Last year’s horror anthology “VHS” took Sundance’s midnight movie fans by surprise with its multiple spins on found footage scares — some more inspired than others. A successful video on demand release followed in October and now, just a year later, the sequel “S-VHS” had its own Sundance premiere.
A shorter and more consistent thrill ride, the effectiveness of “S-VHS” still depends on a tolerance for found footage and especially turbulent camerawork.
Once again surrounded by a fairly weak framing device (this time a male and female private investigator team follow a lead to the house from the first movie, watch some freaky videotapes and realize they’re in big trouble), the four shorts this time share a unifying structure: they start calmly enough and then build to frenzied — and usually very bloody — heights.
First up is “Phase 1,” directed by and starring Adam Wingard (whose excellent film festival-screened thriller “You’re Next” is finally due for release this year), which is possibly the most conventional of the stories. Wingard plays a young man who receives an experimental eye implant that records everything he sees. The problem is it also causes him to see more than the average person — like the undead souls haunting him for mysterious reasons. Hannah Hughes co-stars as a young woman with the same problem in a segment full of jump scares and a few gross-out moments.
Second, and tightest in terms of concept and execution, is “A Ride in the Park” directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale (who co-directed and produced, respectively, found footage landmark “The Blair Witch Project”). A young man (Jay Saunders) takes his mountain bike for a joy ride in the park. He has no idea he’s about to peddle into the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Oops. Of the four, this makes the most inventive use of the first-person found footage gimmick and remarkably feels fresh even in these days of zombie overkill.
Next up is the most elaborate and unhinged of the quartet: “Safe Haven” directed and written by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans (whose martial arts actioner “The Raid: Redemption” found a cult following last year). Featuring Indonesian dialogue subtitled in English, the story follows a camera crew into the compound of a spiritual leader (Epy Kusnandar) who is not as benevolent as he appears. Begging for a more fleshed-out execution and suffering from far too much hyperactive camerawork, the short still features “S-VHS'” biggest surprises and disturbing imagery.
Finally, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” is a bit like J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” on crack, speed and steroids. Directed and co-written by Jason Eisener (“Hobo with a Shotgun”), it’s a little sloppy in terms of performance, scripting and visual effects but pulls off a full-blown alien invasion that caps off the individual stories in appropriately nasty style.
With “S-VHS” likely to please fans and even some detractors of its predecessor, the “VHS” franchise could become the video-on-demand equivalent of recent Halloween perennials “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity.”