Last year, the indie horror anthology "V/H/S" was released and promised to be chock full of truly in-your-face terror – these were fearless directors, given complete creative freedom, and squeezed together under a tight, blood-soaked package. Of course, the promise of "V/H/S" and the actual movie itself were quite different, and while there were certainly some gems (including entries by Ti West and Joe Swanberg that blurred the line between mumblecore and horror even further), most of them were overlong and uninvolving and (worse yet) reinforced some of the worst traits in the horror genre, including an undercurrent of ugly misogyny that was knotted through almost every section.
Well, the conceit seemed too irresistible to leave alone and this year we have "S-VHS" making its grand debut at the Sundance Film Festival, which follows the original in structure and form. Thankfully, there are some segments that play around with the format and tease where this series could be headed. So, section-by-section, let's take a look.
This is the wraparound story, and as such, is naturally kind of flavorless and perfunctory. It does get points, however, for at least having something of an emotional core – instead of a group of thrill-seeking hooligans like it was the last time around, it’s a pair of low rent private detectives (who are also a romantic couple) hired to investigate the disappearance of a young man presumed, by his affluent mother, to be missing or dead. Hipster private detectives are always more engaging than kids that egg people’s car for fun, and when the young woman starts to watch the tapes there’s a genuine sensation of dread that creeps across the screen. Written and directed by Simon Barrett, who wrote the wraparound story for the first “V/H/S," it gets a tip of the hat for shaking up the formula from the first film just enough while still maintaining its sleazy integrity. [B-]
Now, here’s where the internal logic of the “V/H/S” series comes into serious question – the conceit of this section is that a young doofus is outfitted with a next-generation prosthetic eye that will help him see again. The catch, of course, is that the vaguely sinister company responsible for the implant will be monitoring and recording everything that the robo-eye sees. Also, since this is a horror story, and Internet-era voyeurism isn’t enough to scare the kids, as soon as he returns home with his new gear, things begin disappearing without explanation and, soon enough, he starts getting glimpses of spooky, ghostly beings. But the rub, of course, is how the footage from the eye has ended up on a rickety old VHS tape. This was enough of a leap in the first movie when a Skype conversation (expertly edited, no less) wound up on a VHS tape, but this is a bit of Orwellian future-tech, more like something out of “RoboCop,” which makes it even more confusing. (This “careful what you wish for” conceit has been around the horror genre since its inception, and “Clinical Trials” has overtones of everything from J-horror smash “The Eye” to Eric Red’s scary movie “Body Parts” to the filmography of David Cronenberg to Joe R. Lansdale’s brilliant novel “Lost Echoes.”) It's written by Barrett (again) and directed by Adam Wingard, creators of “You’re Next,” a movie that was the belle of the midnight programming ball at 2011’s Toronto International Film Festival (Lionsgate release it in August). They are talented filmmakers, for sure, and there are a number of genuinely goosebump-y scares but it’s hard to get over the hurdle of the segment fitting within the VHS parameters, including the even bigger nagging question – how did the eye implant record sound? It should also be noted that “Clinical Trials” is the only segment of “S-VHS” to feature a young girl taking off her shirt, which is something. Progress comes in many forms, people. [B+]
“A Ride in the Park”
Swinging in completely the opposite direction of “Clinical Trials” and its icky body horror futurism, “A Ride in the Park” is about as basic as you can get – it’s about a zombie outbreak in a park. That’s pretty much it. There are a couple of nice bits, like when the walking dead decide to crash a young girl’s birthday party, but all the scares and the gore and the shambling zombies play it so straight that it’s hard to get all that jazzed. (Especially when more progressive, thematically thorny depictions of the undead visit us on television every Sunday night on "The Walking Dead".) It was co-directed by Edúardo Sanchez, who was one of the principles responsible for OG found footage sensation “The Blair Witch Project,” which makes this section even more disappointing. Sanchez has been directing steadily ever since (we really liked his occult horror flick “Lovely Molly” from last year’s SXSW), and while this might seem like a homecoming of sorts (especially since his 'Blair Witch' producer Gregg Hale co-directed), it’s less a case of “let the master show you how it’s done” than “maybe we didn’t have a whole lot of great ideas in the first place.” This segment is predictable and workmanlike and thus is the “mixed bag” nature of the anthology film. Thankfully this is the low point of "S-VHS" (and it’s not even that low). Next. [C-]
This is it. This is the section of the movie that people will buy the Blu-ray for, just to show this part to their friends. “Safe Haven” is unrelentingly terrifying and totally brilliant, a piece of horror fiction that stays lodged in your frontal lobe and won’t budge. It expands the “V/H/S” framework in a way that (unlike “Clinical Trials”) doesn’t feel like a cheat, but giving it some international scope and deepening the narrative elements within the segment. (It’s enough to make you hope that, should there be another entry in the franchise, they take it exclusively to foreign directors – can you imagine what Alexandre Aja or Kim Jee-woon would do with this?) The basic conceit of “Safe Haven” is that a bunch of young documentarians are doing a film in Indonesia about a mysterious religious group that some would label a cult. The kids are smart, capable, and knowledgeable and despite the cult leader’s skittish appearance and mannerisms, he seems less like a threat and more of an unhinged, deeply unwell individual who has tricked a lot of people into believing in his cause. Of course, things go fucking bananas while the film crew is there, with all manner of hell literally breaking loose.
Part of the fun of “Safe Haven” is watching the horror unfold and escalate, so we’re not going to give you too many details, but what does happen is both profoundly unsettling and genuinely scary, combining an almost documentarian look at the cult (sort of Jonestown-y) with the very best, most splatter-splashed issues of EC Comics. It’s a delicate tonal tightrope but one that is woven absolutely peerlessly. What’s more is that there is internal conflict within the group, including a kind of tortured love triangle (which is revealed through the technology – another stroke of genius), which makes for a much more emotionally compelling and relatable situation. This is the best section of either of the “V/H/S” films, hands down, co-directed (with Timo Tjahjanto) with crafty cleverness and genuine artistry by Gareth Huw Evans, the filmmaker behind last year’s “The Raid." Quite frankly, this is a towering achievement in horror cinema, no matter its size or stylistic confines. If you weren’t ready to label Evans the most exciting face in genre cinema, well, now’s the time. Unforgettable. [A]
"Alien Abduction Slumber Party"
Well, the title pretty much says it all, right? One of the best parts about "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" (besides its title) is that it is supposed to be the camcorder recording of a bunch of 13-year-old boys, unsupervised, at their parents' lake house and much of it plays exactly like that – you see them building ramps to jump their bikes off of, and they interrupt their older sister making out with her boyfriend. Some of it feels like filler, but this is exactly the type of stuff kids that age would be videotaping and sharing with their equally dumb-ass friends on the Internet. While this section is about as subtle as its title (what else would you expect from Jason Eisener, who turned his promotional gimmick for "Grindhouse" into the feature-length "Hobo with a Shotgun") – particularly in the last part of the segment, which toggles freely between being fiercely frightening to looking like a super-elaborate haunted house with slender dudes in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" Halloween masks – there are a couple of nifty flourishes. Most notably there's the moment earlier in the segment when the kids jump into the lake, and just beyond focus there is a blurry, menacing figure. "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" taps into some pretty primordial fears, and delivers on its simplistic premise. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just missed that little bit of oomph that would have made it something really special. [B]
Overall: "S-VHS" is a whole lot of fun. We can imagine midnight audiences at Sundance (and wherever else it plays – SXSW seems likely) shrieking with delight at some of the sections, and "Safe Haven" is, by our estimation, a bold piece of original horror that will widely be revered, applauded and (like any good piece of balls-out horror) widely derided. We'd love to see the series, if it does in fact continue, continue to diversify the types of stories and the locations where those stories (and filmmakers) are based. But an anthology has to be graded on an average; it is, after all, only as good as the sum of its bloody body parts. [B]