Back in 1999, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's The Blair Witch Project used a cutting edge online marketing campaign to successfully dupe many viewers into believing they were watching actual footage of three young people's supernatural experience in the Maryland woods. The manner in which the movie was filmed supported this conclusion: shaky handheld camerawork and a documentary-style narrative all contributed to a very real atmospheric horror film that went on to gross almost $250 million. Given that the film was purportedly shot on a budget of about $25,000, The Blair Witch Project popularized a style of filmmaking that although not entirely new (Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust pioneered the style almost 20 years earlier), promised to turn record profits for filmmakers and production companies.
Fast-forward to the present day. The found footage style of filmmaking is everywhere now, most common to the horror genre, but directors of science fiction and a couple other genres have also used the style to great effect. Films like the Paranormal Activity franchise, Cloverfield, and Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's REC series have seen enormous popularity, high critical acclaim, and have performed remarkably well at the box office. But with the popularity of found footage has come a fervent backlash amongst many genre fans who don't find the style effective, are put off by the often shaky and intentionally amateurish filming style, or have begun to feel the concept is overdone. Personally, I've sat dozens of friends down to watch The Blair Witch Project, turned the lights off for atmosphere, and insisted on absolute silence to try and make them see what I find so deeply unsettling about the film. Over time, I've come to accept that found footage just isn't for everybody. Some people don't have the patience for the slow burn. They like their horrror overtly terrifying, fast-paced, and splattered with gore. For those people, Bloody Disgusting and The Collective have teamed up to bring to the screen eleven of the best short horror films showcasing the found footage style, in anthology films V/H/S and V/H/S/2.
V/H/S/2 hit VOD June 6th of this year, saw a limited theatrical release on the U.S. last month, and is set for release on Blu Ray, DVD, and of course VHS September 24th. Though this second installment features a new group of directors, I found a lot of similarities between the stories in both, and a great continuity between both films' narrative frameworks.
Similar to the first film, V/H/S/2 begins with a pair of private investigators who are searching for a missing student, and stumble across a collection of VHS tapes that chronicle many different horrific occurrences. First comes Adam Wingard's contribution, Phase I Clinical Trials, starring the director himself as a rather unremarkable Los Angeles man who lost an eye in a bad car accident. Lucky for him, a local doctor has set him up with a false eye that will communicate visual stimuli not just to his own brain, but to a video feed that scientists may watch to get a sense of the implant's functioning. But when the patient gets home from the doctor's office, he starts to notice strange things almost immediately. The artificial eye has endowed him with a second sight he doesn't want, and it soon becomes clear that he is not alone in his own house. What I found most effective about this short was the use of distorted artifacts on the screen which appeared whenever an entity was present in the patient's line of sight. I was reminded of Glenn McQuaid's segment for the first V/H/S film, Tuesday the 17th, in which a murderous figure in the woods is continuously obscured on screen by video tracking errors.
Next comes Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale's A Ride In The Park. I found this segment to be the most light-hearted and funny out of the entire film, featuring three bicyclists in a state park who are attacked by zombies and join the mob to march on a child's birthday party nearby. Shot from the head-mounted camera of one of the zombified bikers, viewers are treated to the first-person perspective of a zombie lurching through the woods, devouring intestines, and getting bashed in the skull by frightened victims. It's obvious that the team had a lot of fun filming this one, and a comedic undertone runs throughout as, for instance, our zombie hero attempts to eat a victim's wallet, then tosses it aside with a 'blech' of disgust.
The fourth segment, Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's Safe Haven, was in my opinion the strongest of the entire film, and possibly the best out of both V/H/S anthologies. A documentary film crew is invited to film inside the compound of an Indonesian cult in which the leader, known as 'Father,' cleanses the impurities of his flock through sinister and questionably legal treatment of young girls. But the darkness in Father's compound runs even deeper than the film crew imagines, and soon the three young men and one woman are trapped in a ritual nightmare there's no escaping. The short is brutally violent, depicting the Jonestown-esque mass-suicide of the cult, as well as some really horrific supernatural happenings that I would hate to spoil for anybody. The acting is superb, especially on the part of Epy Kusnandar as the magnetic and ultimately psychotic Father. And viewers get a few glimpses of some really fun creature design toward the end of the segment that would not be out of place on a Black Sabbath album cover.
The conclusive segment of V/H/S/2 come courtesy of Jason Eisenberg, the man behind 2011 exploitation comedy Hobo With A Shotgun. Titled Slumber Party Alien Abduction, viewers know exactly what they're getting into, and Eisener delivers. The short begins as the raucous account of a teenage boy and girl whose friends come over for a party whilst the parents are out of town. But the sexscapades and back-and-forth pranking turn dark when the arrival of terrifying creatures from the sky interrupts their shenanigans. Filmed from the perspective of the family dog, who has a camera strapped to his back, the story dissolves into chaos as one by one the teenagers are taken up by the thin, grey men. Creature design is excellent, showing us just enough glimpses of the creatures to create terror, and sympathy for the naive and innocent kids strikes an emotional chord throughout.
Even if you think found footage isn't for you, the producers of the V/H/S films have done a spectacular job gathering some of the greatest minds of independent horror today, and these anthologies have something for everyone. Look for the DVD-Blu Ray-VHS three-pack this September.