Review: Apocalyptic horror anthology 'S-VHS' is that rare sequel that improves on the original
PARK CITY - Last year, the anthology horror film "V/H/S" made its premiere as part of the midnight selections, and I was there for the first screening. I really liked "V/H/S," and I think the format for the film is the greatest part of it. It is an invitation to filmmakers, basically. A "What If?" game that any horror artist would be happy to play. I said in my review of the first film that the last segment was the one that impressed me most. "The final segment by Radio Silence feels like the brakes are off and you're flying off the mountain into the void." Well, this entire film feels like it starts at that place and then raises the stakes. The first film told the story of some rotten deaths of some people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The second film feels more like a document proving that the end of the world is underway.
Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard have spent the last few years carving a space out for themselves to play, and their fingerprints are all over this second film. The wrap-around segment is written and directed by Simon, and there is a segment written by him and directed by Adam who also stars in in. Simon appears onscreen in his own wrap-around segment. Naked. So you have that to look forward to, America. Wingard's story mines a potent notion about our increasing relationship to technology. I have joked that my kids are both cyborgs, but I'm not really kidding. They think of technology less as individual objects and more as the way the world works. Wingard is given an experimental replacement eye that also holds a recording device, and in accepting his new extension, he also has to accept access to a whole new visual realm. Wingard's house becomes a trap, and the rhythm of the piece is aggressive, new scares piled one after another.
The segment directed by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez is fiendishly clever. I almost can't be responsible for explaining it and ruining the impact for an audience. Suffice it to say that I did not think there were many fresh or smart things left to do wish zombies, and I was wrong. Wow.
Gareth Evans is the man behind "The Raid," and Timo Tjahjanto made the deeply upsetting "Macabre," and evidently what happens when you put the two of them together is they make a movie that provides more character depth than most full-length features in the genre, a gigantic idea in terms of scale, and a lesson in just how much terror you can take before you reach your breaking point. They have built their segment around an Apocalyptic cult that lives at a compound in the country. A group of filmmakers manage to talk the head of the cult into letting them come to the compound to film them going about their daily business.
But it's not that easy, of course. Because OF COURSE. And let me say, there is a sustained crescendo of horror in this segment that is one of the most dazzling, disturbing, aggressive sequences ever choreographed for the movies. When things go badly in this segment, THEY GO VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY BADLY. I really cannot emphasize enough just how badly they go. Whatever the most badly is, this is much worse than that.
And while that sequence feels impossible to beat while it's unfolding, Jason Eisener continues to prove himself the dark comic weirdo to beat in the world of modern horror. He is a jester with a bleak sense of humor and an inventive touch. His short film "Treevenge" is a classic, better than most horror features. "Hobo With A Shotgun" is dazzling and incredibly dedicated to its own seedy version of integrity. And "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" is exactly what it sounds like, and awesome besides. His segment is the one that feels most like a real nightmare that someone somehow recorded, and there's a rowdy sense of humor to it that keeps the audience whip-sawed between laughs and screams. If the job of a horror filmmaker is to create a wicked and effective high-tech haunted house, Eisener proves himself to be a master of the task.
I sincerely hope they keep making these films, and that the audience grows. I'd love to see them commission a few of these from people dreaming on a totally different scale. Right now, though, they look like they're building a very cool overall mythology (the hints about a larger conspiracy or network of people trading and watching tapes suggest that there are lots of things that could be explored in future framing devices) and picking filmmakers who understand exactly why this format is an opportunity and who are determined to make the most of it. The audience is the winner in this case, and "S-VHS" is one of those things that you have to see surrounded by a crowd of terrified strangers. Can't wait to see who ponies up to distribute this one.
"S-VHS" should be sold by the time I wake up tomorrow.