Embedded in the collage-like VHYES are moments when 21st century concerns – from global warming to privacy in the age of all-access – are laid over pastiches of 1980s ephemeral cable TV, from DIY shows to Wayne’s World-ish teens-in-a-basement-studio to late-night softcore with all the sex cut out. Writer-director Jack Henry Robbins, who casts his parents Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins in bits, weirdly fuses the vibe of things like The Kentucky Fried Movie and (especially) The Groove Tube with more considered fantasies about the dangers of the media landcsape, from Videodrome to The Blair Witch Project.
For Christmas in 1987, young Ralph (Mason McNulty) gets a cam-corder which he uses to tape snippets of his own home life and his kid activities with best friend Josh (Rahm Bradshaw) but also to record perhaps-random, perhaps-forbidden snippets of television. In Cloverfield style, we also get tiny glimpses of the tape he’s recording over – his parents’ wedding video – that prompt some quite serious considerations about memory and the distinction between living a life and getting it preserved on tape.
Some of the strands are pre-existing shorts, but even as the film skitters from one fractured sketch to another it weaves everything together. A parodied true paranormal crime show reconstructs a town legend, about a sorority pledge burned as a witch thanks to the sheer stupidity of her sorority sisters, and the climax finds the intrepid kids, who are among the most convincing screen children I’ve seen, setting out with their camera to explore the abandoned sorority house … which leads to a fusion of everything we’ve seen that plays like the bad dream at the end of Dead of Night or one of David Lynch’s late-night barroom cabaret orgies … but with a possible out for the cyclical nightmare as the kids decide they could just stop filming and do something else instead.
There are neat sketches: an antiques expert (Mark Proksch) is asked to appraise a toy long ago stolen from him by a bully (Thomas Lennon); in skinless spoof skinflicks a sexy climatologist living through ‘Hot Winter’ and three mechanically-gifted alien Swedish blondes face prejudice on Earth; a patient instructor on various topics (Kerri Kenney) becomes more eccentric with each revisit; an infomercial finds bland hosts hawking a range of products whose use as drug dealing paraphernalia goes over their heads; a nightmarish home security commercial involves an intruder being gunned down in a child’s bedroom; and a teen (Charlyne Yi) suffers as her parents embarrassingly insist in sitting in on her indie music interviews. A few skits are undeveloped – a cloning sit-com, an earnest cop show – but most get just enough exposure to be funny without killing the joke.
Robbins has a knack for arcana like matching the harsh video lighting style of cheap 1980s television, but this is also surprisingly affecting – getting past the videodromy stuff about how the invention of the cam-corder is the next step in human devolution to a rather sweet connection between Ralph and his kindly, tolerant, slightly disaffected Mom (Lindsley Allen). It doesn’t outstay its welcome and a tight 71 minutes, but random moments oddly stick in the mind.