2012’s V/H/S hit the Sundance Film Festival with such gory success that it only makes sense that the guerilla team of next generation horror directors, writers, and producers would team up again and try to replicate it a year later. With less bloat (the original ran almost two hours) and two segments that stand among the best short horror films of the last decade, S-VHS is a more creative success than its predecessor in every way. As with all anthology films, the final result doesn’t quite bat 1.000 but it’s close enough that genre junkies should eat it up when Magnolia releases it later this year.
The much-leaner and tighter wraparound story (called “Tape 49,” and directed by Simon Barrett) has a similar vibe as the original in that some innocent folks find a number of static-filled screens and old VHS tapes. This time, it’s a private dick and his assistant who take the case of trying to track down one of the kids from the first film and break into his house only to find his library of twisted, found footage tales. As the detective tries to solve the case of the missing vandal, his lovely assistant watches four disturbing films that may owe their lineage to the original V/H/S but are undeniably more slickly produced, conceived, and directed. The most undeniable case to be made by anyone who prefers the original will be that V/H/S had a more lo-fi, and, consequently, more organically scary aesthetic.
The first standalone segment, “Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” was directed by and stars Adam Wingard (You’re Next) as a poor soul who gets a camera implanted in his retina so the formerly blind man can see again. The creative spark to merge found-footage with first-person perspective starts S-VHS off on a clever note and instantly elevates the experience above your average Paranormal Activity rip-off. Of course, as horror fans might expect, the ocular camera allows the haunted fella to see things that other cannot like the ghosts coming to get him. A fellow damned soul with a cochlear implant that allows her to hear the undead tries to save our protagonist but things end up predictably crazy. “Phase 1” gets points for concept but misses the mark a bit in terms of execution (other than an amazing pool shot, it’s surprisingly unmemorable visually given the potential of its set-up).
Any concern that S-VHS might succumb to the same tedium that sometimes bled into the original is dismissed with the second and third segments of the film, which combine to form one of the most entertaining hours of the horror genre in the last several years. It starts with Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project) & Gregg Hale’s brilliant “A Ride in the Park,” which opens with a biker strapping a cam to his forehead and heading out on his morning jaunt. When he’s interrupted by the zombie apocalypse, we’re treated to an idea so ingenious that it’s remarkable no one tried it earlier – first-person zombie cam. Eating intestines, chasing after children, getting hit by a car – “A Ride in the Park” is funny and so smart that it nearly makes S-VHS worth a look on its very own. I wish it was a tick scarier as it plays purely as gore comedy in this incarnation but it’s a minor complaint.
I have no complaints, major nor minor, about the brilliant “Safe Haven” from Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption) & Timo Tjahjanto. A cult leader invites a TV crew to film his commune on the day that he finally breaks through to the other side and literally unleashes Hell. Evans & Tjahjanto start slow, allowing the creepy behavior around the compound (caught not just by the TV crew but security cameras in the complex) to build until you’re left wondering if it will pay off, which it then does in ways you can’t even imagine. Fans of Evans’ fantastic The Raid will see a similar structure here as this short film also takes place in one location on a very bad day for innocent people to be caught there. The same ingenuity that Evans displayed with action choreography there can be found here as “Safe Haven” builds to a degree of gory insanity that left Sundance audiences gasping. Unlike so many modern horror and action directors, he knows how to deliver on his set-ups in ways that audiences just never see coming.
There’s a natural comedown after the genius of “Safe Haven” to Jason Eisener’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” which, well, is pretty self-explanatory. A group of kids (and Eisener claimed in the introduction to the premiere at Sundance that his short was based on a family vacation they took) plays around with cameras until the aliens land and the abductions begin. Eisener operates a bit too much from the “throw the camera around and make loud noises” school of horror but there’s still some surreal imagery here that I’ll remember.
The producers of S-VHS made several smart decisions when they chose to follow up on their original. Cutting the film by one segment overall makes it feel notably more refined and getting such smart found footage concepts from Sanchez & Evans makes it worth seeing on its own (and I don’t even have as many complaints about Barrett, Wingard, or Eisener’s segments as I do most of the original). After V/H/S, I presumed the concept of a low-budget found-footage film had been exhausted. After S-VHS, I eagerly anticipate a third film (D-VHS?) in 2014.