The film V/H/S showcases six different stories, all ostensibly linked by the use of POV surveillance camera as a framing device, though there is more to be gathered by delving deeper. Although V/H/S is composed of multiple scattered narratives, all the stories display the heterosexual male ego in some manner that usually results in punishment of the masculine victim-aggressor. As a result, the female characters are strangely simultaneously demonized and empowered through this indictment of obnoxious male behavior, making V/H/S a interesting satire of heterosexual dynamics whether the directors meant for it or not.
The male versus female dynamic is clearly seen in the opening sequence of the film, in which a group of young men destroy property, break into houses, and violently as well as sexually assault women for fun and quick cash. Of the next five stories, three are again based on a group of males looking for fun and sex, while the other two revolve around rocky romantic relationships between a man and a woman. The plots are based on and compelled by preconceived notions of heterosexuality, with men acting as horny pigs obsessed with partying and feeling entitled to sex. The viewer expects the female characters to obey these gender roles as well, acting as weak and helpless waif, and yet expectations are subverted as women quickly become the object of horror. V/H/S completely immerses itself generic gender tropes, and yet (whether consciously or not), there is a noticeable and intentional power shift from male to female as the plots progress.
The first short film, “Amateur Night”, demonstrates this power shift very aptly by starting off with the men exercising their power over women, and ending with those men dead at the hands of the female character they attempt to take advantage of. The group of young male characters -are typical “dude-bro” college frat types who barhop and hook up with girls for one night stands, cheering each other on as they score with hot chicks. They have a nerdy male friend who they’ve outfitted with a pair of spy camera glasses to record the sexual encounters, perhaps because his dude-bro friends do not expect for him to get laid. As expected, there are many scenes of the men ogling at women and getting intimate with them while winking at each other about their amateur porno plans.
The turning point comes when one of their female companions passes out drunk in their hotel bed after a heavy makeout session. Strangely enough, rather than the neanderthalic male response of wanting to have sex with (basically rape) the woman while she’s unconscious, the dudebro is told by his friend to stop and move on to the remaining conscious girl. This act of moral consciousness is an extremely short part of the film, but rings poignantly because it directly subverts the rape culture that we’d expect these frat boys to propagate. Still, however, the dude-bros continue to kiss and grope the remaining girl, Lily, eventually completely undressing her while she sneers and glares at the dude-bros. Lily constantly whispers to the nerdy boy, “I like you,” and hisses at the other men while they make sexual advances, making it clear that she’s only interested in the nerd. The power is completely shifted in Lily’s favor when she exercises her right to choose her own sexual partner. Lily bites out the throats of the dudebros, rips off various limbs, and claws off one of the dudebros’s penises, tossing the limp weiner at the camera. This castration is Lily’s solid statement that she does NOT want these men anywhere near her, and is an act of literally taking away their masculinity and asserting her own dominance. Lily then makes her move on the remaining nerd, attempting to perform fellatio on him and growing despondent when the nerd responds with fear and disgust. With tears in her eyes at the nerd’s rejection of her affection, she kidnaps the nerd and they shriek into the night sky.
The entire set-up and horror punchline of the story depends on the male ego’s expectations of women. Once a woman subverts those expectations she becomes a unattractive monstrous bitch to the man, seen in an extremely exaggerated (and somewhat humorous) way when the nerd rejects Lily after she’s exerted her dominance over the dude-bros. Of course, Lily isn’t totally a feminist icon because the horror of the film is supposedly the men finding out that a girl they picked up is a vampire succubus, but she displays many feminist traits paralleling her namesake Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Hebrew myth.
Lilith “who like Adam was taken from the earth”, stands in stark contrast to Eve, who was created from Adam’s rib and as such is completely dependent on Adam for her existence rather than Lilith’s individualized birth. Lilith parts ways with Adam and is subsequently demonized because “Adam, as a way of asserting his authority over Lilith, insisted that she lie beneath him during sexual intercourse (23 A-B). Lilith, however, considering herself to be Adam's equal, refused, and after pronouncing the Ineffable Name (i.e. the magic name of God) flew off into the air.” Adam Wingard, who directed the Amatuer Night sequence, seems to have taken much inspiration from the Lilith myth, with his Lily mirroring many of the very same characteristics that demonized Lilith. Lily is forced to lie underneath a dude-bro asserting his authority as he kisses and gropes her, much like Lilith did with Adam. Lily retaliates by not only refusing but also flipping the dude-bro underneath her and devouring him, just as Lilith’s myth paints her “as a female demon...drinking the blood of men, and eating their flesh…” Lily asserts her own authority over the Adam-like dude-bros by choosing the mate she wants and grabbing him to fly off into the night with her, mirroring the dude-bro’s party tactics of picking up drunk chicks in their car. Both Lily and Lilith refused to bow down to a man’s sexual authority, and took it upon themselves to escape their situations and retain their independence, even if it meant becoming a fearful demon in the end.
Every other film in V/H/S, save for the opening wraparound, follows the same basic narrative as “Amateur Night”: men are out for a good time and to fufill their ego, and a woman instigates the horror by questioning authority. In “Second Honeymoon”, the night stalker is revealed to be the lesbian lover of the man’s wife, who kills the husband (shown to have Adam-like tendencies of goading his wife into sexual acts) so that the two women are free to be with each other. In “Tuesday the 17th”, Wendy is frustrated that the police have been useless in helping her track down the murderer of her friends, and she uses her sex-hungry male friends as flesh bait during a camping trip to lure out the glitchy murderer. In “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”, the titular Emily is haunted by small children while she performs self-surgery on a bump in her arm (all while her boyfriend tells her to stop taking care of herself and wait for him to tell her what it is), and it is revealed that her controlling boyfriend implanted a tracking device in her arm as well as manipulating Emily with the child-like ghosts to incubate fetuses in her, as well as having another girlfriend he’s been incubating aliens with on the side. And in the final segment, “10/31/98”, there are both the group of party frat-boys and the group of male witch hunters who are fighting over a possessed woman’s life. The witch hunters obviously want the destroy the women, and the frat-boys have sort of a white male savior complex which urges them to take the woman and run, leading to the deaths of all men involved when the woman breaks free of their control. Every film in V/H/S revolves around parodying the stereotypical alpha male and the subversion of typical heterosexual relationships, and it is no coincidence considering the history of the horror genre.
V/H/S is not a pristine feminist film despite all the interesting implications of its narratives. If the horror aspect is based on female empowerment and male death at the hands of a woman, doesn’t that endorse the status quo and vilify those who oppose it? Furthermore, every single director in the film is a man, and it would not be incorrect to presume that their certain male interests are driving some of the film-making choices. The horror trope of gratuitous female nudity and young adult sexuality is in full force, breasts bouncing around right directly in front of the camera in almost every film in V/H/S for the viewer’s pleasure (Both the audience and whichever character is holding the film camera, bless the found-footage genre). It is however, noticeable that the films do not censor male nudity as other films would, and show some degree of homoeroticism. In “Amatuer Night”, one of the dude-bro’s penises (the same penis which is later ripped off and tossed at the camera) is shown swaying around for a good five seconds in the bathroom after the owner of the penis runs away from Lily. Naked male buttocks are just as prominent as lady lumps, and the cinematography does not shy away from forcing the male gaze to look at manparts. Even more obviously homoerotic is the relationship in “Second Honeymoon” between the estranged wife and the killer. The wife rejects her husband’s attempts to film them kissing and having sex, yet she passionately kisses the killer (in the exact same location in front of the bathroom mirror) after her husband is dead. Even before the husband is killed, the killer makes a short excursion through their motel room and caresses the sleeping wife’s thigh, staring at her lacy underwear and buttocks through the camera lens.
The surprise lesbians in “Second Honeymoon” could be read as yet another appeasement of the heterosexual male ego despite it’s obvious female homosexuality however. Beautiful lesbians being intimate are a typical heterosexual male fantasy, because feminine lesbians are safe and titillating homosexuals as opposed to unattractive gay men and butch lesbians, and we get a gratuitous scene of the lesbians shoving their tongues in each other’s throat for our enjoyment. Yet, these lesbians are not portrayed for simple straight male enjoyment. Fantasy mixes with nightmare, and pleasure with pain in the horror genre, and the lesbian sequence comes across as yet another strange play on heterosexual gender roles and the audience’s assumptions. “Second Honeymoon” is extremely reminiscent of the music video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, which follows the drug-fueled sex and violence rampage of an almost anonymous camera-person directly through their POV. The protagonist snorts coke and shoots up heroin, aggressively gropes women and claws at their genitals and breasts, gets into fights with men, runs over a pedestrian, and takes a stripper home to have rowdy sex with her. The film plays on the audience’s expectations that it is a heterosexual man doing all these aggressive dirty deeds (especially because the protagonist is exclusively pursuing women and enters a men’s bathroom to vomit blood and shoot up smack), just as V/H/S leads the viewer to assume the aggressor is a man. And just like V/H/S, in “Smack My Bitch Up”, “we end up realising that what seems like a gross male fantasy has actually been experienced by a woman,” a subversion of gender expectations by “celebrating their glorious pantomime of twisted masculinity”. Of course, violence against women and objectification of women is still violence and objectification, especially when done by a male director, as is the case with “Smack My Bitch Up” and V/H/S. Critics considered the “shock-value” gender subversion of “Smack My Bitch Up” “boorish” and “tired-out” even back in 1997 when the controversial song came out.
Suzanne Moore of the Independent deemed that “what we are hearing, we are told, is a pose, a parody of masculinity, a warped fantasy of power from men whose own sense of themselves is in crisis. To which one can only reply, it's not funny, it's not clever and it's not even particularly new,” in regards to The Prodigy’s attempt at playing with heterosexual norms, and much of the same can be said of V/H/S’s gender subversions. The premises of all the narratives rely on society being misogynistic in order to subvert and shock those expectations, and the shock value and horror comes from the assumption the viewer subscribes to heteronormative values. However, “Even confused young men realise that they are more complex creatures than such a culture allows,” and at least by playing with heteronormativity the directors acknowledge that society IS misogynistic and heteronormative and that the male ego is a ridiculous beast. Until non-male directors are much more prominent in the filmmaking world, the male perspective is all audiences will see. V/H/S takes small creative risks via its POV found-footage filmmaking and short-story structure, and these small narrative subversions are baby steps as well towards fresher filmmaking.
1. Whitcombe, Christopher. "7. Eve & Lilith." Eve and the Identity of Women. 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 25 Nov. 2014. <http://witcombe.sbc.edu/eve-women/7evelilith.html>.
2. Moore, Suzanne. "I'm Not Shocked." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 1 Jan. 1997. Web. 25 Nov. 2014. <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/im-not-shocked-by-smacking-up-just-bored-by-boorish-misogyny-1288297.html>.