S-VHS Review [Sundance 2013]
S-VHS follows up 2012’s V/H/S and keeps the same found-footage theme. In the film, private investigators break into the home of a missing student, only to find a series of tapes, which – for us – contain four horror short films. While each of the tapes contains a different subject, they all have one aspect in common: the supernatural. Given the shorter number of tapes in S-VHS than in V/H/S, each of the short films is relatively long, while the private investigator storyline is rarely on the screen.
Although this format gives each of the tapes more time to develop into fully-functioning horror films of their own – that are sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, and sometimes downright terrifying – the “main story” is mostly forgotten. What is supposed to be the central plot quickly becomes purely a framing device (or an excuse) for the tapes. This is what makes S-VHS a letdown overall, despite the entertainment value of the short films within.
The only way to fairly evaluate S-VHS is to address the footage on each of the four tapes, which differ entirely on subject. The first tape captures the first-person perspective of a patient who has had experimental surgery on his eyeball, making it a camera. His camera-eye quickly allows him to see more than what he would like. While not the scariest part of S-VHS, this was probably the most clever concept. A supporting, born-deaf character with a cochlear implant that allows her to hear what the main character can see is a brilliant touch.
The next film is another first-person tale, a tongue-in-cheek account of what it is like to be attacked by and become a zombie. This tape is clearly the bloodiest, and yet, funniest, with a flesh-hungry protagonist. Warm Bodies aside, the zombie genre could use more films like this one, with just a bit more understanding for our unfortunately undead friends.
Following the zombie tape, we have the third film which follows a Jonestown-style leader. Until its traditional supernatural element is introduced, this is easily the darkest plot presented, feeling disturbingly lifelike and possible. This tape is recorded through the hands and multiple cameras of a film crew, who have been allowed into “the commune.” With such an ominous premise, this tape would probably make the best, full-length film.
Lastly, the fourth tape adorably contains footage from a camera that was tied onto a little dog by some young rascals, whose parents have gone away on a trip and want to reek havoc on their sister’s love life. The hijinks of these pranksters provide some serious comic relief, and their sister is satisfyingly able to teach them a lesson. Not wanting to spoil the film, I will not reveal much more of the fourth tape, only saying that I found it to be shrink-into-your seat scary with the most terrifying scenes in S-VHS.
The insightful storylines and genuine scares of the tapes are truly dampened by the private investigator storyline of the film, which doesn’t do much to get the audience invested and never really seems to add up anyway. S-VHS offers four completely different attempts to scare, and surely, different viewers will be affected by different tapes. This leaves an inconvenient opening for moviegoers who are bored by more than one of the tapes and have nothing to fall back on but the lackluster missing student story.
Had the framing device story been just as well-done as the tapes, S-VHS could have been a stellar sequel to a killer concept. As it stands though, the film is just a watchable horror film that buries its potential.
The four "tapes" in S-VHS provide a diverse series of horror short films, but their potential is squandered by the film's overall, disappointing plot, which is a weak-attempted framing device.