S-VHS – The Sundance Review

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One of the biggest horror hits of last year was V/H/S, a movie that capitalized on the found footage craze by introducing the found footage anthology. The idea was that a bunch of directors coming together could exploit the best thrills that found footage had to offer, without any of the dull parts that come from having to pad out such movies to feature-length. Unfortunately, only two or so of the six shorts that made up V/H/S were any good, the rest running the gamut from bland to bad to downright ugly. But it did well enough to warrant a sequel, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. S-VHS is basically the same formula redux – five found footage horror shorts.

Here’s the thing, though: this film is a remarkable improvement on its predecessor, in pretty much every department. The production value on each short has skyrocketed. The directing, acting, and writing across the board has gotten a serious shot in the arm. The result is that S-VHS is, for the most part, a lot of fun in the theater. It’s all the more surprising given the incredibly short turnaround on the movie’s production – it started filming late last year. It turned out to be one of the best surprises at Sundance 2013.

While the overall anthology is well worth a look, here’s each individual segment broken down:

Tape 49

Directed by Simon Barrett, and undoubtedly the worst segment in the lot. This one acts as a framing sequence for all the other films, which is its undoing. How can a movie possibly be scary when it continually breaks for other movies? There’s no way to build any kind of atmosphere. But even if it were to be reedited into one piece, it wouldn’t flow well at all. The premise has a private investigator and his partner/girlfriend break into a house while looking for a missing college student. The found footage POV comes from the video cameras that they use to film their investigation, because… um… reasons. The girl begins watching some VHS tapes she discovers, and each tape is one of the other segments in the film. It’s building some kind of mythology for this franchise, as it follows from a similar framing sequence in the first film. What’s the point, though? Why does there have to be a justification for any of this? Why can’t these movies just consist one short film after another? It’s so silly.

Phase I Clinical Trials

Directed by Adam Wingard. The found footage POV comes from the recordings of a mechanical eye that has been transplanted into the main character (also played by Wingard). Despite the absurd premise, the movie settles into an interesting groove, as it turns out that this robot eye can see ghosts. There are some thrilling jump scares, although it’s disappointing that that’s the most the film really aims for. It doesn’t go very far with its cool premise. Just as the movie seems to be about to dive into the wider implications of the setup, it ends. Fun but airless.

A Ride in the Park

Directed by Eduardo Sanchez (director of The Blair Witch Project and thus one of the fathers of this style) and Gregg Hale, with found footage POV from a helmet cam. A guy, as you might expect from the title, goes for a ride in the park, only to encounter zombies. He’s promptly bitten and becomes one himself, making this the first zombie movie from the perspective of the undead. That’s enough to refresh the tired genre, and this segment, while not very scary, has its exciting bits, as well as some delightfully gruesome gore effects. It also ends on a surprisingly moving note of pathos.

Safe Haven

Directed by Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto, with found footage POV from documentary film cameras, security camera footage, hidden button cams, one handheld device, and… well, there’s a lot of “eyes” in this segment. A team of journalists arrange an interview with a secretive cult leader, and go to meet him at his remote underground sanctuary. It quickly becomes apparent that something big is about to go down, and once it does, events spiral into escalating chaos that eventually reaches apocalyptic proportions. Far and away the best of the shorts, and on its own, probably one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a while. The way it builds and then releases (and releases, and releases… and releases) tension is unbelievable, and creates a fantastic atmosphere of dread that breaks into sheer terror. The only issue is that there are so many cameras in play (at least a dozen) that it might as well not be found footage. After a certain point, the question of why this wasn’t just a regularly-shot movie comes up. But whatever – it’s a horrifying blast of a film.

Slumber Party Alien Abduction

Directed by Jason Eisener, POV from a home video camera, which spends most of the short strapped to a dog. Yes, a dog-cam. The title is pretty much self-explanatory. There is a slumber party, and then aliens invade. The odd thing about this segment is that the first half, before the aliens come, is actually way more enjoyable and interesting than the second half. It’s all about a group of kids messing around with one another in a series of pranks, and it’s funny and feels completely authentic. Once the aliens show up, it feels more like the parents have come home early and spoiled our fun, rather than the beginning of a roller coaster of terror. While the aliens have a great, nightmare-inducing look, they aren’t very scary, thanks to barely-coherent camera work (again: dog-cam). There’s also the fact that most of the abduction is lit with a strobe light, a confounding decision that creates headaches instead of suspense. Eisener should absolutely make a feature-length movie about kids doing kid stuff (found footage I can take or leave), but this is half great, half a snore.

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  1. Pingback: My 2013 Cinematic Retrospectivus Review - Dan Schindel

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