S-VHS: Sundance Review


U.S.A., Canada (Directors: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Edúardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans, Jason Eisener, Screenwriters: Simon Barrett, Jamie Nash, Timo Tjahjanto & Gareth Huw Evans, John Davies)

Searching for a missing student, two private investigators break into his abandoned house and find another collection of mysterious VHS tapes. In viewing the horrific contents of each cassette, they realize there may be terrifying motives behind the student’s disappearance. Cast: Adam Wingard, Lawrence Levine, L.C Holt, Kelsy Abbott, Hannah Hughes.

Less is not necessarily more in this slimmed-down collection.

The producers of V/H/S are back with a second installment featuring some new directors.

PARK CITY -- The scares are as hit-or-miss as the filmmaking in the second installment of the “VHS” found-footage horror anthology series. In analog terminology, the S-VHS standard should be higher quality, but there’s no obvious improvement over last year’s V/H/S, which Magnolia released theatrically and probably will just hit "replay" for the latest version, which the distributor reportedly acquired for north of $1 million during Sundance.

S-VHS follows the same format as its predecessor, with a framing film that sets up the scenario that requires playback of all those spooky tapes, split up into four segments, one fewer than its predecessor. Again this time around, it’s still puzzling why anyone would transfer footage clearly shot on digital video to tape cassettes, but maybe that’s a minor detail obviated by the film’s premise.

For the second installment, private investigators Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Ayesha (Kelsey Abbot) break into the home of a young man reported missing by his mother and find the expected stash of videocassettes, a laptop and a setup with multiple TV monitors playing back static onscreen. While Larry searches the house for clues to the man’s disappearance, Ayesha reviews video footage on the TVs, beginning with the segment “Phase I Clinical Trials,” directed by Adam Wingard.

The segment finds Herman (Wingard) receiving an implant to replace one eye, a device that acts like a camera delivering images to his brain and also recording video 24/7, an intrusion on privacy he’s required to accept in return for receiving the artificial eye. Ghostly and very frightening images of bloody human figures begin appearing as the prosthesis starts malfunctioning almost as soon as he returns to his home in the Los Angeles hills, forcing him to take refuge in his bathroom for the night to escape the ghouls appearing in his home.

The next day he gets a visit from Clarissa (Hannah Hughes), a woman he’d seen previously at the doctor’s office. Born deaf, she’s had a hearing device inserted in her ear by the same manufacturer and has been noticing scary sounds, so she’s come to warm Adam about the threatening spirits. Too late, it turns out -- they’re coming back, with an agenda this time. Bright lights, subpar special effects and bloody makeup stand in for any genuine scares in this segment, though the premise has some promise for a longer treatment.

Next up Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale direct “A Ride in the Park,” a concept so ludicrous it’s almost as funny as the comedy it should have been. Out biking some woodsy trails one day, a guy is attacked by zombies wandering the forest for no apparent reason. Once he has succumbed, he joins the horde attacking a children’s birthday party picnic. Little more than an excuse to unleash copious amounts of gore and fake entrails, this segment is the weakest of the group.

“Safe Haven” is not only the best of this short-film anthology, it has the most potential for adaptation to feature length. It's shot in Indonesia, where a thriving local industry is just starting to attract attention overseas, in particular with last year's The Raid from director Gareth Huw Evans, who also co-helms and edits this segment.

Segment producer Adam (Fachry Albar) leads an investigative journalism team along with his lover, reporter Lena (Hannah Al-Rashid), and two cameramen, one of whom is her fiance. Seeking an interview with “Father” (Epy Kusnandar), the leader of a mysterious cult that’s holed up in a secret location, Adam presses for an opportunity for the crew to visit “Paradise Gates.” 

Finally getting the leader’s approval, they’re met on arrival by a woman (R R Pinurti) who acts as his very persuasive enforcer. Her brief tour of the compound buildings reveals children and adults engaged in apparently peaceful religious study and worship. Interviewing Father, Adam’s questions become very pointed, grilling him about allegations of child abuse in the compound. Meanwhile, the woman shows Lena around the facility; the reporter privately notes that she’s pregnant, a fact she has not yet shared with either her fiance or her lover. As Father becomes increasingly incensed with Adam’s questioning, Lena begins to sense that things are very much more sinister within the commune than they appear.

When Father loses his composure under Adam’s interrogation, all hell breaks loose -- quite literally – endangering the camera crew, Lena’s unborn child and all the cult members as well. Evans and co-writer/director Timo Tjahjanto deliberately build the mood of increasing unease within the cult’s compound and don’t skimp on scares or gore, delivering far more frightening scenes than the film’s brief 20-minute running time actually warrants.

“Slumber Party Alien Abduction” says it all about Jason Eisener’s final short, in which a group of teenagers at a lakeside slumber party is terrorized, vaporized or abducted by a group of extraterrestrials attacking from beneath the surface of the lake. Neither particularly original nor remotely scary, this is another weak link in the anthology.

By the time events return to Simon Barrett's framing film, titled “Tape 49” and implying that it might itself become part of some future anthology, the sinister videocassettes and creepy, abandoned house have taken a toll on Ayesha, clearly suggesting an effect akin to the infective videotape in The Ring, though this installment of the "VHS" series clearly isn’t likely to reach that level of genre execution.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Park City at Midnight)

Production companies: The Collective, Bloody Disgusting

Cast:  Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsy Abbott, L.C. Holt, Barrett, Mindy Robinson, Monica Sanchez-Navarro, Adam Wingard, Hannah Hughes, John T. Woods, Lynn Fitzpatrick, Brian Udovich, John Karyus, Casey Adams, Jay Saunders, Cassat, Dave Coyne, Wendy Donigian, Devon Brookshire, Fachry Albar, Hannah Al-Rashid, Oka Antara, Andrew Lincoln Suleiman,  Kusnandar, R R Pinurti, Riley Eisener, Rylan Logan, Samantha Gracie, Cohen King, Zachary Ford, Josh Ingraham, Jeremie Saunders

Directors: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans, Jason Eisener

Screenwriters: Simon Barrett, Jamie Nash, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans, Jason Eisener, John Davies

Producers: Gary Binkow, Brad Miska, Roxanne Benjamin

Executive Producers: Zak Zeman, Tom Owen, Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard

Directors of photography: Tarin Anderson, Seamus Tierney, Stephen Scott, Abdul Dermawan Habir, Jeff Wheaton
Production designers: Thomas S. Hammock

Costume designers: Autumn Steed, Avon Dorsey

Music: Steve Moore,

Editors: Adam Wingard, David Geis, Eduardo Sanchez, Bob Rose, Gareth Huw Evans, Jason Eisener

Sales: WME

No rating, 95 minutes