As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA don’t miss the main event, October 18-26). Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration. Most of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid. I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop). This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).
A group of maladjusted vandals and budding snuff filmmakers are hired to break into a lonely old house and steal a unique VHS tape. A simple enough job, complicated by a creepy room filled with random tapes, a wall of televisions, and something even more disturbing. As the vandals watch the tapes, looking for their prize, they are given a window into a frightening world that threatens to drag them in.
Anthology and Found Footage Combine for a Deliciously Scary Peanut Butter Cup of Film
V/H/S was conceived as a creative challenge to a group of independent filmmakers to revitalize the saturated sub-genre of found footage horror. Like any anthology, there are hits and misses, but overall the film succeeds at what it set out to accomplish – providing some truly frightening moments that had me gripping the armrest in the theatre.
First, if you haven’t seen the film yet I strongly urge you to avoid the trailer if at all possible since it spoils some of V/H/S’s best parts. It won’t ruin the experience, but I found myself waiting for scenes from the trailer to pop up during the screening, which sort of killed the surprises a few of the segments had to offer.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of horror anthologies, and I really enjoy a good found footage film (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield come to mind) so I had fairly high expectations going in to V/H/S. I wouldn’t say the filmmaking of the individual segments exceeded those expectations (and in some cases didn’t meet them), but what made V/H/S really stand out was how well it utilized both formats and how well those formats complemented one another. In fact, I would go so far to say that V/H/S has spoiled me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to see another found footage film without thinking that it probably would have been better cut down to fifteen minutes and included as part of a larger anthology. The general problem with found footage films is that they tend to be slow, with the worst having huge chunks of filler, and that slowness gives the audience plenty of time to question the verisimilitude of people continuing to film themselves during horrible events (the main conceit of the sub-genre). V/H/S avoids that pitfall by nature of the format leaving little room for filler. Each segment cuts to the chase fairly quickly and, in addition to some pretty good justifications for the protagonists filming themselves, the audience really doesn’t have a lot of time to question the suspension of disbelief.
I really dig the concept behind the wraparound tale by Adam Wingard. It provides an excellent framework for the film, which is actually pretty rare in an anthology, and moves the viewer from one segment to the next efficiently and smoothly (overall I have to commend the filmmakers for using visual styles, that while different, didn’t clash with one another). There are some odd pacing choices that I wasn’t expecting and, given how despicable Wingard makes his characters, I was a little disappointed he made their comeuppance so unspectacular (off screen for the most part).
The first segment by David Bruckner, about a trio of frat boy types with a set of spy-cam glasses is predictable but has a good payoff (and monster), some excellent practical effects work and a nice punchline worthy of Creepshow 2.
After the lacklustre The Innkeepers, I’m starting to think that Ti West and I just don’t see eye to eye. His segment here, which documents a young couple’s cross country road trip, takes one of the most unsettling hooks I’ve seen in a long time and throws it away with an ending that isn’t just lame, but also cheats the whole found footage format. It’s really too bad, because if it had been executed better, West’s story could have had real staying power, clinging to the audience’s subconscious long after leaving the theatre.
Joe Swanberg’s segment, a series of haunted Skype conversations between long distance partners, also stumbled during its finale, but was so original and had some of the best scares in the entire film that it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings. There’s a really killer reveal at the end but it’s just a bit too long and shows just a bit too much. This segment freaked me out while I was watching and a more subtle ending would have amplified that fear, rather than helped to dissipate it. I’ve also got to call out Swanberg for the gratuitous boob shot in what is essentially the segment’s epilogue. I get that found footage taps into the whole amateur porno aesthetic (there is an 1980’s era slasher flick level of breasts in this film), but it just felt tacked on and a little silly in what was otherwise a super creepy end note (a nit-pick of mine I’m sure many others don’t care about).
Glenn McQuaid’s segment presents a unique take on the ‘college kids camping in the woods’ story that both tweaks film convention and has an unexpected justification for the protagonists filming it. The best part is how McQuaid explores the medium of found footage and its place in the horror continuum while still delivering the entertainment goods. Plus it introduces a super cool monster with a concept I don’t think I have seen before.
The final tape in the anthology is also my favorite. The Radio Silence collective show how to do a haunted house story right with their segment about a group of friends on Halloween looking for a party. The pacing here is perfect, starting with some nice subtle creeps and building to a great climax. When things start to get crazy, we are treated to a smorgasbord of supernatural sights and sounds that I won’t be surprised to see imitated by other horror filmmakers very soon.
V/H/S is recommended and is a must see for fans of The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series. I’m not sure it will change the minds of die-hard haters of found footage, but it stands amongst the better entries of the sub-genre and is a good reminder of why those films are an important addition to the horror lexicon.
One of the reasons found footage works so well in a short format is that it has a very noticeable point of view, which gives the audience a lot of information quickly about the character filming it just by how it is shot without the need for exposition. It’s a technique DMs can utilize themselves by incorporating ‘found documents’ (standing in for found footage) into their campaign.
I’m a bit of a handout junkie in my games, so I don’t really need an excuse but, in my experience, found documents require only a little effort on the DMs part to create and add a tremendous amount of atmosphere to the game. There is a long history of using found documents as adventure hooks in D&D (the Return to the Tomb of Horrors mega adventure has some of the best), and running across a scroll or stack of papers that documented any of the tales in V/H/S would make a very memorable adventure (Joe Swanberg’s segment would be hard to reproduce but could be created as a series of correspondence). My preferred method of including found documents in a game though is as an item of treasure.
Most adventures involve thwarting a villain’s evil scheme or stopping a (sometimes complex) plot or conspiracy from coming about. The only problem is that most of the time the players only learn the broad strokes of what they are dealing with, and then move on to the next adventure. The finer details and the villain’s motivations are often left to be enjoyed only by the DM (unless you’re running a supers game and do the whole ‘now that you’re captured, let me tell you about my plan’ thing). By introducing found documents into the monster’s lair you can share this information with the players and give them a glimpse into the mind of the foe they have just fought.
The form such a document takes is important to keep in mind as it will help get across as much information about the one who created it as the point of view the camera tells the viewer in a found footage film. Organized, methodical minds (i.e. Lawful) might make a journal or a detailed ledger of accounts while unorganized or insane minds (i.e. Chaotic) might make rambling manifestoes or smear poetry on the walls in an unwholesome substance. Just remember you don’t need to recreate a whole document in order for it to get the point across to the players. V/H/S shows just how much story you can tell with a short excerpt (although in found journals I do like to include one or two short entries with no solid information but that helps to paint a portrait of the author’s personality).
The other thing DMs can take away from viewing V/H/S is inspiration for new monsters – scads of them (over email Toronto After Dark festival director Adam Lopez joked that you could create a whole game out of the monster material in V/H/S, and he’s not far from the truth). My favorite was the creature from Glenn McQuaid’s entry, presented for the Pathfinder game below. It’s a tiny bit spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, check it out before using the new monster in your game.
Your eyes can’t seem to focus on your pursuer, though glimpses out of the corner of your eye of its bloody attack on your camp give you the impression of a dark, humanoid shape… indistinct images that even now begin to slip unnaturally from the grasp of your memory.
The shadow people are enigmatic and malicious magical creatures that dwell in lonely wilderness locations and abandoned ruins. They are extremely territorial, viciously attacking and tormenting any intelligent creature that passes too near their homes. Any fortunate enough to survive an attack by the shadow people and resist their magical aura can be guaranteed a lifelong enemy, for the creatures’ greatest fear is that outsiders will spread word of their existence to the outside world.
Consequently, there is very little information regarding the nature or origin of the shadow people beyond general warnings that a particular patch of woods is haunted. Brave adventurers moving through shadow people territory though might find faded pictograms, or ancient runes carved into crumbling pillars that tell the story of a group of assassins, cursed by the gods for slaying a beloved priestess to be forever erased not just from history, but from memory itself.