If you're new to this burgeoning franchise, “S-VHS” and its predecessor work like this: there is a wraparound story involving morally dubious people (in this case, a hipster private investigator couple) whose assignment (find a missing college student) leads them to a dark den full of old VHS tapes, screens and laptops. They begin watching them, oblivious to the hidden dangers surrounding them. The movie audience thus witnesses several short segments by different creative teams. All the stories, including the wraparound, are found-footage/POV style. VHS premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and the S-VHS sequel is part of the 2013 Midinight film series at the fest.
Filming inside the compound of an Indonesian cult goes terribly wrong for a documentary crew. Photo: Abdul Dermawan Habir
The entries are fewer this time around, but more intense. The first vignette,”Phase 1“ directed by Adam Wingard, brings the most subtle creepy thrills in the bunch, showing us what happens when a man receives an ocular implant from a suspicious medical establishment that enables him to see ghostly figures (the very malevolent kind) all over his apartment. The second tale, “A Ride in the Park” by “Blair Witch Project” alum Eduardo Sanchez and Greg Hale was as funny as it was gory, a zombie cam POV sequence that skillfully employed touches of slapstick dark humor reminiscent of the “Evil Dead” series. The fourth vignette, Jason Eisener’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” was the weaker of the entries, a standard story of teen/pre-teen party hijinks interrupted by an alien invasion, yet it managed some tense and harrowing chase scenes.
The crown jewel in this stack of snuff tapes, though, was "Safe Haven" by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. A slow burn beginning makes you think this will simply be a story about an Indonesian Jonestown-style cult and the people documenting them But as it unfolds you are assaulted with an endless barrage of WTF moments that don’t let up even after it reaches its splattering climax.
“There was a theme around the first set of films—the failed sex tape” said Simon Barrett, executive producer and writer of “S-VHS” during the Q&A portion of its Salt Lake City screening at the Tower Theater Sunday night. He was responding to a question regarding the perceived misogyny in the indie horror anthology series’ initial outing, “V/H/S” (also a Sundance premiere, in 2012).
If you were to look for a common theme in “S-VHS”, it might simply be "bigger, more"—a tried and true convention for horror sequels. Higher body counts, more carnage, bigger effects. The audience at the screening was certainly pleased with the results. But, this type of film is certainly not for everyone. It's bloody, loud, jarring, disturbing and utterly disgusting—something many hard-core horror fans tend to love. I happen to like horror movies, but I still left with a headache.
The crowd at the Tower was certainly pleased with the carnage turned up to ten. Does that mean future entries in the series won’t have room for subtle and understated chills?
Jan. 22, 11:59 p.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City
Jan. 24, 5:30 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
Jan. 26, 6 p.m., Library Theatre, SLC
Main Photo: Simon Barrett