(this review contains spoilers)
Strap yourselves in, because this one’s gonna be heavier on the historical context than usual.
Specifically: the Found-Footage Movie. Dedicated horror fans will probably know what this is, but for the cheap seats: Found Footage movies, as the name implies, present themselves as an assemblage of footage found by a third party and shot by a (usually) dead or missing, (usually) amateur filmmaker. The progenitor of this genre is often said to be 1999’s zeitgeist-exploding microbudget masterpiece, The Blair Witch Project, although more learned students of exploitation cinema will often point to Ruggero Deodato’s unbelievably grueling 1980 gorefest Cannibal Holocaust as its true origin. Despite Blair Witch‘s record-shattering box office take, the subgenre wasn’t really off-and-running until 2007-2008, when the genre film audience got the triple whammy of Oren Peli’s haunted-house spookshow Paranormal Activity, Matt Reeves’ Godzilla-by-way-of-viral-marketing flick Cloverfield, and Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza’s relentless zombie film [REC]. In the years since, found-footage horror movies have dominated the landscape to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve outnumbered conventionally shot horror movies in the past decade.
I’m not gonna bury the lede any more than I already have: I’m sick to fucking death of found-footage movies. Some of them are okay – The Blair Witch Project still holds up both as a watershed moment in horror history and a genuinely unnerving scary movie, Cannibal Holocaust, for all its moral and aesthetic flaws, is still enough to leave anyone shaken, and Paranormal Activity has its moments. But for all the beard-stroking observations one can make about how the found-footage subgenre reflects our media saturated, handheld device driven culture in the 21st century (and I do feel that the horror genre reflects a given society’s values more than most), I think the glut of often indistinguishably jittery first-person horror movies in the 2000s and 2010s comes down to two things: they work like gangbusters on people that are easily rattled by youtube videos where a ghost jumps out at you, and they finally found a way to make horror movies even cheaper and easier to crank out. It’s not like the wave upon wave of turd slasher movies that came out in the 1980s was particularly noble, but the quick-buck filmmakers behind them had to at least try to learn how to frame a shot instead of struggling to come up with reasons why someone would keep their eye to the viewfinder while leaping from building to building to escape a giant monster (god dammit, I hate Cloverfield).
Anyway, fast forward to 2012, enter V/H/S. The brainchild of up-and-coming horror director Adam Wingard (who at this point, I think, had already directed You’re Next, though it wouldn’t see wide release for another year), V/H/S sought to combine the found-footage movie with that other august horror subgenre, the anthology movie. Somewhat surprisingly, this managed to address a few of the big flaws with found-footage as a genre; for one, it taxes one’s suspension of disbelief a lot less when these protagonists are carrying their camera through precarious situations for 20 or so minutes as opposed to feature length (it was also the first found-footage movie I saw that brought hands-free devices into the mix, making for a less contrived shooting style as well as exploiting the inherent skeeviness of stuff like Google Glass). Secondly, by changing up the stories regularly, the viewer isn’t yoked to one static “look” the whole time. Graned, V/H/S also imported some of the problems of the anthology movie, such as a general lumpy unevenness from vignette to vignette. Still, it had a higher batting average than a lot of anthology movies, and though it was inarguably about 20 minutes too long, each segment genuinely felt like it brought something to the table, even the perfunctory wraparound, and overall it made for a satisfyingly creepy watch.
V/H/S/2 is significantly more lumpy and uneven than its predecessor. Indeed, apart from two segments, it’s borderline unwatchable. The first of these two is A Ride in the Park, a fun if insubstantial short by Blair Witch co-director Eduardo Sanchez making use of the irresistible high-concept gimmick “zombies with go-pros.” The second, in a whole other league than Ride and indeed anything in the V/H/S franchise is Gareth Evans’ Safe Haven (hey, it only took me 700 words to get to the point).
So, the plot: set, as with Evans’ last two films, in Indonesia, a documentary film crew headed by Malik (Oka Antara) is interviewing a mysterious cult leader only referred to as Father (Epy Kusnandar) in a restaurant. They manage to cajole him into letting them visit his compound for an exclusive look, to provide him with a chance to spread his message to the world. On arriving, they notice some of the expected Jonestown-esque eeriness: matching white uniforms, unsettling singalongs, Blair Witch style fetish dolls, and the deeply uncomfortable implication of child abuse (exposing this last aspect appears to be the film crew’s chief motivator). But they aren’t there long before things take an even darker turn; as the members of the film crew are separated, Father makes some cryptic announcements over the compound’s intercom, and all hell breaks loose, in the most direct and literal meaning of the term.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier entries in this series, Evans is no stranger to horror imagery. All the way back to Footsteps and through The Raid, he was indulging in intense bursts of gore and terror beyond what the usual action movie holds. What we see in Safe Haven then is Evans being given a chance to really cut loose, and he does so with aplomb. In half an hour (Safe Haven is the longest segment in either V/H/S movie – Wingard et al. knew they had their centerpiece), Evans takes us through a smorgasbord of horror imagery, from the subtle (the early death cult creepiness, some Rosemary’s Baby-esque behavior from the matron of the cult towards the one female member of the film crew) to the extreme (shotgun executions, group suicides, self-mutilation, and finally, white-eyed ghouls on loan from Lucio Fulci and the goat-headed Satan of The Devil Rides Out). It’s one of the most potent, concentrated doses of nightmare imagery you’re likely to find in 21st century film, and Evans parcels it out with a master director’s control.
Back to the found-footage aspect for a sec: it’s somewhat oxymoronic, but Evans proves to be a great fit for found-footage in large part because he has so little respect for its conventions. Far from the one or two camera setups usually found in the genre, cameras are everywhere in Safe Haven. In addition to the camcorders used for filming interviews, each member of the film crew has hidden cameras on their person (not a bad conceit, really – they have ample reason to want the hidden cameras, after all), and the footage from these is intercut with grainy black and white shots from the compound’s ever-present security cameras. To be blunt, I’m almost certain the movie cheats a bit; on my rewatch for this article, I couldn’t pick out any specific places where there absolutely could not be a camera, but there were at least a few where I think Evans put getting the shot he wanted over making sure that shot made strict logical sense. But to be even more blunt, I don’t care. I’ve already made it clear how tiresome I find the blandly anonymous visual aesthetic of found-footage at large, so if Evans has to game things a bit, more power to him. And more importantly, once shit starts to get real, the short moves at such a breakneck pace that you don’t have time to start poking holes in it.
Having dispensed with the found-footage movie’s weaknesses, Evans shows a keen grasp of its strengths. For all the problems I have with it, found-footage does possess a certain confrontational element that makes for great horror, and few shots embrace that like the moment when Father dives on a helpless cameraman and cuts his throat – effectively, cutting the viewer’s throat, since we see the shot from a button camera hidden in the victim’s shirt. Evans brings his characteristic video-game aesthetic into play as well, trading in the side-scrolling beat-em-up conceit of The Raid for the survivalist horror genre: there’s the hellish occult imagery of Quake, the old-school goat-headed demons of Doom, and the wailing air raid sirens of Silent Hill. One particular image used in the film’s promotional campaign, of our last hapless survivor standing before the bloodied Father and wielding a crowbar, could easily have come out of a particularly well-rendered first-person-shooter.
And so, Safe Haven was one of the best horror movies of the 2010s, but unfairly trapped within an otherwise lackluster movie. It feels kind of unfair, really. On the one hand, there’s no real market for standalone short films anymore (if there ever really was), so Safe Haven stood its best chance for being seen by fitting snugly in the modern cult favorites that are the V/H/S series. On the other hand, that series has been pretty wildly divisive, even among horror fans, and I’m sure some people who didn’t like what they saw in the first one (which, apart from the critics who just didn’t like it, also courted some debatable but hefty accusations of misogyny) were turned off of ever sitting through the sequel. And it doesn’t help that V/H/S/2 frontloads its absolute worst material before you get to Sanchez’s passable segment and Evans’ outstanding one. Horror fans willing to sift through the chaff were left clamoring for Evans to take on a feature-length horror project. And maybe that’s still in the future for him. But first, he would take another spin through the franchise that made his name. And his plans for it were big, indeed.
Up Next: The Raid 2 (2014)