Editor’s Full Disclosure: Bloody-Disgusting produced the V/H/S trilogy
YOU become the horror in these seven films that try to reinvent the genre in admirable ways
It’s kind of beautiful that we live in an age where horror has become so popular, accessible, and easy to produce that we’ve seen such an explosion of sub-genres that challenge and have fun with the form. Somehow the niche territory of found-footage horror has become mainstream, with it being just as common as any other type of horror at this point. This has led to the area splitting even further and leading to some very interesting takes on “point of view horror,” with these being some of the more creative takes on the idea.
Directed by Franck Khalfoun
Maniac is a glorious, insane ode to retro horror that approaches the POV angle in its most natural way—putting you right inside the killer’s head, who in this case is being played by a phenomenally disturbing Elijah Wood (imagine his character from Sin City turned up to 11). The film is a remake of a 1980 horror picture of the same name, but it really just uses its basic serial killer premise while completely adding the point of view aspect to the storytelling. While the performances and concept are solid, there’s also a strong ‘80s vibe being carried, whether it’s the synth-y Carpenter-esque soundtrack, in your face titles, or the way that the gore is handled. Alexandre Aja of High Tension and Piranha 3D fame is even co-writer on the script!
The POV aspect here causes voice to be a super important aspect in building character and horror because you never get to see Frank (except a few moments in reflections, which hold a ton of weight, as a result). This sort of structural deviation is all about making the audience be trapped in this killer’s body, unable to escape his darkness, just like how Frank himself also kind of feels trapped inside himself. It’s an angle that completely works for the picture, delivering big on the pained antihero dividends. It’s also incredible to learn about how closely Elijah Wood had to work and move with the director of photography, with the whole production really being a big choreographed dance between them. You don’t realize how much effort is being put into this madness.
Open Windows (2014)
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
I swear, all of these movies aren’t going to be Elijah Wood vehicles. I promise. Nacho Vigalondo is a deeply ambitious filmmaker, producing mindfucks like Timecrimes and the underrated Parallel Monsters segment from V/H/S Viral. The conceit behind Open Windows is that your perspective is essentially Nick‘s laptop screen. Everything you see exists within the universe of that screen, with the film cleverly using these trappings to its advantage in some creative ways to generate its horror. Watching the motivations between each new window that opens and the direction that things move in because of them continues to be engrossing, too.
A big part of how Open Windows operates is by Nick and his blackmailer hacking into various devices like cell phones or surveillance equipment in order to further the plot. This also causes the film’s POV to shift between characters, but is done so each time in a thoroughly motivated way. Nick is simply trying to save the life of his favorite actress, but the situation he finds himself in becomes an increasingly complicated one where neither he, nor we, know what to trust. Every movement of the film is dripping in dread. While not a perfect movie, Vigalondo is constantly trying here and manages to even create additional horror just on the things he manages to say about security, “Big Brother,” and feeling helpless. This one gets all too real at times, with a story like this actually being believable, which is scarier than anything.
Amateur Night from V/H/S (2012)
Directed by David Bruckner
The V/H/S films have become an institution at this point, giving the found footage area a real jolt back to life. All of the movies from the series might feature found footage to some degree, but that doesn’t always mean that the film is directly from someone’s point of view. The series tries to explore this in a number of ways, with Amateur Night being one of the more successful attempts. Here the filming device du jour is a pair of camera glasses—not dissimilar to Google Glass—that a bunch of drunken frat boys plan to use to record their hijinks. It’s kind of fascinating that Bruckner cites Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void and Cassavetes’ Husbands as influences, because a lot of people pass this off as gratuitous, obnoxious non-acting, when in fact quite a bit is being done and referenced to achieve everything that you’re feeling.
A lot of the fun of Amateur Night is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. The short effectively makes you loathe these protagonists, and you just know something is off with the girl that they’ve picked up with the hopes of bedding. The payoff could not be more satisfying, and it’s something that again is aided by the aspect of essentially “being” this character as the whole thing is presented through his eyes. It’s the only segment from the film that more or less has you become the character, and it doesn’t waste the opportunity with the moral territory it places you within. It’s not surprising to see why something as rich as this is being adapted into a feature-length installment, at that!
Directed by Leo Gabriadze
Believe it or not, this film actually amounted to something beyond its crappy title (its original name, Offline, is a lot better). It doesn’t hurt to go in with reasonably set expectations, but Unfriended is a welcome, creative modern horror gem if you give it a chance. While also being entirely set in the main character’s laptop, Unfriended uses the structure in a wholly different fashion than Open Windows. Here the atmosphere is much more evocative of the ways in which millennials communicate online. There’s still the clever motivation behind why windows or programs are opened, but a lot of this coasts off the idea of having a multi-person video group chat and just watching these friends hang out for an extended period of time. Granted, such a thing might be grating for some people—but that’s absolutely the film’s intention—and at least when these people start getting offed you gain some satisfaction in that sense. It’s surprising to see the weight that’s achieved by seeing the many chat videos that once filled up the screen dwindling down, or broadcasting grisly murders.
Unfriended is completely aided by the fact that it actually has a rather strong message about the dangers of cyber bullying and just how awful a playground the Internet can be for kids these days. Once more, the form absolutely compliments the story, with the decision to tell such horror through Facebook of all places, being perfect. This one will surprise you.
The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger from V/H/S (2012)
Directed by Joe Swanberg
Another entry from the original V/H/S might feel like going overboard, but it’s another segment that strays from the norm and tries presenting perspective in a way unseen through the rest of the franchise. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily… tells a story entirely through passing Skype conversations between Emily and her boyfriend, James. This one is just a gut-punch on all accounts. Things start small with Emily stressing over a strange bump on her arm, which escalates to a shocking degree with each new video that we watch between her and her boyfriend. Emily’s helplessness is just devastating, as is seeing her complete devotion to James and just wanting to get better. This one might take its time but its ending is one of the best reveals of the entire film, while also being a reflection of how there can still be so much distance between people through video chat, even if you feel close. Like best shorts, this one hints at a vibrant world and mythos outside of itself, with Swanberg’s story being a disturbing take on manipulation.
Hardcore Henry (2015)
Directed by Ilya Naishuller
Perhaps the closest we’ve gotten to an actual video game being on the movie screen, this is the sort of way that the Doom movie should have been done (and no that awful first-person segment in House of the Dead doesn’t count either). Hardcore Henry is another film where there’s as little separation between the audience and the protagonist as possible with you seeing right of his eyes here, however the energy is amped up to a ridiculous degree. This film is like Crank did a bunch of Adderall and its jacked up perspective is why we’re getting this POV treatment in the first place. If this were some normal person operating in a level world there’d be no point in seeing through his eyes. Only Henry here is a hardcore killer, so yes please!
Maniac might dwell on the psychological undertones of a character like this and him trying to save himself from the inevitable, but Hardcore Henry is just about revving along in some Jason Statham-approximate and not being able to believe the ride you’re on. Maniac saw its star working with the cameraman to a comprehensive degree, but Hardcore Henry goes one step further by essentially making its star the cameraman. They’re both messy rides, but ones that go down totally different roads. Admittedly more action than horror, you can’t argue with the large body count and heavy violence that Henry creates.
The Den (2013)
Directed by Zachary Donohue
The Den is another horror film that’s all inside a computer as it uses Skype—I’m sorry, I mean The Den—as its major engine for its carnage. With an appropriately flimsy plot placed on all of this, The Den sees its main character completing her thesis. A task that involves her being online all the time and constantly communicating with stranger. She also records the entire experience, hoping to find something out about humanity and communication in the process. Once you can get past its clunky beginning, The Den manages to go to some exciting places. The film completely nails the oversexualized “Chat Roulette” style of communication that has become so wanton for the Internet, with a lot of it ringing true, even if it takes its time. When Elizabeth innocently stumbles upon a graphic murder taking place with one of her new chats, the monotony beforehand almost makes this hit harder.
As Elizabeth tries to figure out what’s going on and solve this murder, The Den smartly uses its computer limitations in interesting ways. Elizabeth watches a video of how to load a gun properly on YouTube to feel more prepared, the killer uses Google Earth to pinpoint his victims and freak them out, and the film even taps into a lot of computer frustration sympathy, like when the killer deletes all of Elizabeth’s footage with a virus. Everything relates back to the construct here.
The Den does have time jumps between Elizabeth’s sessions on the system unlike the bulk of the films on the list. Admittedly this removes some tension to a degree, but it also helps the film. A larger story is allowed to be told and this looseness creates some great experiments. The final act shifts to the killer’s POV for a period of time, for instance, which adds a whole different kind of tension to the situation. There’s also some really brilliant split screen stuff done with dual cameras and perspective towards the end. Besides, any film that superglues a GoPro to someone’s forehead can’t be that bad, right?
In conclusion: As horror manages to only become more innovative, surely we’ll only see more experiments being taken with this structure, for both better and worse. It’s a difficult angle to pull off properly, but when done right there’s really nothing scarier than being right in the mind of a killer or victim.