If you've been following the news out of Sundance, you probably heard that the found-footage horror sequel S-VHS debuted to strong reviews. Many proclaimed the sequel to be stronger than the original V/H/S. One reviewer told me via Twitter that it felt like all the filmmakers involved with this installment had watched the Radio Silence segment in the first movie and went, "Got it."
(In the interest of full disclosure, I'll state outright that I'm good friends with the team Radio Silence, who were responsible for the final segment in the original film. In fact, I interviewed most of them back when they were still called "Chad, Matt & Rob.")
Another viewer echoed that sentiment and said that in addition to S-VHS starting at the level of the Radio Silence short and building on that, there was no "accidental misogyny." This got my attention, as a frequent topic on this blog is the sexualization of violence in horror films and the often-gratuitous nudity that accompanies that. I have to admit, when I saw V/H/S, I couldn’t help but notice the frequent uses of those tropes to a sometimes exploitative degree.
For those who haven't seen it, the original V/H/S is an anthology found-footage horror film made up of six segments by different directors. Pretty much everything good and bad about found footage can be found here. Some segments are excellent, others range from terrible to pointless. Out of those six segments, three feature female nudity – more than one instance of such in two of those segments. Of the remaining three shorts, two of those star male characters behind the camera who attempt to use it to leer at their female targets.
An aside to the teenage boys watching this who now have a reason to get the film on VOD – You’re welcome.
Look, I like boobs. Who doesn’t? I don’t see anything wrong with adding a little visual appeal to a film, and I’m well aware that topless shots add marketability to a project. I’d be lying if I said I never rented a movie to see boobs. When I was a teenager, I didn’t exactly watch Fast Times to see the riveting work of Judge Reinhold and Taylor Negron.
But there’s a certain point where a film contains so much leering it can’t help but feel excessively gratuitous. When two or three consecutive segments indulge in getting their female leads topless it’s not a huge leap to think that the filmmakers are taking as much advantage as their characters are.
Also of note, in all of the segments with female nudity also feature male protagonists whose attitudes range from “douchebag” to outright villainous. The Radio Silence segment is the only one that doesn’t deal with such male leads. In most of the other films, the men are presented as predators who get what’s coming to them. (But they were totally asking for it, amiright ladies?)
We’ve come a long way. It used to be that horror movies would punish the slutty girl for being sexually active. Now, it seems that the men get killed for their hormones, but not before they get an eyeful. (Or in some cases, a handful.)
I’ve seen interviews where the directors defend themselves against the accusation that the female nudity is gratuitous. Their position is that the point of the film is to punish these guys for their sleazy ways, not to celebrate them. Yeah, sure. You guys buy that, right? Maybe if it was a theme in one of the movies, but for five directors to arrive at that exact same message simultaneously? What’s more logical – that a quartet came up with the exact same feminist theme? Or that at least a few of these guys really just wanted some boobies in their short?
Oddly, if these works came from a female director, we could buy that as an intentional statement. But when men put forth that sort of feminist argument, it seems disingenuous. It sounds like some bullshit justification for the nudity. And if it’s not bull, then the message comes across as guys punishing themselves for their own sexual urges, as if they’re ashamed of or embarrassed by them.
Maybe I’m being unfair to some of these guys, many of whom were responsible for entertaining segments in the film. But when five out of six segments all tread on the same theme or very close to the same theme, what conclusion would you draw?
I'm glad to hear that S-VHS seemingly doesn't make this same mistake. Since the reaction to this sequel almost certainly means that the producers are working on assembling their teams for a third installment, I'd like to issue a challenge to the V/H/S team. For part three try to involve as many female directors as possible. Seeing six shorts from a group of male directors showcased some of the themes uppermost in their minds. It’d be interesting to see if there was a similar symmetry if the gender politics were completely skewed.