I watched Poltergeist way too young, and too often. I replayed that HBO bootleg of crying JoBeth Williams and stunned Craig T. Nelson until it looked like the static Carole Anne dissolved into. That VHS introduced me to the itchy-warm embraces of horror fandom: first the movie scares you, then you’re fascinated a movie could do that to you, and that leads you to a pattern of repeat exposure. But the closer you get the less it effects you — and like any junkie, you know it can’t thrill you like it did in the beginning.
It’s almost poetic how Carole Anne’s vulnerability in front of the TV communes with underground VHS sharing and the sort of horrors we’re unwittingly open to when we pop in un-vetted video—or enter a theater to see an indie not marketed on every passing bus. We can’t know if we don’t watch, but if we do we’ll never be innocent again.
That slippery slope is scaled by four thieves paid to break into a semi-abandoned house in the horror anthology V/H/S. They’re hunting down a tape “they’ll know when they see,” but the house holds one dead body and a thousand unlabeled tapes, all that reveal snuff, spirits and monsters as seen through skype, spycams and home video. Segment writer Simon Barrett and segment director Adam Wingard contributed to this mini-fest of awful events on tape, and discussed the matter with me along with a few important details about their next feature: the brilliant horror indictment/home invasion flick You’re Next. Barrett and Wingard emerge from the lo-fi indie trenches with pals like Ti West and Joe Swanberg (both of whom contribute segments to V/H/S), and think character has a lot to do with making any film scary. Sure some characters are sympathetic, but how sad are you (really?) when the guy behind a sharking video gets capped? I’m not saying that happens in V/H/S, I’m just saying, this found footage is far think-ier than the average cheap scare.
Their voices are similar, so I hope I got their answers straight—thought it’s best to believe they’re both black belts in martial arts…better safe than sorry.
You guys make horror movies, so, what do you think is scary?
Simon Barrett: I’m not scared by a lot. I feel the problem with a lot of modern horror films is they think the bar is too low for scaring people. I’m not scared by very many things in movies, or in real life. Obviously I’m not a crazy person and the thought of being stabbed with a machete is very frightening but I also don’t have a lot of anxiety about that happening. I guess I’m not a big fan of heights. I don’t particularly love it when spiders are that near to me, especially if they’re large. And if I were to encounter a real ghost, I wouldn’t be too cool.
Adam Wingard: What I’m scared of goes through fluctuations. There are some obvious staples, like Simon’s huge spider, but I have gone through periods where I’m really scared of supernatural things and I’ll have a month of night terrors and that becomes something I’m interested in making a horror movie based on. Being in a remote location—I live in Alabama—and watching a movie like The Strangers I realize my home could be broken into and I could be murdered and that makes me fixate on home invasion and then a chain of events happens: [I say] “Hey Simon, do you like home invasion stuff?” and it goes from there.
So—snarkily—I’m hearing Simon’s disaffected and Adam’s vulnerable?
SB: That’s part of our creative partnership. Adam will say “home invasion movies could be really scary” and I’ll say, “I’m not scared of home invasion, so how could I do that to scare me?” I think that’s what leads to us having a fairly original creative process. I know we specifically try to tell stories that haven’t been told before, and I feel that’s where it comes from. If people with masks were invading my home I’d be quite frightened.
If they were real, but we’re dancing around the possibility they’re not.
SB: Well, something that doesn’t come up a lot in interviews—I’m a black belt in martial arts and I train in martial arts a lot. When I think about home invasion scenarios I think of techniques my teacher taught me so when it comes to the creative process, I feel like Adam and I know scaring people is hard. We’re not scared a lot especially as horror viewers. I thought The Strangers was a terrifying film, as was the French film it was based on, Ils; the American title was Them. That was a suspenseful film, but when we make our own films we want to do something [audiences] haven’t seen and be respectful that it’s hard to scare them. A loud noise isn’t going to do it.
AW: Now a well-timed noise will do.
SB: And that technique we’re still finessing. And we try to give people characters to sympathize with and really consider how the scares are staged, and try to do new things, and that comes from the fact we, ourselves are fairly jaded horror viewers.
Not to be weird, but the fuzzy sweater you used to wear in your twitter avatar makes this whole black belt revelation feel pretty shocking. So, which part did you guys contribute and how did you help orient the project as a multi-part anthology?
AW: We did the wraparound (the framing segment involving the thieves) and we were the first ones to start shooting. We shot last February literally a month before production on You’re Next. What we did was somewhat establishing the dirty aesthetic, authentic feeling, low-grade, lo-fi, point of view.
SB: We were involved early. We were the first filmmakers on when Brad Miska had the initial idea for this, and we came up with the wrap-around but I also wrote and Adam helped shoot and edit the Skype segment Joe Swanberg directed.
AW: Simon and I were personally involved early and I think we were the only one’s involved in the first overall mix session for the movie and the overall color correction. We put together the end credits—I did that montage of sharking videos over the credits.
AW: Sharking videos—when people will assault people at random and tape it on mobile devices, then they put it online. They were traded on VHS in the early days. We took that trend from those trading subcultures but we wanted it to feel authentic and we wanted the first few minutes to establish that the film wasn’t playing by the usual rules of the found footage film. We wanted the audience to feel they didn’t know what they’d see next. It’s true the VHS thieves are the film’s most anonymous, unlikeable characters.
You said something about making sympathetic characters.
AW: There’s a big difference between being sympathetic in a film and being sympathetic in real life. In real life, if someone came into your party and broke your coffee table and started break dancing, you’d hardly be like “that’s my favorite person.” Sympathy worked differently in the Emily/skype segment in part because she was always in close-up.
SB: A Horrible Way To Die also did some kind of difficult things with characters. It’s not for us to say how successful we were but we were working on things about character identification and seeing how we could use that for story twists. We used anonymous thugs to make V/H/S feel more real and we thought that would be the most sympathetic way to enter the story. The idea these guys are such bad people doing such bad things means you don’t know what they’re going to do next.
But what they’re doing isn’t as bad as the crimes they view on tapes.
AW: Ultimately I don’t know how successful we were with that; seems some people could get impatient with the V/H/S thugs, though Calvin Reader, Lane Hughes and Kentucker Audley are great.
SB: About sympathetic characters, I think Emily really sympathetic. She’s trying to be proactive when she thinks there’s a spirit in peril.
And that reverses victimhood—when she’s being haunted she thinks her ghosts are the endangered ones—which brings me to the last question: Where are the heroes?
SB: When you say “hero,” are you thinking of the Radio Silence segment where they go in to the attic to rescue the woman? It’s an interesting question—where they are. I think it came down to the kind of nihilistic story we all felt like telling in the short found footage format. This is maybe not too obvious, but the kind of person that’s constantly filming things in real life is not generally the kind of person anyone wants to spend time with. That’s an inherent problem with found footage stories. Really great uses of found footage, like the Spanish horror [REC], keeps up by giving the character a good or heroic reason to be filming while people are dying around them. People with vlogs or whatever other personal reason to be taping events around them, they’re not who you want to be around. The other filmmakers responded to that challenge as an opportunity to work with those dark characters that normally you don’t get he chance to if you’re working on a more conventional horror movie. Hollywood studios don’t like to play with character likability.
V/H/S is currently available for pre-theatrical rental via Amazon.