You may recall a little horror movie called V/H/S. It came out last year. It was a found footage horror anthology, consisting of a series of short films from various directors like Ti West (The House of the Devil), Adam Wingard (You’re Next) and Joe Swanberg (LOL). You may also recall that it wasn’t very good. A couple of the shorts stood out as clever and creepy little movies in their own right, but on the whole it was an extremely mixed bag with almost uniformly uncomfortable attitudes towards women and confusing wraparound premise that consisted of many films that, frankly, would never be transferred on VHS for any reason. Skype chats? How does a Skype chat end up on an outmoded home video format?
So it was with no small amount of dread that I attended one of the Sundance Film Festival screenings of S-VHS, the sequel to last year’s disappointment that now includes the talents of directors like Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project), and once again Adam Wingard, the only filmmaker returning for the second bout of found footage fearmongering. And it is with no small amount of surprise that I can declare it a thoroughly enjoyable piece of horror cinema. As I tweeted immediately after I exited the theater, “S-VHS is to V/H/S what badass is to ass.”
What changed? It’s clear that this particular crop of filmmakers had a lot more ambition than the last, formulating a string of mostly excellent (and always at least interesting) short movies that stretch the confines of the already rigidly-defined subgenre within an inch of their lives. The set-up is similar: some people (this time a private investigator and his plucky assistant) break into a house and discover a series of VHS tapes. They watch the tapes, each of which is essentially a home video with evidence of the horrific and/or supernatural, and eventually meet their own end in a similar fashion, taped the exact same way. Although once again the framing device is the weakest part of the film, the characters guiding us through S-VHS are, at least, likeable enough that we want to know what happens to them, and there’s just enough exposition this time out to make the franchise feel like part of a greater, albeit enigmatic, mythology.
The short films themselves begin with Clinical Trials, an impressively filmed but narratively weak entry about a man who gets an experimental cybernetic eye that allows him to see ghosts. Those ghosts bring down the short film, as they are uninspiringly realized (oh look, a pale little girl, yawn), and the overall story offers no particular character development or intriguing spin on existing fears or even genre tropes. What Clinical Trials does have is an impressive filming gimmick of taking place from the point of view of an actual person, not their camera, and as a result plays in mostly long takes that must have been a real bitch to film. Although I was unmoved, it’s a decent display of craftsmanship and the fact that a film with this much technical ambition is the worst entry in the film is very encouraging.
The second short, A Ride in the Park, from the makers of The Blair Witch Project, is another novelty piece, albeit with heart and ample gore. A young man attaches a camera to his bicycle helmet on a ride through the woods, but when zombies attack him, the film shifts from a standard survival tale into an intriguing, funny and ultimately very sad genre film told from the undead’s literal point of view. There’s not much to A Ride in the Park, but there’s just enough material for a bang-up, highly enjoyable short.
Then we have Safe Haven, not just the best entry in S-VHS, but by itself one of the best horror movies in years. Co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption), Safe Haven tells the story of a group of investigative journalists who convince a cult leader to let them film inside his compound, only to discover that today is the doomsday that cult has been waiting for. I will say nothing more about the plot of Safe Haven, as it goes into horrifyingly inevitable and shockingly unexpected directions. Suffice it to say that this particularly long entry in S-VHS is dizzyingly filmed, full of memorable characters and one of the most gruesome images I have ever seen in a horror movie. I still can’t get it out of my head. Really gross, guys. Safe Haven doesn’t rely on gore effects, the story would have been enough for once, but it uses them just right anyway.
The final installment is a bit of a step down from Safe Haven, but overall is a nifty film in its own right. Jason Eisener’s Slumber Party Alien Abduction is basically what it says on the tin. The parents of a small clan of bratty kids with a propensity for filming pranks goes on vacation, leaving their children alone to fend off an alien incursion. The cast of characters isn’t very well defined, aside from the fact that they’re all jerks to each other, but the sound design is effectively booming and the aliens themselves are creepy when they finally show up. The conceit of the film is that most of the footage is captured by a small dog with a camera strapped to his back, but that very concept fails when you consider that, given all the craziness going on, the canine protagonist is the most well-behaved housepet in history. He never yaps, runs away or even shies from the relevant action, which is distractingly unrealistic. But beyond that, Slumber Party Alien Abduction isn’t a terrible piece of short horror cinema, just a decent one.
I’ve said on numerous occasions that the norm for horror anthology movies is that there is either one bad entry, or a single, solitary good one. S-VHS bucks that trend with, yes, a standout as the centerpiece, but overall a fine string of scary installments that makes the original V/H/S, even its better entries, pale in comparison. Now if only the film actually including something shot on S-VHS, or even screened in that format within the story, they’d be on to something.
I presume Betamax is next, filmed entirely on Mini-DV.
Photo Credit: Abdul Dermawan Habir
And check out these other reviews from Sundance 2013:
Who is Dayani Cristal?; starring Gael Garcia Bernal
Two Mothers; starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts
Austenland; starring Keri Russell
Emmanuel and the Truth About Fishes; starring Kaya Scodelario
Don Jon's Addiction; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson
Virtually Heroes; produced by Roger Corman
Breathe In; starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pierce
Inequality for All; featuring Robert Reich
Blue Caprice; starring Isaiah Washington and Tim Blake Nelson
Fill the Void; starring Renana Raz
Running From Crazy; featuring Mariel Hemingway
Wrong Cops; starring Steve Little
Hell Baby; starring Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb
Stoker; starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowsa and Matthew Goode
Escape from Tomorrow; shot without permits at Disney World
Before Midnight; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
Afternoon Delight; starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple
Ass Backwards; starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael
I Used to Be Darker; starring Deragh Campbell
Magic Magic; starring Juno Temple
Prince Avalanche; starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
Sweetwater; starring January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris
We Are What We Are, starring Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner and Michael Parks
Crystal Fairy, starring Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman
Lovelace; starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone
The East; starring Brit Marling and Alexander Saarsgaard
After Tiller, about abortion doctor George Tiller
Citizen Koch, about The Koch Brothers and campaign finance contributions
Gangs of Wasseypur, a 5 1/2 hour Indian crime epic
In Fear, a horror movie set entirely within a car
The Rambler, starring Dermot Mulroney
What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love, about a school for the blind and deaf
Upstream Color; starring Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz