Did You Put a Tape in That? – VHYes (2019)
“This is the beginning of the fall of mankind.”
Coming out of Panic Fest, VHYes is this year’s One Cut of the Dead. By that, I mean it’s heartfelt and funny and surprising and best enjoyed with as little foreknowledge as possible. So, if you think you might want to watch VHYes, I recommend that you stop reading now and do so as cold as you can manage.
If you’re still with me, you’ve either already seen Jack Henry Robbins’ bizarre love letter to VHS culture, or don’t think that you want to, or just want to learn a little more before you make up your mind. So, here we go:
Filmed entirely on VHS and Beta, VHYes is a movie that was tailor-made for the festival experience. It is best enjoyed in a room full of people who don’t have any idea what they’re getting into, but are there for it, whatever it is.
It’s also ideally watched at the tail end of a long night, when you’re up past your bedtime and your brain is primed to go where the movie takes you.
At a glance, VHYes seems like a Funny or Die sketch or a more overtly comic take on something like “Unedited Footage of a Bear.” The “story,” such as it is, concerns 12-year-old Ralph, who gets a video camera for Christmas and proceeds to accidentally record over his parents’ wedding video while making his own home movies and taping stuff off late-night TV.
Doesn’t sound too much like something that would play at a horror fest, does it? And, for most of its running time, it isn’t, though the crowd I saw it with at Panic Fest, where it was introduced by Eli and Bryce of Magnetic Magic and Forever Bogus, respectively, who also host Analog Sunday every month at the Screenland, were 100% on board with it.
The parodic faux-late-night skits start out normal enough and get increasingly weird as the show goes on—the in-movie equivalent of staying up later and later, as what you’re watching gets stranger and stranger.
Eventually, Ralph and his friend Josh take the camera to visit a supposedly haunted former sorority house, and the barriers between shows—and between reality and what’s caught on camera—begin to break down.
“If you find this video,” Ralph and Josh assert to the camera just before heading into the burned-out former sorority, “we’re probably dead.”
Don’t expect a typical found footage horror movie, though. It takes probably 90% of VHYes before they venture into the house at all, and the trip is short, when they do. But that doesn’t mean that this slowest of slow burns ever actually feels slow.
It starts out funny and stays that way, even through the genuinely eerie and poignant ending, but that slow seepage from absurd to uncanny is always happening, something that you barely register while it’s going on, but that sticks in your brain long after it’s over.
Eventually, as Ralph erases the magnetically-captured memories of his parents’ life before he was born, they are replaced with new memories that seem banal, at first, but that capture uncertainty and longing and heartbreak and friendship and love.
If there’s a deeper message in VHYes, one of its strongest themes might be that the most potent memories aren’t the big events that we expect. They are, instead, the smallest moments that happen when we’re hardly paying attention.
Near the end of the film, Ralph asks his mom why she married his dad, to which she replies with a story about smelling an orange tree just before the wedding, and how she wanted to share that moment with him. “He would have made it better,” she says.
If the film has a single thesis, it is probably contained somewhere in that exchange. You don’t have to watch VHYes for the deep meanings or genuinely surreal nightmares, however. It works almost as well just as a funny and heartfelt love letter to tape heads and late-night TV.
The various skits, which evolve as the film progresses, feature a wide range of cameo guest stars like Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Mark Proksch, Charlene Yi, and Kerri Kenney as the genuinely hilarious (and distressing) Joan, along with lots of other people that I’m sure I didn’t recognize.
If that’s all VHYes had been—a series of slowly-dissolving skits skewering (and celebrating) late-night TV and analog nostalgia—it would still be a crowd-pleasing festival favorite. But its final moments transform it into something more, abruptly pulling tight threads that you hadn’t even noticed it laying down to create a haunting and heartfelt film that will stick with you long after you stop watching—if you ever really do.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.