Monday, January 28, 2013

A challenge to the producers of V/H/S and S-VHS

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.


  1. The original hasn't even been released here yet (UK), but I like your idea. The Soska sisters should definitely be involved.

  2. V/H/S had moments of greatness. (I thought the winged vampire/cannibal girl flying off with the guy working the camera was particularly cool). S-VHS sounds even greater. Looking forward to seeing it, if only on a 47" screen.

  3. I enjoyed parts of it, like everyone else.
    I feel that, like with many short films, V/H/S was hard hit by the problem of coming in a 'little too late'.
    Yes, you need to tease people with horror/thrillers, but you also need a rich payoff. 5 minutes of build up for 20 seconds of 'sort of' payoff doesn't sit well with most. It's a tough game to pull off in a feature, let alone a short - so I'm not bashing any of the filmmakers here.

    That's how I feel anyway.

  4. With regards to nudity in films, and horror film in specific, I think a lot of it also comes from the medium of film.

    With network television the audience has come to accept certain restraints and conceits in the shows. When ex-special forces agent Jack Bauer witnesses a nuclear bomb go off, killing 30000+ people, just after watching his best friend die and after killing 20+ himself since lunch, we know he probably wouldn't just say "Damnit", anyone, even my grandmother would probably drop the F-Bomb, but because it is TV we give it a pass (or maybe take a shot).

    The same goes with nudity and sex on tv. How many women have sex while wearing their bra on tv? An insane amount, well outside the norm of the "real world" but because it is tv we just accept it because, obviously, they aren't going to show frontal nudity on network tv (in North America at least).

    And given how much violence is now allowed to be shown on network tv (did you see the pilot episode of The Following?) really the only thing separating what is allowed on tv and in the movies is swearing and nudity.

    Directors wanting to give the movie going audience something they can't get sitting at home watching network tv almost have to use swearing and nudity to "push the envelope" in a manner of speaking. So having directors, especially ones trying to "push peoples buttons" in a genre like horror know that straight up violence isn't always going to cut it and nudity is a dependable fall back to keep the viewers interested.

    I'm not saying it is right, but it is, like you said, more of a marketing tool.

    But one thing though about horror films. Horror films, especially "slasher" or "gory" horror films, try and make us sympathize with the victim just before they are killed. It ups the scare/horror factor and to do that they often want to show the victim at their most vulnerable. And when are people most vulnerable? Well, when they are naked. Exposed to the world with nothing to protect them. When we are supposed to have complete privacy. In their bedrooms, when they are in the shower, or having sex, etc... Basically when they are least able to defend themselves and/or run away.

    And that is why the kill scene with the naked girl will always be so popular. It is showing someone at their most vulnerable to it makes the whole scene more horrifying.

    So those two points, trying to up the stakes from what people can see on tv any night of the week on dozens of crime shows like Criminal Minds and CSI, and showing people at their most vulnerable, is why nudity will almost always be a part of the horror genre.