Sundance Review: S-VHS Is A Next Generation Improvement

The sequel to the found footage horror movie VHS is an incredible, exciting step forward.

Found footage is the refuge of the lazy and untalented filmmaker. It doesn’t require much storytelling skill and it certainly doesn’t usually involve much by way of visuals. Almost every found footage movie is a series of jump scares separated by lulls of insufferable improv. Last year’s Sundance horror hit, found footage anthology VHS, fixed some of that by having each segment be so short that the jump scares kept coming and the insufferable improv was kept to a minimum. VHS was a movie that sometimes popped, often was awful and generally looked terrible. And that’s to say nothing of the disturbing (although surely unintentional) current of misogyny that ran through it.

The film worked, though, especially with audiences, and the folks behind VHS returned to Park City with S-VHS. The big revelation: they fixed almost everything wrong with the first movie and delivered an anthology whose worst segment qualifies as pretty damn good. And it’s best segment? Almost transcendentally great.

One of the big changes with S-VHS is that the filmmakers involved are real filmmakers, people with both style and craft. There’s filmmaking skill on display in each of the segments. There’s very little queasy shakycam, and the segments seem to have actually been art designed, as opposed to the first film’s penchant for filming in random hotel rooms. Also improved: the stories themselves. This time around the segments are clever and fun, having more in common with Radio Silence’s haunted house episode in VHS than Ti West’s dour lesbian vacation killer nonsense.

The wraparound is improved from the first film, but not by much. The premise remains the same: someone sits in front of a TV and loads in VHS tapes, but this time returning writers/producers/directors Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard have begun to inject some mythology. We learn that the tapes shown in these movies aren’t just snuff films, they’re something special, something supernatural.

After the first wraparound segment comes Adam Wingard’s short, which is about a guy who has a cyborg eye implanted, a cheeky way to explain the first person perspective. He soon learns that his eye allows him to see the unhappy dead, and things escalate quickly from there. Wingard’s segment looks like a million dollars, a whole world away from the shaky, dropped frame ugliness of the first film. The camerawork is elegant, and the shock scares are nicely structured. There’s also a great sense of humor to the whole piece. The best compliment I can give this segment is that I wouldn’t mind seeing it fleshed out into a feature, especially the protagonist’s relationship with a girl whose cochlear implant allows her to hear the dead.

Wingard’s piece is followed by one from Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, two of the guys behind The Blair Witch Project, and thus the godfathers of the current found footage craze. Their found footage gimmick is a biker who has a GoPro camera on his helmet while riding some trails; when he gets attacked by a zombie we end up with what might be the first first person zombie film ever. This is the least of the segments, but it’s a lot of gory fun, and Sanchez and Hale manage to actually evoke some emotion at the end. Zombie purists might cry foul, but even they’d have to enjoy seeing the undead attacking a children’s birthday party.

Third is the undisputed king of the film. Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption) and Timo Tjahjanto (Macabre) team up to tell the story of a group of investigative reporters infiltrating a strange cult in Indonesia. It’s a slow burn, wonderfully structured in a way that spirals out of control in an enormous, apocalyptic way. Their short is creepy and discomforting, but still fun, evoking both human horrors and the kind of gibbering madness that befalls Lovecraft’s characters. Once the madness starts in this segment it never lets up, and the ending is one of the most flat out satisfying horror endings I’ve seen in a while - possibly because it’s so perfectly, beautifully classical. I won't spoil a moment of this glorious short, but I will say it's filled with imagery that evokes the hazy terror of nightmares.

The final segment comes from the hyperactive mind of Jason Eisener, director of Hobo With A Shotgun. A group of kids film themselves playing pranks on each other and their older sister, but their camera soon witnesses a terrifying alien invasion. The first part of the short is absolutely perfect; the mischievous kids fucking around has a hard-R Amblin vibe (best exchange among the kids: “Suck my dick!” “I don’t want to!”). Knowing Eisener a bit I can tell you that this stuff is like mainlining the guy’s personality, and it’s joyful. It’s actually so joyful that once the alien horror starts you’re kind of bummed - you want to see more pranks!

Thankfully, Eisener’s aliens have legitimately nightmarish faces, and he’s great at establishing a sense of chaos and terror using just smoke, lights, and judicious camerawork. There are other moments in S-VHS that cause more jumps, but the film’s tensest, scariest moment comes in Eisener’s short, as the aliens advance on kids trying to save each other. Somebody needs to hire Jason Eisener to make a feature length, R-rated Goonies-style kid adventure movie. It’s his destiny.

Another way S-VHS improves on the original is that it feels leaner; there’s one less segment than the first film, and it’s a great decision. I left VHS exhausted, while I left S-VHS wanting more - always the best feeling to have after a funhouse experience like this. Best of all, I didn't leave S-VHS with that aftertaste of misogyny. None of the segments this time center on the concept of women as deceitful, treacherous monsters, which was the premise of most of VHS's shorts.

Even without Evans/Tjahjanto’s segment, S-VHS would be much, much better than the first film, but their episode makes the film a complete must-see. It’s that great. Thankfully the other three segments hold their own quite nicely.

When the inevitable third film is made (VHS-SLP?), I hope that the lessons learned on this movie aren’t forgotten. Good filmmakers make good movies. Filmmakers who care about craft over speed or hipster affect will make a good movie. S-VHS is clever and fun and effective, but most of all it’s really fucking good.