VHYES (2020)

I’m frequently surprised by how little respect sketch comedy anthology movies get in general, but something about VHYES‘s muted reception feels especially egregious. Structurally, the film harkens back to the channel-surfing absurdism of 1970s cult classics like The Groove Tube & Kentucky Fried Movie, tying together a collection of unrelated, retro-styled comedy sketches by mimicking the uneven rhythms of a home-made VHS “mixtape”. Combining spoofs of assorted late-80s cable access garbage with a fictional home movie wraparound, the film is on its surface a shameless indulgence in retro VHS-era nostalgia. The individual gags are solid, though, and are elevated by the participation of LA comedy scene goofballs like Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenni, Charlyne Yi, John Gemberling, and Mark Proksch. What really distinguishes VHYES, however, is how it uses its wraparound structure to give those sketches a surreal, menacing sense of purpose. As a whole, the film evokes the eerie delirium of flipping channels past midnight, blurring the border between what’s onscreen and what’s an oncoming dream. It’s a loose collection of varyingly successful sketches the way most anthology comedies are, but the unexpected sincerity & deft of its wraparound story breaks through that classic structure to uncover something freshly exciting & praiseworthy that’s rarely achieved in the genre.

Filmed entirely on actual VHS & Betamax deadstock, the comedy sketches that comprise most of VHYES are a collection of parodies of late-80s ephemera: Bob Ross painting tutorials, violently paranoid Security System commercials, QVC shopping showcases, Cinemaxxx era softcore, etc. The wraparound story initially exists as an excuse for all these vintage spoofs to commingle. On Christmas Day, 1987, a child is gifted a VHS camcorder and unknowingly begins recording experiments with the format over his parents’ wedding tape. Amazed that he can record live television to watch later at his convenience, the boy sets out to make the ultimate VHS mixtape, creating a Burroughs-style cut-up montage by surfing channels late into the night, filming sub-America’s Funniest Home Videos pranks with his buddy, and unknowingly leaving blank space for his parents’ wedding to interrupt his D.I.Y. art project. The bizarre rhythm of these images alternating in a believable, disorienting cycle is outright hypnotic. And once the movie has you in a state of late-night channel-surfing delirium, it crashes all three levels of its taped reality (the “found footage” sketches, the pranks, and the wedding) into one subliminally horrifying nightmare. Early in the film, one of the sketches warns that the VHS camcorder’s ubiquity in the home will inspire a newfound, wide-scale techno-narcissism that will incite the fall of mankind. By the end, I was nearly convinced that was true and that we’re just now reaching Phase 2 of that downfall.

VHYES is post-Adult Swim filmmaking at its finest: lean, strange, and menacingly absurd. Anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes watching a Tim & Eric or PFFR project will be familiar with the kind of delirious, weaponized nostalgia on display here. If it were just a loose collection of gross-out, retro-styled sketches I wouldn’t be praising it so emphatically. (Okay, if Kuso is any indication, maybe I would be.) I really do feel like the unconventional wraparound narrative of this film transcends the conventions of its channel-surfing sketch comedy genre, if not only for feeling more sincere & purposeful than what’s typically pursued in these anarchic goof-arounds. I don’t expect that it’s enough of a revolutionary paradigm shift to warm skeptics up to the sketch comedy film as a genre, but if you do tend to skip over these films because they appear to be aimless freewheeling frivolities, this one might be worth a closer look.

-Brandon Ledet