Warning: This review contains mild plot spoilers.
Last year's anthology horror production "V/H/S" was a revelation mainly because it took the overly familiar found-footage genre and exploited it to the fullest extent. The sequel, "S-VHS," achieves a similar goal with more frightening extremes. Containing only four spectacularly gory shorts directed by emerging genre filmmakers, along with an equally unsettling wraparound tale, "S-VHS" lacks some of the original's subtleties but delivers a nearly unbroken series of visceral shocks. The last movie was a wild ride with several stops along the way; "S-VHS," once again produced by the Bloody Disgusting production team known as The Collective, pushes full throttle ahead the whole way through.
Like "V/H/S," the movie fails to explain why each digitally shot installment has been transferred to the old technology that it's watched on. But there's nevertheless something inherently unsettling about the discovery of horrific, inexplicable incidents stored in an ominous location, a scenario that once again provides the framing device. Directed by screenwriter Simon Barrett ("You're Next"), the wraparound stars Laurence Michael Levine as a private investigator tasked with uncovering the disappearance of a local kid. At the kid's eerily vacant home, Levine's character comes across a room full of television sets broadcasting static, an image familiar to viewers of the previous installment. While he pokes around, his assistant pops in the first tape from a pile and the mayhem begins.
The quartet of doom-laden tales that follow are relentless in their attempts to provoke immense shock, but more than that, they each contain an innovative approach to explaining camera placement.
In "You're Next" director Adam Wingard's "Clinical Trials," the director plays a man whose left eye is implanted with a mechanical recording device that inadvertently makes it possible for him to see dead people. Echoing the "glasses cam" short that opened "V/H/S," "Clinical Trials" quickly devolves into a series of jump scares as the man wanders around his house and continually swivels his head in various directions, continually revealing ghoulish characters lunging his way. It's a cheap gimmick, but Wingard indulges in it with such relentless speed that even savvy viewers won't be able to keep up with each sudden moment. Like the rest of these entries, the camera is mostly a fixed device that follows the point of view of the endangered protagonist (rather than bouncing around in his hands), adding to the feeling of being trapped by an increasingly dire situation.
"The Blair Witch Project" director Eduardo Sanchez and producer Gregg Hale's entry, "A Ride in the Park," similarly relies on a methodically placed camera angle by assuming the perspective of a biker's helmet camera. Attacked by a zombie that lurches into his path, the man is quickly resurrected as one of the undead, putting the viewer in the hilariously demented position of adopting a cannibal's POV. More slapstick than outright scary, Sanchez and Hale's contribution to "S-VHS" is the closest the movie comes to offering a breather, but the mercy is short-lived.
"Safe Haven," co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto and "The Raid: Redemption" director Gareth Evans follows a group of Indonesian filmmakers attempting to make a documentary about a mystical cult. With cameras set up throughout the remote facility where a scowling mystic commands an army of brainwashed souls, the crew find themselves abruptly surrounding by a series of harrowing events at first marked by attacks from the cult members followed by a series of supernatural occurrences that grow increasingly bizarre and bloody. With close-up shots of throat slashings, suicides, and a giant demon inexplicably emerging from a womb too small to contain it, the ironically-titled "Safe Haven" is certainly the craziest of the bunch in its unflinchingly graphic commitment to grotesque imagery. Like "Clinical Trials," it aims to make you jump, but the visceral unsettlement goes one step further by conveying a frantic eruption of chaos superior to most big budget apocalyptic spectacles.
Coming in the wake of such excessive bedlam, Jason Eisner's closing entry "Slumberparty Alien Addiction" is a fairly tame contribution. Exactly what it sounds like, the short finds a group of teens and adolescents hanging out in a creepy lakeside cabin and pulling pranks on each other until the sudden arrival of bright lights and aggressive humanoids once again shifts the events into a panicky scenario that finds the human victims fleeing their assailants against impossible odds. That conceptual similarity makes Eisner's short suffer from immediate comparison to the earlier installment, and the director's use of shaky-cam devices suffers from the disorienting incoherence that plagues many found footage projects, but "Slumberparty Alien Addiction" keeps pace with the rest of the anthology for its anarchic spirit alone. In every case, the directors play by the horror genre edict that no innocent character is ever truly safe.
Of course, "S-VHS" aims to entertain above all, and even the more twisted moments focus on playing up the fun factor in conjunction with fear rather than emphasizing one aspect over the other. It's a tricky balance that this indie franchise has so far sustained better than most. In the sickening final shot, a gruesomely mutilated figure looks directly into the camera and gives the thumbs up sign. Breaking the fourth wall, this closing moment is a wry commentary on the nature of graphic violence onscreen when positioned as entertainment. "S-VHS" smartly contextualizes its nightmarish cavalcade of violence by acknowledging the luxury of enjoying it from a distance.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Magnolia recently picked up "S-VHS" just as it did "V/H/S" last year. Repeating the success of the previous entry, the company will likely release the film in Halloween season and see strong numbers on VOD.