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Simon Read [Celluloid 01.17.20] comedy

It's Christmas Day, 1987, and 12-year-old Ralph (Mason McNulty) has been given a VHS camcorder. We follow him over the days between Christmas and New Year's, catching snippets of his life through the POV of his new camera, as he unknowingly tapes over footage of his parents' wedding and occasionally records scenes directly from late night cable TV.

Jack Henry Robbins' VHYes is at once a nostalgic reflection of a bygone era of analogue TV and video, and a rather demented and surreal dark comedy. The domesticity of Ralph's life - hanging out with his best friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw), recording himself playing music and with his dinosaur toys, occasionally spying on his parents - is contrasted by the bizarre array of television shows into which he tunes every night.

The scenes from these fictional 1980s-style TV shows are diverse and lovingly crafted, and stand as one of the main reasons to check out the film. Similar in style to retro comedies like Astron 6's anarchic Divorced Dad, or Neill Blomkamp's often grisly Cooking With Bill, we catch segments of awkward Home Shopping presenters who clearly despise one another as they attempt to hawk cheap ball point pens and drug baggies. There's an intense painting program, "Painting With Joan," in which the shy, wallflower presenter (played by Kerri Kenney) increasingly reveals herself to be a delusional, sociopathic pervert. I especially enjoyed "Blast Off," an aerobics workout show in which participants are forced to exercise in a room heated to almost one hundred degrees (there's a lot of collapsing and vomiting).

The film intercuts between Ralph's antics at home and these insane fake television shows and movies, and along the way a kind of loose-form narrative begins to assert itself. Towards the end things take a decidedly darker turn as Ralph and Josh visit a haunted house, and the line between his VHS recordings and reality begins to blur.

The film proudly displays its influences front and centre. There is a direct homage to Cronenberg's Videodrome, as a Brian Oblivion/Marshall McLuhan-esque media expert on a chat show aptly, accurately (and intensely) predicts the rise of Selfie Culture, "People will have VHS cameras in their pockets, they will film themselves falling from cliffs," she tells the disbelieving host - before fixing him with a stare that made we wonder if his head was about to explode like in Scanners. Some of the shows and adverts feel like unused footage from a Paul Verhoeven satire, while the nature of the film's climax can only be described as Lynchian.

What saves the film from simply becoming an exercise of parody spoofs and homage is Ralph himself. McNulty makes the character likeable - slightly goofy, occasionally morbid, but basically a good kid. Following him around as he tries to make sense of what he sees at home, the sad strain he observes within his parents' marriage (it becomes fitting that he's recording over their wedding tape as we catch glimpses of them dancing and eating cake during better times), and his encounters with the strange world of late-night television, all acts as a curious but agreeable background on which to frame the often very funny sketches which populate the film.

VHYes feels like a labour of love. Shot entirely on VHS and digital Betacam, it's a film that looks back with wonder and a sense of ennui to a time before we could watch whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, instead relying on the randomness of broadcast television to entertain us and inform our worldview. It's also a coming-of-age film; Ralph grows up a little as he realises his mother and father, and the world they and he inhabit are far less than perfect. That it also manages to form itself into a buddy comedy, and a horror film, and a surrealist satire really is to be commended.

Of course, not all of the sketches work, and some fall flat. A Wayne's World-style show about a suburban family who awkwardly interview a heavy metal band in their basement never seems to be sure of where it's going, and Tim Robbins' (the director's father - Susan Sarandon also pops up briefly) cameo as a blustering old coot in a police drama comes across as unfocused and indulgent. Similarly, a softcore porno called Hot Winter feels as though it ought to be funnier, but really just raises a dry smile with some predictable gags.

Nevertheless, for every miss there are many hits. At 72 minutes it's a short but memorable trip, and over the course of its running time, as this odd little film slides into ever more deranged territory, we can only guess the places it's going to take us - perhaps inside our own minds, or maybe just the retinas of our mind's eye.

VHYes opens theatrically January 17.

Recommended Release: Videodrome

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