Last year, the Sundance Film Festival hosted V/H/Sa collection of short, low-budget, indie horror films, helmed by horror/camp aficionados Simon Barrett & Adam Wingard, as well as other upcoming horror directors.  It was met with enthusiastic reception from indie horror fans, as well as some pretty visceral reactions from uninitiated audiences.  This year, Barrett, Wingard & Co. return with a badass, stakes-raising collection of new films which elevate the series to a whole new level.

The Players

The Plot

A private investigator and his assistant, searching for a missing student involved in something sinister, stumble upon a cache of video casettes, each containing a different horrifying story.  The vignettes include:  A man whose digital, prosthetic eye leads him to see malicious ghosts; A mountain biker who gets caught in a zombie outbreak; A documentary crew getting caught in an apocalyptic cult ritual; and a group of teens being abducted by aliens while their parents are away.

The Good

  • Improving the Franchise - Though the format of the overall film is pretty much the exact same as its predecessor, S-VHS is a vast improvement to V/H/S.  The first movie had a couple of clunky segments, which had an amateur feel to them and dragged on a bit longer than necessary.  This time around, it feels like every filmmaker is right in their wheelhouse, presenting a polished, terrifying vision.  Even the wraparound segment, whose function only really needs to be expositional, has a much more compelling element to its mystery.  At no point are we left wondering, “How long until the next one?”
  • Found Footage - I am often especially critical of found footage films.  I find it to be a cheap and lazy device, which removes any cinematic quality from a movie.  This is not the case with S-VHS, which often uses multiple cameras to cut between shots or scenes, and motivates their use with something much stronger than “Dude, why are you always holding that camera?” or “I gotta get this for posterity or whatever!”  It doesn’t shatter my suspension of disbelief when a mountain biker attaches a GoPro camera to his helmet to record a ride (which provides a for fun first person perspective after he gets bit by a zombie), or that there would be multiple cameras running at a documentary film shoot, or that a group of kids would video tape a prank war.  And sure, a prosthetic eye that makes digital recordings is a stretch, but there’s some fun trickery in the video distortion which makes for good scares, as well as some impressive shots of Wingard looking straight into a mirror, leaving us to wonder “How did they manage that shot?”
  • “Safe Haven” - This segment is one of the most mind blowing things I’ve ever seen, which is no surprise coming from Gareth Huw Evans, director of The Raid.  Co-written and co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto, “Safe Haven” follows a documentary crew investigating a religious cult in Indonesia, and getting caught in the madness of its final hours.  It’s a slow burn, deliberately building tension with atmosphere and mystery.   Eventually, it ramps up to something resembling a conventional modern horror film, until it turns a corner and goes completely off the rails.  I’m not kidding.  All.  Hell.  Breaks.  Loose.  It crescendos into at least three or four different kinds of madness, which I’m afraid would be spoiled by describing here.  But let’s just say that this vignette stands head and shoulders above the rest, and by itself is worth the price of admission.

The Bad

  • The Weakest Link -  Jason Eisener directed 2011′s Sundance pick Hobo With a Shotgun, which is silly, gory, exploitation fun.  His segment “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” (which is exactly what it sounds like) follows the previously mentioned “Safe Haven,” and has a pretty high bar to jump over, which it unfortunately can’t quite clear.  There’s very little character work done, so all we get are unsupervised teenagers behaving only kind of badly.   Beyond that, the film is basically people running away from large, loud, humanoid figures with dark eyes and big mouths.  This chase gets repetitive and a little tiresome, with one or two more checkpoints of “What’s going on?!  I have no idea!”  than it really needs.  There are, however, some nice touches along the way.  There’s one especially claustrophobic shot which is both inventive and frightening in a practical way.  Also, the alternate camera angle of this film comes from a GoPro strapped to a little dog’s collar, giving us a perspective which provides sympathy in a different kind of way, albeit a little cheap.   I mean, of course you’re gonna root for a puppy!  But let’s be clear: This is not a BAD segment, it’s just the weakest among the bunch.

Overall

While probably not the BEST film of the Sundance Film Festival (Stoker, anyone?), S-VHS is probably the coolest.  It’s exciting, impressive, and completely wild.  It’s easily more enjoyable than the first installment, and if the series continues in this vein, it may end up being a celebrated launching pad for the careers and collaborations of independent horror filmmakers for a long time  to come.  Here’s looking forward to the next couple of movies, DVD+R and DVD-R.

Rating: 8.5/10