow, as is par for the course with West, but it picks up quite luridly by the end with some excellent gore effects that only become more visceral and realistic using the found-footage conceit.
For THE ABC’S OF DEATH, twenty-six directors were each given $5,000 to make a short with complete creative autonomy. The only requirement is that the subject matter had to do with death, and should take inspiration from a singular letter of the alphabet. West’s segment, titled M IS FOR MISCARRIAGE, is a short work—running less than a couple minutes. It concerns a woman whose clogged toilet threatens to overflow. What’s in the bowl? Why, wouldn’t you know it– a dead fetus! Charming.
The video itself is pretty grainy, with a short zoom being the only camera movement that West indulges in. The effort as a whole is decidedly lazy, like he spent maybe $30 of the $5000 in making it and then just took off with the rest of the money for himself. He probably knew he could do so without consequence, as he’s easily the highest-profile director associated with the work. His laziness is pretty insulting however, and M FOR MISCARRIAGE is easily his worst, and least-inspired, work.
V/H/S brought a little more exposure for West in the form of his his first trip to Sundance, while THE ABC’S OF DEATH is (much like West’s segment) dead on arrival. These are somewhat lackluster films to end West’s career examination on—they’re really more in-between jobs that fill out time between features, but that’s where he currently stands as of this writing. You won’t find many instances of me dissecting the career of a director who is still very much on the rise. But West is a special case, as he has managed to make some incredibly large waves in less than a decade of independent filmmaking. He’s brought a sense of craftsmanship, patience, and prestige back to a genre that’s been creatively bankrupt for several decades. There’s no telling how he’ll do when he inevitably branches out into other genres, but as of right now, West represents a beacon of hope for hungry horror aficionados, as well as the indie scene at large.
V/H/S is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Magnet Releasing, and THE ABC’S OF DEATH is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Magnolia Pictures.