(Long Island, N. Y.) I’m about to make a slight departure from the norm here this week – instead of reviewing a film currently in theaters, I’ll be writing about one that’s being released Direct-To-Video – but not to worry, I’ll be back to my usual format next week. In the meantime, read on…you might actually learn something cool.
While I’m a big horror fan, a notable sub-genre of it – the so-called “found footage” film – has often had very mixed results. Movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and any other instance where the story is told through the lens of a lead character’s camcorder, webcam, cell phone, or whatever video recording device you can think of, have become popular. And while, if done right, the found footage genre can produce some immerse storytelling, at times their lack of logic – that someone is constantly feeling the need to film what’s going on despite being menaced by monsters or other dangers – just seems forced and really doesn’t make any sense.
VHS was a direct-to-video title released to video in 2012, but don’t let that fool you…it was actually a pretty solid little film that combined the found footage concept with one of my favorite gimmicks- the “anthology.” As in films like Creepshow, VHS is a series of horror shorts, each directed by a different person, all tied together by a “wraparound” story that plays out over the course of the movie. The overall result was decent enough, but there was plenty of room for improvement.
Enter VHS 2. Released just in time for the Halloween season this month through On-Demand services, Netflix, and DVD/Blu-Ray, this sequel pretty much improves over its predecessor in every way…well, almost. The wraparound story that links the individual segments this time around is actually pretty weak, but the shorts for the most part are great, sans one; let’s briefly take a look at each and see how they measure up.
Tape 49 (Directed by Simon Barrett) This is the wraparound story I mentioned…it involves two sleazy private investigators, Larry and Ayesha, who are looking for some kid that’s disappeared. They track him to a house, where all they find is a laptop, a bunch of TVs, and a mysterious stack of VHS tapes. The laptop contains a webcam recording of the missing kid talking about the tapes, and while Larry investigates the house, Ayesha starts popping tapes into the VCR and watches them….eventually, with disastrous results.
Overall, this segment is pretty stupid. It contains all of the bad clichés of horror-people wandering off alone, doing incredibly stupid things, and generally acting like dullards. Example- Larry finds a dead body, but instead of running for help, hey, let’s pop another tape into the VCR and see what’s on it! Geez. By the way, VHS tapes were an interesting but ultimately odd choice…if Larry and Ayesha were teens instead of grown-ups, they might not even have known what the hell they were.
Phase I Clinical Trials (Directed by Adam Wingard) This segment involves a guy who, after losing his eye in a car accident, is fitted with an experimental cybernetic eye implant for free; the catch that a tiny chip in the device will be recording everything he sees so that the company that created the implant can gauge its effectiveness. Thus, the entire segment is seen from the perspective of the cybernetic eye, which is actually a clever way of getting around the “guy who films everything” nonsense normally associated with the found footage genre.
Unfortunately for the unnamed patient, the visual range of his new eye is a tad TOO sensitive, and he starts picking up on things that no man was meant to see…
Good segment. It builds up quickly, has a solid concept, some very good scares, and some creepy visuals and atmosphere. It’s memorable but rushed; in the end, it’s more of your typical jump-scare laden modern horror, despite the effective twist to the proceedings.
A Ride in the Park (Directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale) This segment was fun…if a film about zombies in the woods eating people could be considered as such. A cyclist (it’s occurring to me as I write this that very few of the characters in this movie have names…nor do they need them, actually) with a “helmet cam” decides to film his “extreme” exploits along the bike path in his local woods; after being attacked and killed by a zombie, he comes back as one of the undead himself and joins in on the carnage.
Again, the “helmet cam” is a nice concept to introduce the found footage concept in an organic and natural way, unlike many movies in this genre (one great example: Cloverfield). This short takes a twisted yet (sort of) lighthearted approach to its storytelling, chronicling the cyclist throughout his death, transformation into a zombie, and his eventual misgivings over his new situation. It’s also gory as hell, for those of you who enjoy such tomfoolery. Another segment that beats out anything in the first VHS film.
Safe Haven (Directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans) THIS is the money shot of VHS 2. Directed by Gareth Evans, the man that gave us the best action movie in the last decade (2011’s The Raid), comes what might be the best horror in the last decade as well. There is no longer any question- the man is legit.
Set in Indonesia, Save Haven depicts a news crew that is allowed to enter into a compound housing a mysterious cult in order to film their rituals. What is initially presented to the news crew is simply an odd bunch of eccentrics led by a strange man they refer to as the “Father.” However what they eventually get is a one-way ticket to hell instead; to say anything more would be a disservice to the viewer, but suffice it to say that this segment is NUTS. It takes a little while to get moving, but the slow build only serves to flesh out the suspense and drive home the point that something is clearly wrong with this cult…but it’s not what you expect.
Filled with violence, gore, and disturbing imagery that will stay with you long after the movie is over, Save Haven makes VHS 2 essential viewing for any serious horror fan; it’s only drawback is that it’s stuck in the middle of another movie and not a standalone effort.
Slumber Party Alien Abduction (Directed by Jason Eisener) The weak link in the chain, aside from the wraparound tale. This segment, involving a group of kids on the giving and receiving end of a prank war with one kid’s sister and her boyfriend that is soon interrupted by a bunch of alien invaders is ultimately pretty lame and, unfortunately, not scary at all. The camera gimmick in this one involves the device being strapped onto a dog, but the concept really doesn’t work; aside from the invaders, who are genuinely creepy to behold, Slumber Party Alien Abduction just comes across as sloppy and amateurish, which grates harshly against the quality and cleverness exhibited in the previous segments of VHS 2.
But overall, VHS 2 is mandatory for your Halloween “to-do” list just for the Safe Haven segment alone; luckily, there are other quality, scary shorts to wade through as well, and even at its worst, VHS 2 is still better than a lot of the horror being churned out these days. Check it out, and…boo!